Cobol remains old standby at agencies despite showing its age

Cobol celebrates its 50th anniversary, but some agencies have no plans for a retirement party

In the beginning, or not too long after, there was Cobol. And it was good.

Cobol's golden anniversary

1952 – “Amazing" Grace Hopper begins development of natural language programming languages that would lead to Flowmatic, the precursor of Cobol.

1959 – First Cobol specifications completed in December 1959 and published in April 1960.

1968 – The American National Standards Institute develops the first industry standard for Cobol.

1997 – The Gartner Group says about 80 percent of global business applications run on Cobol, amounting to more than 200 billion lines of code, with 5 billion new lines of code created each year.

2000 – The Year 2000 hits, having required extensive rewriting of existing Cobol code to cater for compressed date code that would report Jan. 1, 2000, and beyond as earlier than 1999 dates.

2002 – The fourth and most current version of standard Cobol has object orientation added and includes support for other Web-based programming environments such as Microsoft .NET and Java.

Programs written in the venerable Common Business-Oriented Language were once used around the world in governmental and military agencies, in commercial enterprises, and on operating systems such as IBM's z/OS, Microsoft's Windows, and the POSIX families — Unix, Linux etc. As recently as 1997, the Gartner Group reported, 80 percent of the world's business ran on Cobol with more than 200 billion lines of code in existence and an estimated 5 billion lines of new code annually.

Fifty years after its creation, however, old Cobol is showing its age spots. Like the baby boomers who used it to create a wealth of mainframe applications years ago, Cobol is creaking and groaning its way into retirement. The Java and .NET generation is ready to take over.

At least, that’s what the new Web-is-everything scenario calls for. The problem is that scripted futures and reality rarely cooperate. With the number of blown information technology modernization programs mounting and agency budgets tightening, Cobol may have some life left in yet.

Federal fans of Cobol

Most government agencies will have some Cobol code they need to deal with, but some are more dependent on it than others, including:

  • Social Security Administration
  • Agriculture Department
  • Veterans Affairs Department
  • Energy Department
  • U.S. Postal Service
  • Army
  • State Department

Source: Micro Focus International

That’s not to say that the newer, more Web-centric languages don’t dominate. Cobol simply can’t compete when it comes to displaying output in graphical form. Unless you want to keep using that old text-based green-creen system, Java and those other languages must rule, at least on the public-facing front end.

But in the core databases — the sources that those front-end applications take their data from — it’s another matter.

“The fact is that for back-end computations, nothing is better than Cobol,” said Bill Gray, deputy commissioner for systems at the Social Security Administration.

Also, because Cobol uses programming terminology that is close to the way people use regular English, it’s still considered the best language for capturing an organization’s business rules. Other languages use fairly arcane terminology that make it hard to capture those processes.

However, that puts organizations in a bind. Over time, Cobol has become the institutional memory of an organization, at least when it comes to business rules. People sit at their computers and use the applications that appear on their screens without ever questioning why they use those and not others.

In many cases, the reason is that the organization has decreed the use of Cobol, said John Hill, vice president at Computech, a professional services firm. And that poses a dilemma. Many agencies want to get off Cobol and build modern systems that will last the next 30 years, Hill said. But those Cobol systems handle such a huge part of the transactional load that they are not easy to replace when so much vital traffic passes through daily.

It can be done. Computech helped the Customs and Border Protection agency move from a 7 million-line Cobol system to one based on Java in a phased transition. The Defense Logistics Agency used concerns about the Year 2000 date changeover as the catalyst to move away from a Cobol system to an SAP enterprise resource platform, though it cost about $750 million.

But other agencies will not be making such an abrupt change. The Social Security Administration is wrapping essential Cobol applications in Extensible Markup Language envelopes and publishing them as service-oriented architecture services. It will retain about 20 percent of the 36 million lines of Cobol code it uses, Hill said.

The U.S. Postal Service considered rewriting its Cobol-based product tracking system in Java but, with 15 years of business logic embedded in that Cobol code, USPS officials eventually realized that it would be a massive job. They opted instead to use a Micro Focus compiler to repurpose the code so it could run on a mainframe Linux system.

