Does modern mean better?
Indeed, if there’s one industry whose lifeblood is COBOL, it’s big banks, one of the first sectors to implement it and, perhaps, one of the last ones that will abandon it.
But in an indication of how much things are changing, consider the case of ING Direct, a bank founded many years after its larger peers, in 1997. At ING, COBOL doesn’t have a presence —or at least it appears so.
Charaka Kithulegoda, ING Direct CIO, says his IT infrastructure runs on a combination of Java and Windows-based tools. However, he says “even some of the backends we use, without getting into specifics, are based on fairly older technologies.”
Here Kithulegoda cautions against thinking newer is always better. These older technologies “do things that are extremely effective and efficient,” he says. “And that’s unfortunately referred to by the term `legacy.’ But one of the reasons that people have stuck with these things is because they are extremely effective and efficient.”
Murphy agrees there is a tendency to want to replace technology without first considering the cost-benefit ratio of doing so. “The vendors get hung up on modern and not-modern. All one’s got to look at is does the COBOL, whatever it’s doing for the ultimate customer, is it doing a good job or a poor job at accomplishing that? Oftentimes it’s the IT folks who want to say `well, it’s doing a good job for them but it’s not Java, so ...' What? If it’s doing a good job for them, leave it alone and find a place where it is both COBOL and doing a terrible job for the end-user client and really needs to be modernized.”
This is all the more true given the type of applications COBOL was designed for, says Evan Weaver, chair of the School of Information and Communications Technology at Toronto’s Seneca College.
"For the most part, the COBOL programs that are out there are the kinds that take data from a database somewhere, crunch them and print out reports on a big printer somewhere, or print off cheques, or something like that.
“It’s the real pretty straightforward applications that don’t have a lot of technical complexity, that haven’t changed. Like, if you have employee records somewhere and you have a payroll run to run, that whole process hasn’t changed that much since the 1950s. That’s why companies haven't changed the stuff.”
There have been several efforts to modernize—not quite replace—COBOL over the years. Most recently, Veryant has released a new version of its flagship software, isCOBOL Evolve, which can perform a few novel functions like compiling programs in Java, and has a graphical terminal that can be launched from a command line.