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Survey Says: The Truth About COBOL and the World Economy

The history of COBOL, common misconceptions and insights on the COBOL Working Group’s global survey

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On June 14, 2021, the COBOL Working Group (CWG) of the Linux Foundation Open Mainframe Project (OMP) had the opportunity to present at the Marist Enterprise Computing Community (ECC) conference about a topic that shouldn’t be so surprising if people didn’t overlook how interesting and compelling it is—COBOL. 

Ah, COBOL: Common Business-Oriented Language—a name for the ages, and a language to match. Having been designed based on prior art and observed requirements over the decade since the introduction of the first compilers at the beginning of the 1950’s, with involvement of key thought-leaders in that space such as Dr. Grace Hopper, later Rear Admiral, the first actual compiler became available in the fall of 1960. Since then, it has become part of the IT bedrock of the world economy, but the question arises: if it’s so important, why isn’t it an ongoing hot topic in the world of IT?

So, CWG was formed, and began to look into it.

IT’s Best-Kept Secret

Imagine the first 500 lines of production COBOL code written after the first COBOL compiler became available in the fall of 1960, over a year after the project to design the language began, complete with IDENTIFICATION DIVISION, other DIVISIONs and SECTIONS, other setup, variables, documentation (there had better have been documentation!), and maybe about 100 lines of executing code in the PROCEDURE DIVISION. 

Now, take those 500 lines and multiply them by, for example, 100 programs per application, and at least five applications per “COBOL shop,” and at least 100 such organizations using COBOL, and you get a very low-ball estimate of 25 million lines of production COBOL in the world, right out of the gate.

Then, COBOL caught fire and took the world of business computing by storm, just in time for IBM to announce their System/360, and the decimal point began creeping to the right, as the size of the world-wide investment in COBOL, increasingly underpinning the world of global commerce, kept growing, while what was in place also just kept on ticking.

So, as the decades passed, COBOL continued to go and grow, while other programming languages generally focused on other purposes than pure-play financially-oriented business and commerce.

Yet despite the pervasive, enduringly valuable nature of the technology, COBOL remains largely derided or misunderstood. Decision-makers and public figures continually make pronouncements and decisions predicated on ignorance of its profound, pervasive, and critical role. 

Time for Action: A COBOL Survey

So, having formed in May of 2020, CWG decided to ask: So what? And how? And how many? The upshot of which was the decision that it was time to ask people.

And that’s what they did. After spending a good amount of time carefully crafting a survey, they turned it loose on the widest range of COBOL professionals they could locate, and sat back and waited for the answers to roll in. The consequent June 14 presentation was a tale of success.

Welcome back to the age of … COBOL. It still rocks and rolls. And so, CWG was the Big Measurements Of COBOL (BMOC) at Marist as they fired their opening salvo of awareness. And who are “they?”
  • Their leader is Dr. Cameron Seay, a widely-known mainframe and COBOL leader and educator, and a founding member of the ECC itself, as well as an IBM Z Champion, currently at East Carolina University.
  • Len Santalucia is their liaison to the OMP Board, as well as the current chair of the governing board. He is also well-known as the CTO of IBM Platinum Business Partner VICOM Infinity, and also an IBM Z Champion.
  • Derek Britton is also a founder of the CWG, and is well known in COBOL circles as he has worked on, helped build, take to market, support and evangelize COBOL for 30 years. He works for Micro Focus.
  • Phil Teplitzky, with more than 45 years of experience as a CIO, CTO, corporate executive and graduate school faculty, is a strong advocate for mainframe education.
  • Reg Harbeck, chief strategist at Mainframe Analytics Ltd., is a deep mainframe nerd, COBOL aficionado, “eh” team member (in reference to his accent from being based in Canada), and an IBM Z Champion.
  • Gagan Kakkar has been working in mainframe technologies for 25 years, currently working for Infosys.
  • Misty Decker, who guided the presentation, has been a mainframer for 30 years, 29 years and eight months of which were at IBM. She’s been working to correct mainframe misinformation and build a pipeline of new mainframers in one way or another that entire time. She’s now at Micro Focus.
During their allotted half hour, various members of the team presented the background on COBOL’s history and pervasiveness, its current role in the world economy, general perceptions versus ongoing positive developments in the world of COBOL and the motivations and findings of the survey. Here are some highlights:

Viable Then and Now

In 1959, the Conference/Committee on Data Systems Languages (CODASYL), was convened to design a platform-neutral business processing programming language, leading to the release of the first COBOL compiler in late 1960. Over the coming years, it became a key language on many platforms, including the IBM System/360 mainframe, which was announced in 1964.