“It would have been much more costly to convert to Java,” said John Byrne, manager of USPS’ Integrated Business Systems Solution Centers and the point person for the agency’s application development. “There are also unknown risks. We’ve done other things in Java, and they’ve not gone well.”

The Cobol/Linux path is allowing USPS to individually migrate each of its 56 product-tracking system event types, which ensures the system remains fully operational during the transition. The success of that has been good enough that the Postal Service wants to accelerate those kinds of transitions for its other 100 or so Cobol systems, Byrne said. The decision has already been made to move another three of its larger Cobol systems to Linux.

Help (Still) Wanted: Cobol skills

Agencies could face a shortage of experienced Cobol programmers during the next few years, as the people who have that longtime expertise retire. Most universities and colleges have dropped Cobol from their curriculum in favor of teaching more modern languages, such as Java.

But Cobol could be making a comeback at the university level, with an assist from industry. For example, Micro Focus, a software developer with customers around the world, has been working with schools in a number of countries to boost the level of graduates with Cobol skills.

In the U.S., those include Texas A&M University at Kingsville, New York City College of Technology, Kansas State University, University of Wisconsin at Platteville, Central Carolina Technical College, and Colorado Tech University.

There should be a large number of people with Cobol expertise graduating from those schools beginning this year, said Bob Morin, director of business development for the federal government sector at Micro Focus.

However, even if that new crop of programmers were not available, that’s not a reason to convert Cobol systems to Java, as some have argued, Byrne said. He said he thinks there will be enough Cobol programmers at USPS to last another 10 years, and as they begin to leave, the agency will start its own Cobol training program.

SSA is going the same route. The biggest challenge it faces is providing the kind of incentives for Cobol that programmers now have to build new and fancy things with the more modern languages, Gray said, though he’s found that many new hires are amenable to learning Cobol.

Morin said he believes the federal government is in the beginning stages of finally accepting something it’s known about for some years.

“Because of the number of failures of such things as [enterprise resource planning] and commercial off-the-shelf programs, they see that’s not the way to go for the most part,” he said. “At the same time, they realize what they have invested in Cobol, so now they are looking at how they can take advantage of that.”

About the Author

Brian Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.

The 2014 Federal 100

Get to know the 100 women and men honored this year for going above and beyond in federal IT.

Reader comments

Tue, Sep 22, 2009

Our screens aren't green -- Attachmate allows you to have multiple screens open, and the speed to get to what you need to get to makes working in a COBOL environment a joy after wasting so much time drilling through menus and menus to get to where you want, pressing "Query" first, then entering an account # and then "Query" again (and wait for a second) while it pulls it up. I love our COBOL system, I customize the screen to the font and colors I like (especially for over-40 eyes), and flip through screens like crazy. I went to a bank to open a new account and it took forever. She said they ditched their COBOL system and it now takes 3x as long to do the same task on their java system. I think programmers fall in love with the "new screen" and "new report" and how many options are on the menu. Those of us who use information to get a job done, want it fast, accurate, efficient and seamless. COBOL does all that and more. I've lived through a software disaster. Our agency spent $50 million in 6 years and finally abandoned it about the time we had 35,000 defects logged. We went back to our COBOL system updated it, and haven't found a defect yet.

Wed, Jul 22, 2009

It is also interesting that even though they define the acronym, they make the age old mistake of spelling it wrong! COBOL is an acronym, I am not sure Cobol is even a word! :)

Wed, Jul 15, 2009

I agee with the comment. People should learn more about the mainframes nowdays and the ability to do Web pages on the mainframes with Cobol backends. You can use HTML and Javascript on most mainframes today. There is not a need for a major overhaul of Cobol programs, because you can do anything with Cobol and mainframes that you can do with any server. Over time, mainframes are less expensive and you can beat the throughput on Cobol.

Tue, Jul 14, 2009 Kevin Washington, D.C.

The person writing this article, really doesn't understand the advances in COBOL. In our agency we can do anything in COBOL that can be done in JAVA. There is no need for green screens anymore. See Unisys COBOL mainframes for more information.

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above