Legacy IT

COBOL still integral to government systems

Cobol code

Many of the federal government’s older mission-critical systems still run on Common Business-Oriented Language (COBOL), a programming language developed in 1959, a full decade before Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon.

Despite the growing prevalence of modern programming languages such as C++, .NET and Java, good old COBOL is still responsible for more than 70 percent of the world’s business transactions. Were the hundreds of billions of lines of global COBOL code to suddenly cease functioning, stoplights would crash, ATM machines would fail and a whole host of other system failures would make civil society almost unrecognizable.

Yet in the age of disruptive technologies like cloud and mobile computing, big data and social media, COBOL has developed a reputation as outdated and “uncool,” said Micro Focus product marketing director Ed Airey, speaking at COBOL Developer Day in Washington on Dec. 12.

The stigma that COBOL can’t compete with new-school programming languages is furthered by the fact that only about one-quarter of colleges across the country are teaching COBOL in their curriculums, and only 20 percent of those schools require that programming graduates take it.

That could present a sizable problem in the near future as up to 10,000 U.S. workers a day will be retiring for the next 19 years, creating a shortage of COBOL-trained programmers. The Defense Department, Airey said, still employs a COBOL programmer in his 80s.

“Yes, colleges are producing developers, but with what skills?” Airey asked, noting that only five percent of programmers hitting the job market are fluent in COBOL. “We are facing a skills challenge.”

COBOL is most often associated with the government’s legacy IT systems and core databases, Airey said. 

These are the systems that suck up approximately 70 percent of the government’s $82 billion IT budget, leaving only 30 percent to spend on innovative technologies.

As agencies look to modernize their IT systems, they too must decide whether to replace their COBOL code or repurpose it. This can be an expensive and difficult endeavor – the Defense Department has struggled with it for 15 years.

For those reasons, it is likely that systems running COBOL – at least on the back end – are likely to be a mainstay for many more years to come.

“COBOL still remains the most readable programming language ever invented, and it maintains that characteristic that no other language has decided is important,” said Micro Focus’ Scot Nielsen.

About the Author

Frank Konkel is a former staff writer for FCW.

Reader comments

Sun, Aug 3, 2014

Non-COBOL programmers fear the complexity inherent in most COBOL programs and successfully avoid them by professing a disdain for COBOL. However, in reality the COBOL language itself is very straightforward and each COBOL statement is simple to understand. The complexity of legacy programs is not COBOL's fault. It is the business rules that are complex, not the COBOL language. No matter what language had been used, the program would still be complex. Non-COBOL programmers have essentially found a way to avoid business complexities. So COBOL programmers live on, because someone has to handle the business complexity.

Thu, Jan 23, 2014

All the more reason that legacy systems can and should participate as services on the network which can be repurposed or recombined with other services. Enterprise Service Bus and SOA give new life to the old. soabus.org

Mon, Dec 16, 2013

The comment that legacy systems suck up approximately 70 percent of the government’s $82 billion IT budget is a bit misleading. To really understand if the money spent on legacy software is really "sucking" up the budget you also have to know how much work those systems are doing and what percentage of the budget is patch work and what is normal enhancement that a new shiny product would also require. We have seen media exposure on some issues of new software in recent articles too.

Yes, there is a time when you must go to something else, if only because the parts you need for the hardware are becoming scarce and the new hardware does not understand the old software and the cost to transfer the old system to the new hardware is more than a new system is bid at. But all too often we throw out good systems because they get a little old and the BLING is missing in the eyes of the new guard, plus, there is no big money for those who make the new systems if you keep the old (plus lost 'bribes' and other fun stuff).

Fri, Dec 13, 2013

Grace Hopper would be proud

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