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Modernizing the Common Language - COBOL 347

Frumious Wombat writes "Over at the Register Developers section, they are quoting the head of research for Ovum Consulting on the continuing dominance of COBOL in certain business applications. The antique language accounted for 75% of all business transactions last year, and some 90% of financial transactions. For all the time spent arguing the merits of Ruby vs. C#, should the community spend more time building tools to make COBOL livable? The article goes into what it terms 'legacy modernization', and lays out some details on how to go about it. From the article: 'The first stage in the legacy modernization process is to understand the business value embodied within legacy systems. This means that developers must give business domain experts (business analysts) access to the legacy, using tools that help them find their way around it at the business level. Some awareness of, say, COBOL and of the legacy architectures will be helpful but we aren't talking about programmers rooting around in code - modern tools can automate much of this analysis for staff working at a higher level.'"
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Modernizing the Common Language - COBOL

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  • by minginqunt ( 225413 ) on Friday January 05, 2007 @12:38PM (#17474952) Homepage Journal
    Modernize? Pah.

    Why not just rewrite it in PHP. Another 30 years of guaranteed fat support contracts. Always think of your potential pay-packet.
    • by eln ( 21727 ) on Friday January 05, 2007 @12:46PM (#17475104)
      Don't even suggest writing it in PHP, because then we'll spend the next 5 years arguing over how it should be done. You'll end up with an endless argument about whether it should be done in PHP or Python. Then a group of crackpots will pipe up from the corner that it should all be done in Ruby on Rails. Then a single scruffy looking dude will say the whole thing could be done in 5 minutes with 3 lines of Perl, and in fact he just wrote it. The others will unite for 5 seconds, long enough to say Perl is an ugly language, and resume their argument.

      This will go on for years until the executives give up and hire an outside consultant who will do the whole thing in Java. It will be bloated and inefficient, and the UI will be ugly. People will begin dreaming about rewriting it. Eventually, someone will suggest re-writing the whole thing in PHP...
      • by plopez ( 54068 ) on Friday January 05, 2007 @01:15PM (#17475582) Journal
        You forgot:

        "While the FOSS zealots are flaming each other a MS partner shows up and sells them a set of cut rate licenses and thells them how easy it is to develop in VB .Net. When the programming staff here of this they quit. "No problem" says the partner, who then introduces them to an Indian offshoring company who sells them a bushel of VB programmers. THe VB programmers muck up the job, requiring bringing in another consulting firm. The consulting firm says "No wonder you can't get it to work, you need to upgrade to the latest MS software!" and sell mgt a firkin of rather more expensive licenses.

        The offshoring company still doesn't get it so mgt decides to reel the project back in. They hire a hogshead of onshore VB programmers who kind of sort of get it to work, though it still relies on the legacy system to do the heavy lifting. The project is deemed a success, and goes into a (very expensive) maintnenence mode. The managers spruce up thier resumes and bail.

        Meanwhile, in the basement grandpa/ma is sitting in a rocker whittling a new toothpick and keeping the legacy system running. Day by day grandpa/ma marks off the days to retirement after which all hell will break loose. Unless you hire gramps back as a consultant at 3x previous salary".

        There, hope this helps.
    • Re:Easy Solution (Score:4, Insightful)

      by NewWorldDan ( 899800 ) <> on Friday January 05, 2007 @12:52PM (#17475206) Homepage Journal
      Modernize - the bottomless pit to throw consulting dollars into. Most attempts to rewrite a legacy app into a modern language have met with failure by way of the modern language becomming obsolete before the project is finished. One such project I witnessed ended up with 7 years of VB development being scrapped after a merger - in favor of the other company's unfinished conversion of their legacy app. Either way, there was a scheduled conversion from VB6 to .NET that hadn't even begun (and the app still was still heavily dependent on the legacy app to finish most tasks.) Ugh.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by rbanffy ( 584143 )
        I think that rewriting it on VB is somehow related to the repeated failures.

