Not much in IT has staying power. What’s here today is gone tomorrow. The ICT landscape now changes significantly on almost a yearly basis, except for one notable stalwart which has been around for almost 50 years – the programming language called Cobol (Common Business Oriented Language), writes Mike Bergen, Gauteng regional manager at MigrationWare.

While the mainframe environment certainly does not have the attraction of .Net or Java, the reality is that behind the scenes, Cobol continues to be the most important programming language in the world today.
Why? Because Cobol applications account for 60% of all the applications that are currently in operation, and around 85% of all the transactions (globally) that are processed (Database and Network Journal). The Aberdeen Group estimates that $2-trillion has been invested in mainframe applications in corporations that house approximately 70% of all critical business logic and data, while Gartner says Cobol code accounts for 65% (200-billion lines of code) of the total software in use.
At the Cobol Future 2007 event in Rotterdam earlier this year, it was stated that more than 60% of all company information accessible through the Internet is stored on mainframes, with 83% of all transactions and 95% of all financial and insurance data being processed by Cobol mainframes.
And the reason why Cobol is still the first choice of financial institutions is because mission critical high throughput systems require proven technology, predictability, reliability, scalability, high performance and ease of integration to function optimally. And that is exactly what Cobol provides.
So while most people aren’t aware of Cobol in their daily use of IT, if you log on to Internet banking and make a payment or transfer funds, you’re actually triggering a Cobol transaction on the bank’s mainframe. Cobol is indirectly a fundamental part of most people’s lives.
And while Cobol is pre-eminent in the mainframe environment, it has also proven its worth as one of the most portable languages and is now found on virtually all leading hardware platforms and operating systems around the world.
Fifty years on, Cobol has also become a first class citizen in the.NET framework, co-existing and engaging with all other languages and technologies supported in that framework.
While many Cobol programmers around the world are ageing, with younger programmers taking up newer languages, the global Cobol community still comprises around 2-million developers.
And while there are motivations to move to newer technologies, the amount of code that some companies would have to have re-written poses a serious risk. Furthermore, the hype around newer technology does not detract from the fact that it’s still good business sense to look at what’s best for business process needs.
While front-end applications are increasingly becoming interactive and use more modern programming languages, backend infrastructures still require a robust a business language like Cobol to process transactions en mass, which is the why the language continues to be so important globally.
This is underpinned by the move by universities like Oxford Brookes University and the University of Central England in the UK to begin offering an Information Technology Management for Business degree in 2008 to boost legacy skills in that country.
In South Africa, the banks and insurance agencies continue to boost their Cobol skills, training hundreds of Cobol developers between them each year, while universities like Tshwane and Wits University are investigating introducing Cobol training into IT focused degrees, emphasizing the continued importance of Cobol locally for the foreseeable future.