Saturday, July 11, 2009

Still Cobol after all these years

It may not have a Paul Simon soundtrack, but I found something poignant about a column Friday marking the 50th anniversary of Rear Admiral Grace Hopper’s second greatest† contribution to mankind, the COmmon Business Oriented Language.

Yes, the column was a self-serving plug by the last remaining COBOL vendor. But it was also a reminder of the economic role of trailing edge technology, and the distortions of judging what’s important by what gets headlines.

As Stephen Kelley, the CEO of MicroFocus summarized in the FT:

Today, Cobol is everywhere, yet is largely unheard of among the millions of people who interact with it on a daily basis. Research shows that people, on average, still use Cobol 10 times every day in the UK: using an ATM, stopping at traffic lights or purchasing a product online.

There are more than 220bn lines of Cobol in existence, equating to around 80 per cent of the world’s actively used code. There are 200 times as many Cobol transactions each day than Google searches – a figure which puts the influence of Web 2.0 into stark perspective.

Its versatility has also played a part in its abundance and longevity. Applications first developed to run on IBM System 700 mainframes are now being readied for an Amazon or Microsoft cloud computing platform.
Rather than versatility, I might say something about legacy code and switching costs, but perhaps that’s the cynic in me.

Not surprisingly, Kelley has a self-interested plug for industry/academia cooperation:
With many computer science students opting to learn web 2.0 skills, and many of those who are proficient in Cobol reaching retirement age, its success and longevity are almost proving a hindrance to its long-term survival.

Ensuring Cobol remains a key part of the IT skills set must be a priority for business, government and academia alike, as the effects of a serious shortage could be disastrous. The cost of re-writing Cobol programs is estimated at around $25 per line (with more 200bn lines in existence).
I’m not sure I’d recommend Cobol classes to a bright high school student, but I’d bet it has more job security for marginal programmers than editing HTML or writing Perl scripts. Nothing poignant or sentimental there.

† Most computer scientists would agree that inventing the compiler is of more lasting significance than creating any particular higher-level language.

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