Everybody wants to get rid of this language…

Image - Everybody wants to get rid of this language...

This article is about a specific programming language that has become obsolete – or not – depending on how the situation is considered. Thousands of different programming languages have been created to support web, software development etc… and many are being created every year. As for spoken languages, a lot of people learn programming languages – and most of them like it. The most popular are Java, C, C++, Python, PHP, JavaScript, SQL, PHP – if you have never heard about any of those, it is not a big deal but it is important to know that they attract more and more young programmers every day. If those languages are still used to “create” and “develop” new software or new products, other languages lost their popularity to the extreme that it has become very difficult to find skilled developers. One of them is the language “COBOL” and is still actively used by most of the world’s systems and business applications.

COBOL stands for “Common Business Oriented Language” and is a very old language primarily designed to support business, finance and administrative systems for companies and governments. COBOL was created in the 1950s – before the first man walked on the moon – by Grace Hopper, commonly referred as the mother of COBOL. Before that, all operating systems had their own associated programming languages which was a problem for companies or institutions that used multiple brands of computers. Thus, the objective was to create a common portable programming language for data processing.

Robust – COBOL is mostly used in IBM mainframe systems which are very well known for ZERO downtime, for have never been hacked in its history and for being able to handle millions of transactions. Thus because of reliability and security it makes suitable for Banking and Insurance sectors since these two sectors security is their primary concern. Moreover, there are thousands of third-party products which have been developed to aid the COBOL programmer in critical areas of testing, debugging, application analysis, production support, and code reuse.

Self-documented – Unlike other languages, COBOL is self-documenting, and even non-technical people have been known to learn COBOL within a few weeks and become productive without understanding the internal architecture of the operating environment. This is due to its statements have an English-like syntax.

Easy to maintain – Its English-like syntax and semantics allow maintenance to be done by someone other than the original programmer. Further, the source code can be referred to by users with no programming background.

Cross-platform portability – COBOL users can transport their applications to many different hardware platforms without recompiling the source code. This important feature gives insurance against hardware obsolescence.

Scalable – COBOL is the most scalable language.

COBOL is widely used in legacy applications and the estimation is that almost 75% of all business transactions worldwide are written in COBOL today. The statistics speak for themselves*:

  • 95% of daily ATM transactions use COBOL.
  • 80% of daily Point of Sale transactions are run with COBOL.
  • 90% of Fortune 500 business systems are supported daily by COBOL.
  • 72000 shipping containers are moved every day using COBOL applications.
  • 85% of port transactions are processed by COBOL.
  • 500 million mobile phone users are connected daily by COBOL applications.
  • 96% of daily booking vacation systems are enabled by COBOL.

What is often not enough emphasized is the increasing gap between the number of companies relying on COBOL and its relevancy among programmers today.

  • The average age of COBOL programmer is 55 years old.
  • 310 billion lines of legacy code operating in the world.
  • 5 million lines of new COBOL code are developed every day.
  • 5 billion lines of new COBOL code are being written every year.

Indeed, unfortunately, COBOL developers are retiring much faster than they are being replaced as educational institutions emphasize more cutting edge technologies and related programming languages. The reason why programmers choose more popular languages is stemming from the fact that they most likely would spend the rest of their career doing maintenance work rather than any greenfield development. Not everybody likes the fact they can’t create something new.

*Sources: Aberdeen Group; Giga Information Group; Database & Network Journal; The COBOL Report; SearchEngineWatch.com; Tactical Strategy Group; The Future of COBOL Report

The idea that large companies are simply going to move on from COBOL is out of touch with reality. The answer to the question “Why COBOL hasn’t been replaced yet” requires to take a step back in time.

COBOL was created in 1959, the computing era when programming languages were tailored for specific purposes. As most of companies, banks, insurance companies and government institutions started joining the computer age, they needed programming languages specific to their machines. There needed to be a universal business language to carry out business operations faster.

Grace Hopper, the mother of COBOL, created this brand new programming language that aimed to function across all business systems, saving an immense amount of time and money.

Then, a new committee consisting of industry, universities, and US government was formed to develop the much-needed language to help standardize business programming. The US Department of Defense even decreed that all businesses must run on COBOL in the 1960s. That’s why, at least until the late nineties, there really hasn’t been a successor that could carry out the massive batch processes as sturdily as COBOL.

But the even bigger reason not to rock the boat is the sheer size and cost of replacing billions of lines of COBOL that exist today. Businesses worldwide run on over 310 billion lines of code today. It would be a herculean feat to replace every single business program with a brand new language without introducing detrimental bugs.



Considering the significant role COBOL plays in everyday life, COBOL programmers are necessary for legacy enhancement, maintenance and roadmap transition efforts. In a field that evolves at an unprecedented speed, younger generations may be overlooking a critical skill of the future.