COBOL’s Enduring Usefulness and Digital Transformation

In a digital world, where change is constant, the combination of continued innovation and reliability are IT necessities.

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These days, it’s difficult to imagine anything untouched by disruptive change, and the same applies to our IT systems. Regardless of the current setting, there are certain critical systems that simply cannot afford to fail. These are the systems that deliver too much value for organizations to be ripped out and replaced. In most cases, a business has made substantial investments in their systems over time, including the development of additional IP and processes to support it.  These core systems continue to enable real benefits, and ripping them out and starting from scratch has the potential to put critical revenue at risk.

More often than not, these central systems run on more established, business-centric technologies. The platforms behind them are often mainframes or other robust servers like Unix, Linux, or Windows, while the data layer could be built on dependable, flat-file structures or industrial-strength databases such as Oracle or DB2. When it comes to the language of the application, the answer is always COBOL. Through continued investments from the COBOL community, the language has been able to adhere to the needs of a constantly evolving global economy.

The foundational design of COBOL came with the requirement that it be portable across computing devices. This core principle remains as COBOL can compile and execute on any server environment. Through continued investments and collaborative innovation, COBOL can support just about anything the digital world can throw at it. While this support was once only mainframes, DB2, and JCL, COBOL is now just as happy in the cloud, AWS, containers, and more. The language supports it all, from agile or DevOps, character mode or mobile, data center or public could; COBOL applications can take advantage of their environments to provide the performance, scalability, and resiliency required for business.

The language was also created with the advantage of being easy to understand. As today’s application development graduates are well versed in Java, C#, and other more modern languages, the task of cross training those already knowledgeable in Java or C# in older languages like COBOL or PL/I systems is a relatively straightforward and cost-effective solution. As part of this, Micro Focus has collaborated with companies and universities to establish the COBOL Academic Program, which provides free access to the latest teaching tools for COBOL application development. In addition, Micro Focus also hosts a COBOL Programmers Facebook group with more than 16,000 members.

COBOL’s six decades of heritage and billions of lines of value are possible through the commitment to backwards compatibility and continuous evolution to support today’s business requirements. With arithmetic accuracy to 38 digits, strong data manipulation and SORT capability, high performance and robust error management, COBOL has a proven record of supporting big business transactions. It is no surprise that the language continues to support the majority of major banks and insurers, as well as to enjoy widespread use across retail, healthcare, government, automotive, and other sectors.

Digital transformation is an incremental process that leverages past application logic, process, and infrastructure investments. An IT system transformation that embraces modernization would be a sensible strategy. A first step toward that goal would be to understand the existing systems, skills, and strategy—both current and into the future.  After this inventory review, a clear modernization plan should be formulated and documented.

Industry research shows that a modern, pragmatic approach is needed—building a bridge between the old and the new. In fact, recent findings from the Micro Focus COBOL Survey showed that 63% of the survey’s respondents plan to modernize their system/applications with a focus on functionality and process in 2020. Additionally, 92% of respondents felt as though their organization’s COBOL applications are strategic in comparison to 84% of respondents in the previous 2017 survey. Most now recognize that a different transformation approach is required in order to achieve digital success in this modern age, an incremental process that leverages past application logic, process, and infrastructure investments.  Some would suggest this is a smarter strategy that delivers a faster path to innovation with lower risk.

As the telephone, combustion engine, and many other enduring inventions demonstrate, some of today’s most useful technologies are based on ideas from a very long time ago. Their continuing usefulness is a great measurement of their value. New technology and innovations are of course important, but it should not be forgotten that reliability, performance, and portability are also valuable attributes of established technology. In a digital world, where change is constant, the combination of continued innovation and reliability are IT necessities.

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