COBOL: Back to the future

Back in 2008 policy makers around the world were trying frantically to contain the damage of the financial crash and there were calls for the expansion of government spending, taxes and regulation. In some quarters there were arguments for a radical revision of prevailing economic systems and the end of capitalism.

Now we have a new storm to overcome, which is every bit as life changing as the credit crunch of 2008 and certainly more dangerous. The coronavirus, specifically COVID-19, is contributing to changing the way we work, possibly forever. The change that the world is currently going through is fast, inevitable and, arguably, unavoidable.

The restructuring of the world economies is potentially immense, and it’s not at all clear which direction organisations will be pushed, but we do know they do not have to be passive onlookers while COVID-19 does its worst. The challenges that arise can be harnessed as an opportunity but we need to take a long hard look at the existing IT infrastructure that supports much of the World’s government and industry.

During the imposed lockdown many of us are depending on tools such as Zoom, Teams and WhatsApp, to communicate and share work with remote colleagues that are also working from home. This is all well and good but there are many, many systems that just aren’t accessible through the Internet, despite wide-spread adoption of the cloud.

Whether we like it or not, the world still depends on the 60 year old COBOL programming language to do the heavy lifting of back office (wait for this long lost term) batch processing. By way of example it is estimated that COBOL is currently used in 95% of ATMs around the world, 220 billion lines of code still in use today.

The changing face of the way we work, the new normal, means these COBOL systems can’t keep up without serious maintenance. Who’s going to do that? Much of our government and economy are underpinned by these old “outdated” systems. Think back 20 years to the response to the Y2K scare, when it was unclear whether the date of the new millennium might cause multiple errors across the entire world’s computing systems, thousands of programmers, fluent in largely forgotten languages like COBOL, FORTRAN and PL/1 were specifically hired to fix government and enterprise code. As a result, Y2K was largely a non-issue.

The problem is manifesting itself in many different ways for example some states in the USA have computer systems for processing unemployment claims, which are COBOL based, that are overloaded with the increase in the number of claims due to CoVID-19. This is causing long processing delays. As a result Connecticut and four other states are creating a joint effort, to recruit retired COBOL programmers who can update the state software.

COBOL is considered to be a legacy language, which means organisations have trouble finding staff that knows how to write the code. And when they can, the specialist engineers charge a premium.

It also means that when a system breaks, there might not be somebody available to fix it. And that’s a position some banks and government organisations now find themselves in i.e. critical system and a lack of qualified engineers to support them.

Despite its age, and the fact that so many programmers have moved onto C# and Java, COBOL is still a widely used programming language. It’s tried and true, which is partly why it was so widely adopted by banks and governments in the second half of the 20th century. To put that into context – according to Reuters, almost 50% of the world’s banking systems use software developed in COBOL, with more that 80% of credit-card based transactions relying on it.

The biggest issue in all of this is the world-wide lack of engineers familiar with the language.

J. Ray Scott, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, and one of the few professors who still teaches COBOL, attributes the lack of COBOL programmers to a number of issues, from the absence of an open-source version of the software in the ’80s and ’90s to the simple appeal of newer databases that natively connect to the internet.

According to Bill Hinshaw, who runs COBOL Cowboys, the 60-year old programming language still has some life in it, especially in industries where it’s inexorably linked to critical functions. In his experience, governments are working with older versions of software and hardware, compared to banks and other industries.

“We’re dealing with more and more people who want to modernise COBOL” Hinshaw says. “COBOL is not going away.”

But it’s not just COBOL that is the problem. There are many systems still in operation that use “legacy” languages such as FRORTRAN and PL/1 which need to be addressed.

As was mentioned above, CoVID-19 is changing the way that we work and will work in the future. Therefore legacy applications that are built on COBOL or FORTRAN et al. will need to continue to evolve and adapt to the new normal that we all face. But time is of the essence. As we have seen the virus tends to target older people which, in a cruel twist of fate, means we are relying on code that was written and maintained by people that may not be available to change things in the future.

So what can you do to alleviate the situation? Talk to us. We at CIMtrek have over 10 years’ experience in modernising and migrating legacy systems. We understand the problems you face of keeping the lights on, whilst striving to become more agile. We can act as, conceptually, your systems lockdown, thereby buying you time to do what you need to do to adapt to the changing demands placed on you.


Jon Pyke is the CEO of CIMtrek, a global software company headquartered in the UK. Our mission is to develop user-friendly, cost-effective technology solutions to help companies escape the IBM Domino/Notes application landscape.