        VB is nice for the small things or even for the unambitious GUI layer of something larger, but it is just not suited for long-life projects - it introduces too much ugliness too early into the product life and maintenance usually makes it even uglier.
  • by (H)elix1 ( 231155 ) <> on Friday January 05, 2007 @12:44PM (#17475066) Homepage Journal
    One of my friends who ends up porting and bridging Cobol systems was quick to inform me, "COBOL is OO, look, see, print line is extending space".
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by srmalloy ( 263556 )
      I understand there is already an object-oriented version of COBOL extant, which, according to the existing naming convention for the OO version of an existing language, was called ADD_ONE_TO_COBOL_GIVING_COBOL.
      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by jaavaaguru ( 261551 )
        There are a few implementations of object oriented COBOL for .Net out there...

        Fujitsu COBOL and NetCOBOL for .NET []
        Micro Focus Net Express []

        Both of those are rather expensive, and I've not seen any open-source ones yet. I thought it would be fun to write a COBOL compiler for .Net as a pet project. I've started it [], but haven't had much time to spend on it recently. My plan was to get it to a point where it can do some useful things then put it on sourceforge.
        • It's nice to see another language designer on here. I've recently released my pet project on sourceforge, called 2e [] (as in two e's, or ee, which stands for expression evaluator). Feel free to grab any ideas / code from it -- currently it is mostly just an expression evaluator, but it supports function calls (built-in and user-defined), and it supports an inline conditional like C, plus an iterative inline conditional -- so it can get by without an if/else or while/do statements.
          But the code is designed to
  • ADA is still used by some goverment defense agencies also. It would be nice if there was a nice open source COBOL IDE. Funny thing is that all these new languages, fix issues that are not huge issues to most to begin with. I'm sure if someone made it easy to call web services from COBOL and made it possible to do OOP in COBOL it would be more accepted, but because it is a very primitive language people hate it.
  • by Gorm the DBA ( 581373 ) on Friday January 05, 2007 @12:48PM (#17475138) Journal
    COBOL lives, some 20 years after it's death had been predicted, and thrives. Why?

    Because, it makes sense.

    You don't have to develop corporate variable naming standards, coding standards, and all that, because the language makes it happen automatically.

    You can take a fresh wet behind the ears kid, give him the code, and he can figure out what's going on without any significant trouble, because it happens in order, there is none of this fancy renaming variables on the fly and obfuscating code with magic numbers stuff that is all the rage in C++, Java, and other "modern" languages.

    You want to add 2 and 2? Great, you get 4, which is what the accountants want. You can't program 2+2 to equal 27 like you can in C++. One operation does one thing, does it well and accurately, and moves on.

    Business only has one real question: "How much money did I make last year?" COBOL provides all the tools to answer it.

    That is why COBOL lives, and always will.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by ackthpt ( 218170 ) *

      Honestly. You have some points, but one of the greatest in COBOL's favour is it's pervasivness.

      A few years ago I was working at a job where we were doing everything in a 4th Generation Language. We got outsourced (thanks to a CIO who just popped in for a couple years to pad his resumee) to a company which had an integrated product written entirely in COBOL. (Of course they ran their code on an HP platform, which by now has been retired and HP support will soon, also end. COBOL survives because people st

    • Business only has one real question: "How much money did I make last year?" COBOL provides all the tools to answer it.

      Well, if you use COBOL to code your web frontends, graphics, analytics, etc., the answer to that question will be near zero.

      In order to make money these days, you need to do more than can humanly be done in COBOL.

      there is none of this fancy renaming variables on the fly and obfuscating code with magic numbers stuff that is all the rage in C++, Java, and other "modern" languages.

      C++ and Java
    • by plopez ( 54068 ) on Friday January 05, 2007 @01:27PM (#17475806) Journal
      You can take a fresh wet behind the ears kid, give him the code, and he can figure out what's going on without any significant trouble

      I disagree. I once was that kid. It is much harder than you imagine. Why?

      1) Sphaghetti code. Lots and lots of sphaghetti code. COBOL, despite improvements, is still not much more structured than assembly. It was doing maint. programming in COBOL that I vowed in all future development to try to be kind to the maint. programmer.

      2) The kid still has to learn the problem domain. I do not understand the mind set where a person says "I don't need to know the busness, just let me code it". With out the background knowledge you never know if what you are doing is right, reasonable, solves a domain problem or if it over laps another part of the problem domain so that code can be shared. In fact, learning the problem you are solving is the hardest part.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by COMON$ ( 806135 ) *
      It lives because people are unwilling to move on. There are plenty of languages you can teach any bum off the street in a matter of minutes, VB for instance. It is just like Gov't work, it stays the same not because it is efficinet and easy, but because people fight change at every corner. COBOL will stay around for another 15 years until all the COBOL bigots die off. No CS program teaches the crap anymore, at least not that I know of. In the meantime COBOL devs are the managers out there, it is the o
      • COBOL and RPG are both heavily used by furniture plants here in Mississippi. IBM did one hellva sales job 20 years ago. We still run our legacy billing system off an original IBM designed cobol application...we've migrated it to Dexterity/VB/VBA, but guess scales nowhere near as well as the COBOL application.