COBOL was a truly open project, not owned by any vendor of hardware or other solutions. While it came to predominate on certain key business platforms, just as importantly, it came to predominate as the programming language that runs the world economy. It now runs the systems of record at many of the top tens of thousands of organizations on Earth, including banking, insurance, transportation, government, retail, healthcare and many other sectors.

Pervasive and Powerful

In order to understand the critical and necessary role that COBOL continues to play, the following statistics were shared:
  • 70-80% of all business transactions worldwide are written in COBOL today (Source: Gartner, Laserfiche)
  • 60 million patients are cared for daily with COBOL programs
  • 95% of all ATM transactions are processed using COBOL
  • 96% of all vacations booked daily involve COBOL
  • The Social Security Admin has 60 million lines of COBOL code
  • The IRS has 50 million lines of COBOL code

COBOL Is Misunderstood

But there’s a problem—specifically, a perception problem, which has stretched back to before the first COBOL compiler was available, and persists today. In fact, COBOL’s success and value remains, curiously, a bit of a secret or at the very least misunderstood, despite the many other technologies that have come and gone since its inception. Of course, part of the secret is that COBOL works so well that all the other technologies get the attention with their imperfections. And yet, there is a growing visible presence of COBOL aficionados and professionals, as witnessed by the size of communities such as the Facebook COBOL group (which now boasts over 20,000 members).

In fact, this gap led to the creation of the CWG in mid-2020 to build COBOL visibility, community, and skills. And one of the first initiatives to achieve this was the survey.

Quantifying the Market

Hence emerged the CWG COBOL survey, the goals of which were to:
  • Understand the size of the COBOL market
  • Identify the issues and concerns for the market
  • Identify how organizations are aiming to tackle those issues
  • Conduct phone interviews with respondents to clarify open and unanswered Issues

Initial Results

Once the survey closed, it was time to look at the face-value information about respondents and their responses, start to digest and report on the data, and begin reaching out for individual phone interviews to deepen understanding of their circumstances.

While this approach is anticipated to generate substantial insights beyond those initially available, at the time of the presentation, some valuable perspectives were already available, including:
  • There is massive continued use of COBOL in key organizations such as government and finance
  • Hundreds of billions of lines of COBOL are still in use—conservative projections on the data indicate well over 200 billion, but a more careful review may show this number to be much larger
  • COBOL is used for some very important and fundamental applications 
  • Many survey respondents are foreseeing or already experiencing staffing issues

Acknowledgements and Next Steps

At the conclusion of the presentation, some students who have been supporting this initiative, including helping digest and act on the data, were called out:
  • Joshua Fogus, a student at Oregon State, who is working on a project to expand access to the COBOL curriculum. He will be making the existing open-source COBOL course accessible to those students without reliable internet access, as well as adding a CICS chapter.
  • Sudhanshu Dubey, student at Guru Nanak Development Engineering College in Ludhiana India, who will demonstrate how it’s possible to modernize established COBOL applications by taking a demo monolithic banking application donated by Micro Focus and refactoring it with micro services and modern interfaces. He will document the process and provide a road map for others looking to modernize their applications. 
  • Angus Chou of Watson School of Engineering at SUNY Binghamton, who is volunteering to help go through an analysis of the survey, as well as conduct phone interviews
The next steps that can be anticipated as the survey and CWG continue forward include:
  • Working on educational and modernization projects, including making some COBOL courseware available offline for those with limited internet access around the world
  • Completing the analysis of the survey data
  • Integrating the results of the phone interviews
  • Creating a going forward COBOL action plan 
Who knew that, in its seventh decade, the world’s most broadly-and-deeply established programming language could be a ground floor opportunity to become an overnight success all over again?

Well, now you do.

And now that you know, you are one of the people who are aware of this great opportunity. Please join us to see what we’re doing and participate in a brilliant future for business IT.
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