COBOL Leads Us Back To The Future - InformationWeek

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6/21/2015
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COBOL Leads Us Back To The Future

COBOL defined business software development for decades. Now, is it over the hill or just hitting its prime?
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(Image: Monash University via University of Waterloo Computing Museum)

(Image: Monash University via University of Waterloo Computing Museum)

COBOL has been around since Eisenhower sat in the Oval Office. At one time, it was estimated that 80% of all business applications were written in COBOL — a total that represented more than 2 billion lines of code. That was nearly 20 years ago. Does COBOL still matter to the world of enterprise IT today?

Many people seem to think so. A recent article at readwrite.com told us that All the Rich Kids Are Learning COBOL. But what does that really mean?

And, why do we care? In part, it's because there are lots and lots of applications written in COBOL that remain part of the enterprise IT landscape. And, like many other things with historical foundations, COBOL has a whiff of the "retro-cool" about it: You can even get COBOL dev environments that run on Raspberry Pi. There are a number of options for someone who wants to use COBOL — the real question is why you might want to do so.

The first reason is employability. As noted, there are still plenty of companies running applications built on COBOL. And not all of those applications are archaic: Since 2002, COBOL has had an object-oriented framework. And as you'll see, a number of the options we list have Java as an intermediate target — a strategy that has both plusses and minuses when it comes to performance and compatibility with other applications.

The next reason is readability. COBOL is known as a "verbose" language, especially when it's compared to a very terse language like C++. From a debugging standpoint, COBOL can be like reading a novel: In fact, I'd almost bet that, with a few variables thrown in, you could get arbitrary chapters from Game of Thrones to compile. Of course, all your favorite functions would die depressing, lonely deaths, but still…

So let's take a look at the modern options in COBOL. Let us know whether you're using COBOL — and why. Surely the story will be as compelling as one written in Grace Hopper's legacy language…

Curtis Franklin Jr. is Senior Editor at Dark Reading. In this role he focuses on product and technology coverage for the publication. In addition he works on audio and video programming for Dark Reading and contributes to activities at Interop ITX, Black Hat, INsecurity, and ... View Full Bio

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tomskaczmarek
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tomskaczmarek,
User Rank: Strategist
7/10/2015 | 9:59:11 AM
Python
What I like most about Pythion is that 0*2 == False is True.
tomskaczmarek
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tomskaczmarek,
User Rank: Strategist
7/10/2015 | 9:54:42 AM
Grace Hopper's contribution
COBOL was a Grace-full addition to the programming language landscape.
Curt Franklin
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Curt Franklin,
User Rank: Strategist
7/1/2015 | 3:18:00 PM
Re: Surprising
@jastroff, in a lot of ways I still "think" in Fortran: If I'm working through a problem in my head, I'll likely do it in Fortran, then translate to whichever language I work in when it's time to hit the keyboard.

It's kind of like what I do with music: Even though I'm primarily a keyboard player, when I hear a melody line my fingers move on imaginary saxophone keys.

And I've got an article coming up on Fortran -- I'll look forward to the discussion around that one!
Curt Franklin
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Curt Franklin,
User Rank: Strategist
7/1/2015 | 3:15:18 PM
Re: Techie sugestion for more efficient code. (IBM style)
@cmach750, thanks for this! I'll be honest: It's been a long time since I've enjoyed a discussion topic as much as I've enjoyed this one -- and comments like your are the reason why. I'm working on another retro-language article and I hope we can have another great conversation around that one.

 
Curt Franklin
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Curt Franklin,
User Rank: Strategist
7/1/2015 | 3:11:52 PM
Re: COBOLs days are over
@asksqn, I don't think I would recommend that someone at the beginning of their career learn COBOL instead of Java or C++, but I don't think it's ready to be put out to pasture just yet. As you say, there are a lot of proprietary systems out there running COBOL software and IBM continues to sell a bunch of System Z machines every year. COBOL's not a bad language to have in your bag of tricks if you want to be able to work in shops where pocket protectors are more than vague memories.
jastroff
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jastroff,
User Rank: Ninja
7/1/2015 | 9:41:53 AM
Re: Surprising
You jogged my memory -- the FORMAT statment -- yes, that was a pain in the neck. But someohow the lines of code were always familiar to me. Not a very "bendy" language
cmach750
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cmach750,
User Rank: Apprentice
6/29/2015 | 9:41:08 PM
Techie sugestion for more efficient code. (IBM style)
As a retired techie, I have to make this observation.

This information was relevant in the IBM big iron COBOL and dependent on IBM's architecture of the time.  I do not know about other compilers.  If a coder wanted the most efficient generated machine (executable) code (smaller object code, fewer CPU cycles), these improvements would have to made to the code in your example. 

... PIC 9(2).   should be ... PIC S9(2)  COMP-3.

1. The "S" (for "signed" integer) will tell the compiler to omit extra code that would guarantee that the sign of the integer be forced positive always.

2. The "COMP-3" tells the compiler this is a "packed" number.  Otherwise the number is stored as unpacked and would have to packed into an internal work area, acted upon, and then unpacked back into the original PIC 9(2) field every time it was referenced.  Pack and unpack are time expensive operations.

In your example I will presume you wanted to keep it as simple for illustration purposes.  

Sorry, but the ingrained techie in me popped up.  I've examined many a line of intermediate generated code (ALC) to study what our compilers were doing.
asksqn
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asksqn,
User Rank: Ninja
6/29/2015 | 6:07:36 PM
COBOLs days are over
Sorry, I don't see COBOL being popular with anyone but freshly minted college grads desperately seeking retro hipness, and, aging Boomers nostalgic for the Old Days.  And even then, that is questionable since anyone over 35 who works in tech tends to get laid off in favor of H1B Visa workers who will work for 35%-50% less than what an American workforce would have to be paid for identical skill sets and education.  That being said, COBOL runs proprietary systems and the world is getting away from this model in favor of open source, in which case, you'd be better off learning Python along with millions of others worldwide who are currently learning the language for FREE in MOOCs.

 

 
Jschmidt27
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Jschmidt27,
User Rank: Strategist
6/29/2015 | 1:36:19 PM
Re: Surprising
Haha! Young whippersnappers.
Curt Franklin
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Curt Franklin,
User Rank: Strategist
6/29/2015 | 12:48:13 PM
Re: Surprising
@Jschmidt27, one of my favorite early career memories is of watching Forrest Mims enter a program into a MITS Altair machine using the toggles on the front panel. It's no wonder that Microsoft took off!

I loved (and still love) the feeling of being able to directly control the hardware through assembler, but multi-core systems make writing efficient code much more challenging. I suppose I'll stick to higher level languages, but I'll still complain about the "young kids" and how easy things are for them!
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