COBOL stands for Common Business Oriented Language. It is imperative, procedural, and object-oriented. A compiler is a computer program that takes other computer programs written in a high-level (source) language and coverts them into another program, machine code, which the computer can understand. COBOL takes data from a file or database, processes, and outputs it. In short: COBOL takes data in, computes it, and outputs it afterwards.
In the context for this guide, we assume compilers are translating from a high-level programming language, such as COBOL, to create an executable program for use on mainframe-hosted application, perhaps to run large-scale batch or transaction processing jobs. This Micro Focus Supportline tutorial explains how to compile a COBOL program for the mainframe.
Updated February 2022:
Micro Focus today shared the commissioned results of a global, independent market survey, showcasing an unprecedented amount of COBOL code in use, and a remarkable market opportunity for application modernization. According to the global survey, COBOL is viewed as strategic by 92 percent of respondents, and the amount of COBOL code in daily use increased significantly and three times larger than previously estimated at 775-850 billion lines of code. (Previously reported market estimates, often a couple of decades old, have been in the 200-300 billion range)
“As organizations look to deliver on IT strategies through modernization and digital transformation initiatives, the findings of the latest COBOL Survey demonstrate the continued importance of COBOL for application modernization and business change,” said Ed Airey, Director of COBOL Product Marketing, Micro Focus. “800 billion lines of code reinforces the importance, and continued investment, in this most trusted of core business system technologies. This significant volume of COBOL application code in the marketplace represents remarkable value for organizations and requires ongoing investment as part of a larger modernization strategy. For IT leaders, supporting core business systems, COBOL application modernization lies at the heart of digital transformation.”
Key findings of the Micro Focus COBOL Surveys include:
Global COBOL Code Volume hits new highs: More than 800 Billion lines of code running on production systems and in daily use, far exceeding any previous estimates.
The direction is continued growth: nearly half of the survey’s respondents expect the amount of COBOL in use at their organization to increase in the next 12 months. Furthermore, last year’s research report showed that over half of respondents (52 percent) expect for their organizations’ COBOL applications to remain for at least the next decade, with more than four in five expecting that COBOL will still be in use when they ultimately retire--creating a need for continued COBOL investment and modernization for next gen developers.
COBOL remains strategic for organizations: 92 percent of respondents stated that their organizations’ COBOL applications are strategic with future IT strategy and application portfolio alignment with new technology being listed as the key drivers for COBOL modernization.
Modernization of COBOL applications is the preferred path forward: As opposed to a rip and replace approach, 64 percent of respondents intend to modernize their COBOL applications and 72 percent of respondents see modernization as an overall business strategy.
Cloud is the primary technology driving application modernization: When asked about their company’s plans for COBOL and the cloud in 2021, 43 percent of the survey’s respondents stated that their COBOL applications do and will support cloud by the end of the year. In addition, 41 percent stated that new business projects require integration with existing COBOL systems.
COBOL is now 63 years old, and was officially given its name on September 18th, 1959. COBOL is the result of US Department of Defense work in the late 1950s to develop a common business language suitable for different kinds of mainframes. The initiative, called CODASYL (or the Committee on Data Systems Languages), drew on Grace Hopper’s FLOW-MATIC, Univac’s AIMACO, and IBM’s COMTRAN. It has been the dominant language for building business systems ever since.
Created for transaction processing, COBOL applications help run payroll programs, manage government pension funds, operate banking systems, manage hotel bookings, book airline tickets, and much more. Estimates largely agree COBOL systems support more than $3 trillion in daily commerce.
COBOL is a domain-specific, or specialist, language. In this case, the specialism is business programming. It is this specificity, portability, and the relatable syntax that has helped keep the COBOL story going.
Why do enterprises still use COBOL?
COBOL persists for many equally valid reasons. One is that nothing is as flexible or reliable as COBOL. Banks, for example, need complete accuracy. COBOL outperforms Java in that respect. Another is that many of biggest enterprises in the world use core applications written in COBOL, and intervention is too risky, or expensive. COBOL’s enduring usefulness in a constantly changing digital world provide the combination of continued innovation and reliability which are IT necessities.
In 2008, the Commonwealth Bank of Australia announced a $580 million AU plan to replace its core banking platform. The job took more than five years, cost more than $1 billion AU ($749.million US). The third reason is that integrated development environments (IDEs) the software development tools where developers write, build, test, and debug mainframe programs. These solutions, such as Visual COBOL, can modernize COBOL applications to support future innovation, making replacement unnecessary.
This portability, the means to move core applications and systems from where they are to the platforms that will best support future innovation, that form a key plank of many digital transformation strategies.
For example, COBOL applications’ portability make them a natural fit for virtual and cloud deployment, most notably off-site hosted infrastructure service providers, including Microsoft Azure or Amazon Web Services.
Other mainframe modernization plays will be different. Mainframe to cloud is just one option; physical to virtual is another. Others may want to embrace open source by taking their UNIX operating system to Linux. The key is to look where the market is going; new platforms such as Docker, automation through Kubernetes; maybe .NET, JVM, Windows, zLinux, AWS, Azure, or GCP is where you want to be.
The point is COBOL, enabled by Micro Focus tools, is not an anchor holding you back, it is the launchpad for future innovation.
These tools bridge the gap between established technologies that have served the enterprise well, and innovation to support the business going forward. Using Visual COBOL, enterprises can harness the flexibility of the cloud, and improve responsiveness to future demand, while enabling efficient infrastructure management.
How does COBOL link to the mainframe?
Time, and many different iterations of both the language and the hardware, have irrevocably linked COBOL and the mainframe. No matter how both have evolved, COBOL remains the mainstay language of the mainframe. Neither show any sign of declining popularity among those who depend on them most.
Certainly, the potential for a career in COBOL is real. In a survey of 357 IT professionals, 46 percent of respondents were noticing a COBOL programmer shortage, while 50 percent said the average age of their COBOL staff is 45 or older, and 22% said the age is 55 or older. Certainly, about 50% of the many thousands of members on our COBOL programmers page on Facebook are 25-34 years old, our biggest demographic group, with the vast majority between 25-44 years old. There is room for more, and we discuss the pathway to a career in COBOL here.
Micro Focus are unique in preferring to enable future generations of programmers to work in COBOL, rather than wondering how the world will cope with a shortfall. That is why we offer Visual COBOL personal edition, free, for those learning the language, and work with universities to deliver the COBOL Academic Program to further this skillset in the classroom.
The longer answer is that it makes sense to learn it as well as other languages. The readability of COBOL makes it accessible to people beyond those who work in programming for a living.
IBM, the world’s biggest mainframe vendor, offers fellowships and training programs in COBOL for young IT specialists, and has trained more than 180,000 developers in 12 years. Meanwhile, new platforms such as The Open Mainframe Project are launching and can be another source of inspiration. There is a wealth of material out there. See the links below.
2022 Global COBOL Survey Results
Micro Focus commissioned a global, independent market survey by Vanson Bourne, showcasing an unprecedented amount of COBOL code still in use strategic importance in 92% of the respondent’s organizations, and a remarkable market opportunity for application modernization. Download this free ebook to learn key points in the survey results.