By Glenn Fleishman, Increment – the COBOL programming language has been a mainstay of government, business, and banking operations for nearly 60 years—but how long can it be maintained?
Before the term “information technology” existed to label the field, learning COBOL (Common Business Oriented Language) was the only sure way to ensure a lifelong career in IT. Developed in 1959 in part from a previous language design created by the legendary Grace Hopper, COBOL was an early example of an attempt at write-once, run-anywhere code at a time when it was more typical to write software using closely linked assembly language on a mainframe, the only kind of computer around. COBOL’s design allowed for describing business processes, like breaking down and accounting for financial transactions, while its syntax relied on verbose procedural programming that contained aspects of English.
COBOL remains widely and actively used across the financial system, with no good plan for transitioning to modern codebases, nor for keeping a viable coder workforce active. That’s a problem, because while some schools still teach COBOL and many outsourcing firms train employees in it to meet their employers’ needs, it’s not enough. Someone has to maintain an estimated hundreds of billions of lines of COBOL that remain in use, with billions more being written each year for maintenance and new features.
95 percent of ATMtransactions pass through COBOL programs, 80 percent of in-person transactions rely on them, and over 40 percent of banks still use COBOL as the foundation of their systems.
The language never died, though its early practitioners have faded away, and the generation of programmers who built systems towards the end of the predominant mainframe era in the 1970s and ‘80s are largely near or past retirement age. Micro Focus estimates that about 2 million people worldwide actively work with COBOL, although how many directly write or modify code is likely a small proportion. That number is expected to decline rapidly over the next decade.
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