COBOL has a certain seniority in the IT world. Nobody can get it to retire—and nobody can find a replacement either.
The question of when COBOL will meet its demise has been debated for years now. But there is general agreement that the Common Business Oriented Language, first developed in 1959, will be alive and kicking well into this century.
Over the next couple days, we’ll look at what COBOL’s life expectancy might be, whether COBOL programmers are in demand, or even still employable, and what, if anything, will end up replacing COBOL.
Part 1 of this two-part feature will focus on efforts made to modernize COBOL beginning in the early 1990s.
Some people say that COBOL isn’t dead yet.
"I cannot foresee a date before the very late 2020s or 2030 where the dead part of that could possibly become true,” says Phil Murphy, senior analyst at Forrester Research Inc. “Here’s a mechanics analogy: the metric system is arguably a much better system than, you know, ¾ inch, ½ inch, linear measures, right? [It has] been for decades upon decades upon decades. We [in the U.S.] have not switched over. Why? Well, the cost, the sheer cost and size of the effort don’t result in an acceptable return on investment.”
Dovid Lubin is the president of Veryant LLC, one of the few companies left that develop software for COBOL platforms. Much of his business derives from the massive prevalence of COBOL in enterprises and the difficulty in replacing it.
“They’ve invested so many years and man-hours and millions of dollars in it,” he says. “So they want to preserve that investment."
And besides the massive expenditure it would take, says Murphy, often there just isn’t a practical reason for companies to switch.
“There will always be some allegedly better technology. Forget allegedly. There will always be better technology. The question is the install base and how badly or well COBOL does in comparison to the new thing and what’s the net benefit, and is it really worth upsetting the entire world to have something that’s a little better.“
On a global scale, the sudden death of COBOL “would be greatly detrimental,” says Israel Gat, a Cutter Consortium fellow and director of its agile product and project management practice. “Not only in terms of…not doing new applications with COBOL, but more importantly, perhaps, in terms of the huge amount of COBOL that is still there up and running.”
Estimates put the number of business transactions done in COBOL at between 60 and 80 per cent of all transactions performed worldwide. The number is significantly higher for financial transactions.