News Flash – COBOL Rises from Its Own Non-Ashes

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Article from Issue 247/2021
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Of all the strange news this month, the one item that really caught my eye was the announcement of IBM's COBOL for Linux 1.1 compiler. I guess most of us are aware that millions of lines of business software around the world are still written in COBOL, and for that reason, old-school COBOL programmers still have work. But think about this for a minute: COBOL has existed for 62 years, the x86 architecture has been around for 43 years, and Linux has been with us for 30 years.

Dear Reader,

Of all the strange news this month, the one item that really caught my eye was the announcement of IBM's COBOL for Linux 1.1 compiler. I guess most of us are aware that millions of lines of business software around the world are still written in COBOL, and for that reason, old-school COBOL programmers still have work. But think about this for a minute: COBOL has existed for 62 years, the x86 architecture has been around for 43 years, and Linux has been with us for 30 years. Yet at this late date, the (97-year-old) IBM steps up now to announce a Linux COBOL compiler for the x86?

It is easy to see why IBM, whose clients include many old-school companies running old-school software, would continue to maintain their COBOL compilers. But a new compiler for x86 Linux? That's not just maintaining – that's investing!

Of course, COBOL has been counted out in the past. In fact, I can safely say that people have been counting out COBOL for as long as I have known about it. The Common Business Oriented Language (COBOL) dates back to the late 1950s, when a group of corporate and academic computer scientists got together to develop a coding language specifically designed to address the problems of business. The early birth of COBOL, and the fact that it was designed for efficient programming, not efficient execution, meant that it gained a reputation for being slow and inelegant. COBOL was a way to grind out steady and unglamorous business software. Some of that business software is still humming along, rolling out reports, inventories, and payroll. It could have cost millions to create, and it would cost even more now to replace, so, as the saying goes, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Over the years, COBOL has seen many updates – to be fair, it really has evolved since 1959, with support for structured programming techniques, as well as XML and inter-language communication with C/C++. But it still has a reputation for being quite retro, and I guarantee that few students enroll in the world's leading computer science programs with the cherished goal of one day being a great COBOL programmer.

Clunky old software lives forever in its bits and bytes, but clunky old hardware fades away. Companies like IBM keep COBOL alive by continually providing a means to transition it to other hardware and operating systems. For years, IBM has supported COBOL compilers for z/OS and AIX – systems that run on some of IBM's modern-day mainframe platforms. But why x86 and Linux? And why now?

Part of the answer is that the hardware of today is no hardware at all. Development environments increasingly live in the cloud, and virtual and containerized x86 systems are the stock and trade of cloud infrastructure. Another reason for supporting COBOL on the x86 could be a wager that, by lowering barriers to entry, they will eventually channel those x86-based users to the heavy mainframe systems that IBM is still selling. (They got rid of their PC division years ago.)

The other thing to remember is, IBM probably wouldn't be doing this if they didn't think they could make some money – or at least break even. Just because the COBOL x86 compiler runs on Linux doesn't mean it is free. According to the announcement, "COBOL for Linux on x86 is required on all systems on which COBOL applications are developed and where the applications are deployed and executed." You're supposed to "…consult your IBM representative or IBM Business Partner" for pricing.

Whatever the reasons, it does appear that the planets have aligned to give COBOL another burst of energy that could propel it even further beyond the long-past predictions of its demise.

Joe Casad, Editor in Chief

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