The Legacy and Future of COBOL Language

Ever wondered about the bedrock of today’s banking, insurance, and airline industries? It’s none other than COBOL – a programming language that’s been around since the 1960s. Despite its age, it’s far from obsolete, playing a crucial role in global commerce.

This article will shed light on COBOL’s enduring relevance. You’ll discover its unique features and why it still holds sway in certain sectors. So whether you’re an aspiring programmer or a tech enthusiast seeking to broaden your knowledge horizon, get ready for an intriguing journey into the world of COBOL programming.

The History of COBOL Programming Language

COBOL, short for Common Business-Oriented Language, has a rich history spanning more than six decades. Let’s delve into its origins and how it evolved over the years to maintain relevance in modern computing landscapes.

Origins and Development

Born out of necessity, COBOL sprang into existence during the late 1950s. A consortium of business and government professionals conceived the idea, with an understanding that there was a gap to fill—a computer language ‘for the business world,’ if you will. Spearheaded by Grace Hopper, who later became known as “the (grand)mother of COBOL,” this task force gave offset to what became one of the oldest high-level programming languages in use today.

Initially designed for military and governmental needs, COBOL quickly expanded its reach into numerous other domains—most notably banking, insurers, and airlines—as stated previously in our conversation about its uniqueness and significance.

Why did this take off so wildly? Well, for starters, specifics about transactions matter. When money is on the line or when absolute accuracy is critical—think financial calculations or flight scheduling—it becomes indispensable to go beyond mere approximations offered by other prevalent systems at that time.

Evolution Over the Decades

Evolution-wise? It might surprise you—the core concepts haven’t changed all that much since its inception. The reasons are practical; professionals opting for COBOL usually value stability over substantial alterations which could potentially uproot their entire operation.

However, it’d be misleading to say no changes happened at all. Several newer versions phased-in improvements while maintaining backwards compatibility: ANSI COBOL (1968), ANSI-74 (1974), ANSI-85 (1985), ISO/IEC 1989:2002 (2002), among others. With each update came performance enhancements tied to computational power increases relevant during those periods.

COBOL purists might argue: isn’t sticking to the roots one of its greatest strengths anyway? You decide.

While some see COBOL as a relic, it remains undeniably significant in countless behind-the-scenes applications today—continuing proof that understanding your history is vital to future success.

Key Features of COBOL

Building on the history and evolutions embroiled within COBOL, let’s focus on its vital features which have made it a stalwart in specific industries.

Syntax and Readability

COBOL stands out thanks to its highly readable syntax. It opts for English-like code, ensuring that non-technical stakeholders understand the operations being performed. Each program segment typically follows: Identification division, environment division, data division, procedure division; an order representing its execution flow. No other programming language matches this simplicity and readability.

For example:

DISPLAY 'Hello World!'.

This program prints “Hello World!” upon execution – demonstrating COBOL’s near-English construct.

Data Handling and File Management

Another key feature is robust data handling and file management abilities. These traits are paramount in sectors dealing with colossal datasets like banking or insurance—explaining why these industries lean heavily toward utilising COBOL.

A unique aspect of data manipulation in COBOL involves hierarchical structures represented through series of nested field definitions called ‘record descriptions.’
When handling files, CODE supports sequential, relative organisation (random access) or indexed file types setting it apart with a variety of methods for storing data effectively.

Therefore if your industry demands precise transactional processes or deals predominantly with significant quantities of structured data management – then chances are high that you’re already using (or should consider) taking advantage of business-oriented powerhouse –COBOL .

COBOL in Modern Use

As we transition from the history and significant features of COBOL, let’s delve into its presence and utility in today’s contemporary technological landscape.

Current Industry Applications

You’ll find a prolific presence of COBOL applications across myriad industries even today. It continues to power critical processes in sectors such as banking, insurance, airline reservations, and government systems.

  • Financial sector: Numerous banks globally run core systems on COBOL due to its proven efficiency in processing large volume transactions.
  • Insurance companies extensively rely on it for managing vast policy databases given its robust data handling capabilities.
  • Government agencies trust it for maintaining their mammoth database structures.