        As for colleges, our local community college has a two year program in C++/VB/COBOL/RPG that fits the needs of our local employers pretty well.

      • That book is actually a pretty good intro to C++. It's how I got my start when I migrated from C about 10 years or so ago.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by neimon ( 713907 )
      THANK you. I realize that an entire two generations of programmers have been brainwashed into thinking that the process is the first deliverable in a programming job, but a lot of us older guys think that, gee, we should plan how the thing works and freakin' program it, not argue over how this method and that inheritance goes here.

      You think people didn't know how to program in the past? Read about how programmers used to optimize the placement of their code on drum storage to take into account the latency o
    • ...there is none of this fancy renaming variables on the fly and obfuscating code with magic numbers stuff that is all the rage in C++, Java, and other "modern" languages.

      You've got me scratching my head with that one. I have no idea how to "obfuscate code with magic numbers". As for "renaming variables" are you referring to the fact that modern languages allow you to declare variables with limited scope? (I seem to dimly recall that COBOL variables always have program scope, but it's been a couple of decad

    • Just to add to the parent post: COBOL and RPG are both simple languages that happen to fit the domain of transaction oriented and batch processing for business applications. These apps typically don't require advanced data structures and OO techniques to reduce complexity or increase manageability of the system. Typically a business transaction follows a relatively sequential process of conditionals and setting status/adding/subtracting value/storing new info, lather, rinse and repeat. These languages i
  • and I can't wait for them to update FORTRAN. Oh, for the days of punch cards!
  • Key Insight (Score:3, Insightful)

    by TheWoozle ( 984500 ) on Friday January 05, 2007 @12:49PM (#17475146)
    From TFA: "So, perhaps the real bottom line is that legacy reclamation isnt a second-class project for tired developers. It is an important part of your IT process and needs access to your best, brightest and most flexible brains."

    If only such decisions could be realized in today's business setting. Unfortunately, updating/migrating legacy systems (even mission-critical ones!) seems to be the assigned task for interns, new hires fresh out of university, and contract programmers in India.
    • by rk ( 6314 ) *

      On the other hand, let's be honest. Most mid and senior level people prefer to work on new systems versus mucking with a crufty legacy COBOL system. I know that if my job suddenly became COBOL legacy maintenance 100% I would be pounding the pavement looking for a new job, unless they also rented a Terex dumptruck, filled the bucket with $100 bills and dumped it out on my front lawn.

      I don't mind taking a gander at a COBOL program once in a while, but I don't want to make a career of it.

  • by mandelbr0t ( 1015855 ) on Friday January 05, 2007 @12:50PM (#17475174) Journal
    Every person I've met with writing talent throws lots of stuff away. They do it without a second thought, and the next attempt is almost always better. Why should writing software be any different? If the legacy is so bad as to be entirely undocumented and filled with back doors, work-arounds and pitfalls, what do you lose by rewriting? It's not like editing the crap code is going to be any faster or less error-prone.

    In fact, there's many benefits to rewriting. It allows for proper documentation to be created (design diagrams, use cases, requirements documents) if it was missing. It allows for new technologies to be considered, and to plan for another 30 years of operation. If the software was created using a robust process, the design diagrams, use cases and requirements documents are already written. That's the hard part; any coder worth his salt should be able to exactly duplicate the application from those artifacts.

    I don't think the risk is as bad as business types claim it to be. Is it really any more of a risk to "Rip and Replace" when it's at least as likely that either the ancient hardware that the application runs on fails without replacements being available, or that the one person in the entire company who actually knows all the stuff that should be written down in the non-existent documentation retires, and there's no replacement available? The article mentions in 2 of the 3 legacy reclamation techniques that a domain expert would be required. The fact that many of the domain experts are going to be or have already retired should be additional incentive to do the "Rip and Replace" while they're still available.

