The case for COBOL

Have you seen the “Did you know? Video, which is a brilliant way of showing the pace of change and the new technology developments being announced every day? Often the next version of the technology has arrived even before an organisation...


Have you seen the “Did you know? Video, which is a brilliant way of showing the pace of change and the new technology developments being announced every day?

Often the next version of the technology has arrived even before an organisation has had a chance to get a grip with the current version. So how can one technology survive over 50 years, and continue to dominate the Industry among such change and growth?

Even Java, a much lauded language when it arrived 20 years ago, is already deemed to be old and “legacy”. Yet, according to analyst Gartner, more than 70% of the world’s business is run by a technology that was christened over 50 years ago - COBOL, or Common Business-Oriented Language.

Over the many years COBOL has continuously evolved to keep pace with technology developments, integrating seamlessly with most modern technologies today. Most importantly, it has retained many of its traditional strengths.

At JD Williams Ltd, UK’s leading direct home shopping company, for example, COBOL is one of the strategic languages used due to its key strengths in its English-like syntax, and the fact that is it very quick to develop in and easy to debug.

Recent research revealed that an average person would interact with a COBOL application at least ten times a day. With Gartner estimates putting the number of lines of COBOL code in excess of 200 billion, the global investment in COBOL applications exceeds several trillion dollars.

As technology evolves, and new trends emerge, end users’ demands and expectations of the software applications are constantly changing. The emergence of social media and web 2.0 applications such as Facebook and new mobile platforms, such as iOS and Android, is driving users to expect a similar experience and accessibility when working with business applications.

At the same time, the emergence of Software as a Service (SaaS) and the availability of Cloud technology mean geographic barriers are being broken down. These growing trends are putting pressure on businesses to respond in a timely fashion to constantly changing user expectations and new competition.

As organisations scramble to meet the new demands of the market, they expect their IT teams to deliver with constantly diminishing budgets. With this is mind, organisations are finding that the quickest, cheapest and safest option is to modernise their existing COBOL applications.

The key has been to keep the language current with new processing ideas and new capabilities. This makes it easy to adapt COBOL to new environments even though it is a mature language with a lot of operating lines of code.

COBOL has a unique capability in that the same COBOL code can be compiled into native code, .NET and to the JVM without changing a single line of code. In the language industry it continues to provide unrivalled features, such as the ability to express business logic accurately and the ability to do precise numeric calculations.

Successful businesses recognised early the importance of employing solutions that are fit for purpose and that the traditional strengths of COBOL are not in creating slick user interfaces. So instead features were implemented to make COBOL a first class citizen in the .NET and JVM framework as well as XML integration.

This means that today’s IT teams can create exciting user interfaces using latest technologies such as WPF, JavaFx, HTML 5 or Silverlight to wrap around proven business logic implemented in COBOL. XML integration allows COBOL applications to be deployed as web services in the cloud as servicing applications, developed to run on iOS and Android platforms.

With the increasing trend of modernising existing applications and as businesses start to recognise their value, demand will surge for IT professionals who understand how to bridge the two worlds.

As a language, COBOL can be learnt by anyone, even non-programmers, in a matter of two or three weeks. The ability to understand existing COBOL applications and how they can be integrated with modern technologies to meet business demands will be increasingly valuable for anyone pursuing a career as an IT professional in the business application development space.

Posted by Arunn Ramadoss, Program Manager, Corporate Marketing, Micro Focus

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