Some impressive statistics include:

Sector Percentage Powered by COBOL
Global ATMs 95%
Healthcare Claims 80%
  • Consider Micro Focus Visual COBOL—an update provides batch file processing abilities allowing seamless integration with .NET and Java frameworks.
  • A product like IBM CICS allows existing Cobol codebases to be transformed into APIs improving connectivity and communication between legacy system backends using Cobol code and contemporary frontend web technologies.
    This legacy-modern synergy encapsulates Cobol’s relevance and sustains its use within our cutting-edge digital age.

Challenges and Criticisms of COBOL

While COBOL holds a special place in the realm of programming languages, it’s not without its challenges and criticisms. It confronts complexities related to legacy systems, along with experiencing an increasing skills gap within the tech community.

Legacy System Complications

Maintaining and upgrading outdated infrastructures bring about complications common to many legacy systems. Specifically, COBOL-based systems demonstrate intricate dependencies often proving costly and risky for any alteration or modernization efforts. These include difficulties in system interoperability since linking old technologies with contemporary digital tools poses technical hurdles.

Consider governmental departments worldwide that have numerous vital applications running on antiquated COBOL codebase. Modernizing these key processes remains tough due to the inherent risk associated with system downtime or loss of crucial historical data during migration procedures. In fact, according to a report by Reuters, there are cases where programmers were forced to re-enter coding fields manually due to unavailability or inefficiency of automatic conversion tools – underlining just how complex the challenge can be.

Skills Gap in the Tech Community

It’s quite clear that one of the acute issues impacting COBOL usage is a sizeable skill gap present amongst developers today. Popular developer surveys conducted by GitHub and Stack Overflow consistently fail to indicate large numbers engaging with this vintage language.

The number of experts available who can adeptly operate legacy COBOL systems dwindles annually as more seniors retire from active service, taking their expertise off the grid. Attributing this predicament partly is higher education trends pointing towards replacing traditional third-generation languages like COBOL with teaching modern high-level languages such as Python, JavaScript, etc.

A research study noted only 27% global universities included mainframe topics in their curriculum catering largely towards newer skills considered ‘relevant’ – inadvertently exacerbating an ongoing problem wherein growing sectors rely heavily on aging technology while simultaneously lacking young professionals competent in handling them.


It’s clear that COBOL, despite its age and the complexities it presents, continues to prove its resilience in varied domains ranging from banking to insurance. Its sustained industry presence emphasizes how indispensable this ‘veteran’ language has been, even in the face of modern programming languages.

However, you can’t ignore the challenges thrown up by legacy system intricacies and an impending skills shortage. These highlight the need for dedicated solutions- be it through specialized training or developing tools that simplify interfacing with contemporary technologies.

What we are witnessing is a tug-of-war between COBOL’s pertinacity and pressing modern-day demands. But as long as significant sectors depend on it heavily, this old faithful isn’t going anywhere soon. Perhaps it’s time to view COBOL not as an encumbrance from yesteryears but rather as a bridge connecting past technological wisdom with future possibilities.

What is the primary focus of COBOL as a programming language?

COBOL, established in the late 1950s, is specifically designed for business needs. With applications across various sectors including banking, insurance, and airlines among others, it powers critical processes vital for operation.

How has COBOL evolved over time?

COBOL has seen upgrades like ANSI COBOL and ISO/IEC 1989:2002 that have enhanced its performance while maintaining backwards compatibility. Tools like Micro Focus Visual COBOL allow it to integrate with modern technological frameworks.

What are some challenges faced by COBOL-based systems?

Legacy system complexities make maintenance and upgrades intimidating tasks. Interoperability issues when trying to integrate old technology with new tools produce complications. Additionally, there exists an industry-wide skills gap due to a dwindling number of experts proficient in this aging language amidst educational trends favoring newer ones.

Has the significance of COBOL decreased over time?

Despite facing criticisms and considered “outdated” by some, global statistics showcase its extensive usage in ATMs or healthcare claims processing; hence suggesting that its importance has remained constant in certain sectors.

Is there a shortage of professionals skilled in handling COBOL?

Yes – As more seasoned experts retire without adequate replacement from younger generations (due to contemporary educational curriculums favoring modern languages), industries relying heavily on such legacy technologies now face a crisis related to skill availability.


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