    • If you have a large code base already, rather than rewriting the whole thing, you should carefully refactor it to become whatever you need it to become. Joel Spolsky wrote a great article on it. When Netscape decided to spend 2-3 years rewriting Navigator from scratch, they lost 2-3 years, during which Microsoft Internet Explorer was able to assert itself as the dominant browser. By the time the new Navigator was released, it was too late. Now all that remains of the re-write effort is the Gecko engine
    • Depends on time/benefit. Many ``old'' systems are big enough to prevent a rewrite.

      My rule of thumb: If you can hack something in Perl in a week (or few) to replace a legacy app, go for it. If it takes longer, spend your time doing something more useful. If it's something that requires a -team- of folks working for a few months... then you better quit before you start (if old system works---just leave it alone).
      • The company I work for have a rather large legacy web app (600mb of code) running on asp and mysql.

        Unfortunately at some point we will have to rewrite it in PHP. Before I got to know my way round the system I thought this was a great idea as I am a pretty good PHP programmer and prefer it to ASP. Now I have realised what a huge and difficult job this is going to be (think in man years rather than hours) I am not so keen. Especially as I will probably be entitled to a profit share by the time we do it and ob
    • by stretch0611 ( 603238 ) on Friday January 05, 2007 @01:33PM (#17475922) Journal

      The point is why rewrite something that works fine already. These COBOL applications work well now, some do have significant documentation, and believe it or not some (not many) have been rewritten (or just developed) recently.

      Before you think I am clueless ponder this.
      COBOL has a proven track record of over 40 years. Over that time is has matured and became very stable. It is reliable and quick.

      Some COBOL Applications handle massive amounts of data that many servers would choke on. (Admittedly this is mostly due to the hardware architecture.) I personally wrote a program that would process over 35GB daily in about 10minutes. How many servers can process that amount of information? How many languages would you trust to deal with that quantity of information? Think of how much even the smallest memory leak in a language would be compounded with the sheer volume of data that we are talking about.

      The Y2K crisis happened because programmers wrote programs that far exceeded the length of time they were initially expected to be used. 20 years ago, programmers used only 2 bytes for the year because they a) did not expect the program to be around in 2000, and b) memory and storage space required a premium price. For the most part it wasn't because they were bad programmer, they tried to be efficient programmers and the program lasted far better than they ever thought it would. Now a neophyte thinks it is a requirement to rewrite any program just because it is old(over 3 years). If you code haphazardly and do not think about future maintenance you may be forced to rewrite old code, but if you code with foresight you make the underly structure easy to maintain and upgrade.

      The Y2K crisis also did one other thing. It made people re-evaluate their current needs and see if they were being met. The people who stayed with COBOL did so consciously. They made the decison that COBOL was fulfilling their needs or the programs would have been ported then (time permitting of course)

      And yes, there is even new development with COBOL. The program I mentioned above with the 35GB of data was brand new and written in 2002. It processes returned billing information to AT&T from the LECs (Local Exchange Carriers) daily.

      Now, I know someone is going to say that I am a biased old fart, but I am in my 30's, and the specific program I mentioned was my last COBOL program I wrote before becoming a Web Developer. The group I was with is still working with COBOL, but I moved on because even though it works well, I find writing COBOL too easy and monotonous. But the reliability, stability, and 40+ years of applications developed for it are why COBOL is still around and why it will still be around for a long time to come.
      • > I personally wrote a program that would process over 35GB daily in
        > about 10minutes. How many servers can process that amount of information?

        That is not a language-domain problem. That is a hardware issue -- you require disks able to spool 60 megabytes per second just to be able to handle that... so you're looking at a server with at least 20 disks and multiple buses. Probably fcal with multiple pathing, and RAID-side battery-backed cache.

        Incidentally, I use gmail for precisely the same architectur
    • Every person I've met with writing talent throws lots of stuff away. They do it without a second thought, and the next attempt is almost always better. Why should writing software be any different?

      Because that chunk of prose that your friend threw away didn't cost $40M to create. You might be correct that it will cost more to fix the $40M codebase than it would to start from scratch, but the managers who have to make that decision have a really hard time telling their managers that the old codebase has n

    • If the software was created using a robust process, the design diagrams, use cases and requirements documents are already written. That's the hard part; any coder worth his salt should be able to exactly duplicate the application from those artifacts.

      You make it sound so easy! How many times have you actually done it?

      I ask this because I have done it, several times. Each time, I knew exactly the logic of the processes, knew all the applicable algorithms, and had all the documentation and flow chart

  • the continuing dominance of COBOL in certain business applications. The antique language accounted for 75% of all business transactions last year, and some 90% of financial transactions.

    That sounds less like just plain COBOL, and more like a cabal.
  • by symbolset ( 646467 ) on Friday January 05, 2007 @12:51PM (#17475182) Journal
    The Tao of Programming, 1:2 : []

    The Tao gave birth to machine language. Machine language gave birth to the assembler.

    The assembler gave birth to the compiler. Now there are ten thousand languages.

    Each language has its purpose, however humble. Each language expresses the Yin and Yang of software. Each language has its place within the Tao.

    But do not program in COBOL if you can avoid it.

    Observe the wisdom of the Tao
  • From my experience (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Dasupalouie ( 1038538 ) on Friday January 05, 2007 @12:51PM (#17475192)
    I came out of school specializing in web development mainly with C# .NET and decided to go try COBOL in the industry and see what its like since no one teaches it in school anymore. Right now I am very happy that I decided to started going towards COBOL development. The code is very easy to learn, understand, and maintain (the sole purpose why the language was built, thus why they named it COMMON BUSINESS ORIENTED LANGUAGE). As the article said, almost all enterprise businesses use COBOL for data transactions and batch runs, its a skill easily transferable. And the language won't die, it's been 40+ years and I'm sure you can't replace the existing 200 billion lines of code.
    • I wouldn't mind taking a peak at COBOL syntax (just another syntax), but I don't want to get steeped in the COBOL culture. How to use language features to isolate transactions, what are the types and advantages of batch job approaches. That would take a long time to learn, and could send a career in a COBOL direction.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      (the sole purpose why the language was built, thus why they named it COMMON BUSINESS ORIENTED LANGUAGE)

      Yeah, I guess you must be a COBOL programmer, since you seem to like TYPING IN ALL CAPS.

      Anyway, the appropriate acronymical expansion of COBOL is 'Confused Oriental Bean-cOunting Langauge.'

      Oh, BTW, how's the fingers? Stubs yet? ;)

    • by gillbates ( 106458 ) on Friday January 05, 2007 @02:36PM (#17477060) Homepage Journal

      can't replace the existing 200 billion lines of code.

      Sure you can. A 20 line Perl script would probably work just as well.

      And you can't maintain 200 billion lines of COBOL, either.

      But seriously, COBOL is so verbose that the 200 billion lines of COBOL could probably be replaced by 100 million lines of C++ or Java. And it would be more maintainable. COBOL exists to keep programmers employed; consider what it provides for the programmer:

      • Job Security: Everything is global - the programmer must keep the whole program, and all the programs called by it, and the programs that call it, in his head. Naturally, learning a complicated system takes time, meaning that the SYSTEM PROGRAMMER can't be replaced at the drop of a hat. If you fire him, you'll have to bring in EXPENSIVE CONSULTANTS until you can find the other programmer in your state who knows COBOL.
      • Ease of use: No pithy naming standards to follow (unless enforced by the organization). No need to limit the scope of procedures (Hey! - everything's global, so why not put it all in one subroutine! Yay!). No complaints about inadvertently modifying variables you shouldn't, no type checking (real programmers don't need it...) etc...
      • Big Money: You are one of the two available programmers in your state who know COBOL. The other one wants a second house in the Caymans, though you prefer the lakeside cottage in Wisconsin. Unless the company wants to hire EVEN MORE EXPENSIVE CONSULTANTS, they'll pay the salary to provide whichever house you choose.
      • Ability to use the CAPSLOCK without offending anyone. Just like you used to post on usenet!
      • Literacy skills: You'd never have to consider something complicated like "salary = (bonus + (hours * hourly_wage));" Instead, you have, in plain English:

      But I jest, of course. The truth is, most businesses are so afraid of moving away from COBOL that they'd rather continue to shell out premium salaries than take the risk of a failed migration. Kind of like a lot of Windows users - they'd like to try Linux, but are afraid of change. Well, I suppose you get what you deserve.

  • Does any school actually teach this computer language? Have these "legacy" programs been running flawlessly for all these years? Are the programmers from the 1950's still around?
    • by thewiz ( 24994 ) *
      I learned COBOL in 1984 via a college course. I went on to use it at my first programming jobs (oil and gas company). COBOL is far from dead as it handles transactions, which banks deal with 24/7/365, very very well. Quite a few people I know who still do COBOL are in high demand and are paid extremely well for their services.

      COBOL, if you didn't know, means COmmon Business-Oriented Language and was originally developed by a group of large businesses that wanted to make applications easy to understand an
    • As of 1999 DeVry University taught COBOL in it's CIS program... I'm uncertain if they still do, but I am going to say they still do... Their program is geared toward the needs of the business community and (where I went to college in their network) that area hosts a bunch of large bank coporate headquarters and insurance company headquarters, so I figure it probably still does...
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by blk96gt ( 802791 )
      I had two COBOL classes, a 200 level and a 300 level, and this was in the past four years. The 200 level was mandatory, but the year after I took it was changed to VB. The 300 level was also changed to VB, and then changed back to COBOL, because some of the companies that come to our school suggested they keep a COBOL class. Surprisingly, I actually rather enjoyed COBOL, I guess because it was so easy to write.
    • I have a degree from 1999 from Itawamba Community College in Tupelo Mississippi hanging on my wall. Curriculum included COBOL, RPG, C++, and VB.

      It's still being taught today. It goes well with our local furniture plants who run tons of apps on AS/400 systems.

    • My mom is in her 50's, and for about a decade she wrote COBOL for a book distribution company. So she was barely even middle-aged when this was going on. She definitely didn't start in the 1950's. Some of the guys she worked with were getting up there in years, but definitely not all of them. And she was really at the median -- at least half of the programming force at this company was actually YOUNGER than her. A few were mid-20's.

      COBOL is good at hiding in the dark corners of basements and mainframe roo

  • Two Points (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Tom ( 822 ) on Friday January 05, 2007 @12:53PM (#17475226) Homepage Journal
    One, these figures result from the simple fact that COBOL was pretty much the only high-level language around at those pre-historic times many of the major applications were written. And banks are very, very conservative environments where something that works will not be thrown away for something that might have bugs, even if it's 10x as fast, easy to maintain or whatever. It has to work and that's priority #1, #2 and #3.

    Two, the reason COBOL is so widespread in financial institutions has nothing to do with business sense and everything with business mind. It is "readable" to a business dude with zero computing experience. Something like "ADD PROFITMARGIN TO PRICE" just makes these people feel more at easy than "$price+=$p_margin".
    • Of the ancient three: COBOL, FORTRAN, LISP - FORTRAN has many legacy applications too. Its not uncommon to see some dusty FORTRAN-77 deck in an oil company or national lab. Most compiler switch back to that standard.
      • by Tom ( 822 )
        Good point. Yes, COBOL in business environments, FORTRAN in production, LISP in - afaik - research and (at that time) "weird" applications.

        I didn't learn FORTRAN, it was "out" when I studied. But I still learned COBOL. Please, let it die a quick and horrible death. Mostly quick would be very welcome.
  • by BigGar' ( 411008 ) on Friday January 05, 2007 @12:54PM (#17475250) Homepage
    Just merge C, Ruby, & COBOL syntax into one compiler.
    Now coders can start migrating away from Cobol without the hassle of rewriting entire programs. They can do it one line at a time, as they get to it.

    Now if we could just merge Java, & Perl in there you'd really have something.
    • by Etcetera ( 14711 )

      Just merge C, Ruby, & COBOL syntax into one compiler.
      Now coders can start migrating away from Cobol without the hassle of rewriting entire programs. They can do it one line at a time, as they get to it.

      Now if we could just merge Java, & Perl in there you'd really have something.

      Sounds like a job for Parrot []!

      Note: I'm kidding... sort of.

  • Easy tasks (Score:5, Insightful)

    by kahei ( 466208 ) on Friday January 05, 2007 @12:55PM (#17475256) Homepage

    This simply underlines the fact that there's a huge workload of easy, routine transactions that need to be done.

    In terms of total complexity, the financial world is probably something like Excel 20%, C# 15%, Java 30%, C++ 30%, other 5%.

    But in terms of transactions, I can well believe it's COBOL 70%, REXX/VB/4GLs 25%, other 5%.

    Modelling a CDO *is* hard, and you don't do it in COBOL. Creating a visual system to monitor liquidity *is* hard and you don't do it in COBOL. 'Transactions' pure and simple are not hard... you can do them in COBOL... they're easy to maintain because changes are of the form 'deduct 5% if broker_country_of_incorporation = finland'... and they're also a darn silly way to measure the relevance of a language.

  • by Lemming Mark ( 849014 ) on Friday January 05, 2007 @12:56PM (#17475276) Homepage
    ...hear my prayer!
  • Why the community? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by butterberg ( 1046750 ) on Friday January 05, 2007 @12:56PM (#17475280)

    should the community spend more time building tools to make COBOL livable
    Yes, Cobol is still around and probably will be for a long time. It has lived on the hardware of financial institutes for 50 years, and this software cannot simply be completely exchanged by an equivalent system written in a modern language.

    But, does this mean that the "community" should help? Why should *I* build such tools, why should *you*? That's the problem of the financial institutes, and they are willing to pay large sums to get their code maintained and modernized in COBOL. And if they want to have a nice development tool, so they have to pay for it (probably indirect by paying a software development enterprise, which creates and then uses such a tool).

  • by CPE1704TKS ( 995414 ) on Friday January 05, 2007 @12:56PM (#17475282)
    Once you guys get jobs in the Real World, you will realize that businesses don't care about technology, they care about solutions.

    No business person in their right mind would rewrite all their COBOL code into C or Java just for the sake of modernization. That would be foolish and stupid, and they would deserve to be fired from their jobs. Everything works, why change it. Financial institutions that have their entire livelihood based on these COBOL programs would rather upgrade their hardware and make THAT modern, but keep their legacy code. They already went through a multi-billion dollar fixing for the Y2K industry, that's more than enough for them. The next problem is either 2038 or 2050, when the Y2K issue is revisited because of how most companies implemented their "fix" (any date > 50 would be considered in the 21st century).

    I was working at a bank during late 90s and during a building-wide Y2K meeting, one of the project managers was explaining to us how they implemented the solution. Someone in the crowd asked "Won't we go through this problem again in 2050?" He answered "Yes, but I'll be dead then, so I don't care."

    That is how business people think... they care about solutions, they don't care about technology. Don't waste your time navel-gazing and trying to figure out brilliant ways of modernization COBOL, because no one who uses it cares. Keep your great ideas for the new ideas where the barrier to implementing new solutions and new technology is much lower.
  • Wordy (Score:2, Insightful)

    by ackthpt ( 218170 ) *

    The problem I had with COBOL, PL/1, Pascal and Modula 2 were they were wordy.

    A lot of typing to perform simple operations. This is why I like C, minimal typing for great power.

    More or less works for Java and later languages, too.

  • When asked about how to improve Pittsburgh, the famous architect had an immediate reply:

    "Abandon it."

    Cross out 'Pittsburgh', replace with 'COBOL', you get the idea.
  • Considering the vast majority of the community hates COBOL with a passion, I think it would be easier to get together a group of people who want to promote (insert your favorite band's name here) latest album.
  • by kiwioddBall ( 646813 ) on Friday January 05, 2007 @01:03PM (#17475408) Homepage
    The reason there is so much legacy code about is because that code has been around for some years, is proven and is bug free.

    The slashdot article assumes that because of this the code may benefit from change. In fact the exact opposite is the case. Change introduces bugs and costs money, so I cannot see this happening.
  • Why? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Kjella ( 173770 ) on Friday January 05, 2007 @01:11PM (#17475520) Homepage
    The antique language accounted for 75% of all business transactions last year, and some 90% of financial transactions. For all the time spent arguing the merits of Ruby vs. C#, should the community spend more time building tools to make COBOL livable? The article goes into what it terms 'legacy modernization', and lays out some details on how to go about it.

    I mean, it's only big (huge!) corporations running big back-ends that use COBOL, why should "the community" bother much with that? I doubt it's anyone's itch to scratch. Customers want to run COBOL because the code has had decades of real-world production use, not because of COBOLs merits. If the same people still ran assembler code, I'd trust that too. Doesn't mean I'd like to give up on modern languages because of it. If I heard the words "legacy modernization", I'd think "don't break what works". Doesn't mean big new developments are made in COBOL, they interface it.

    I'm almost convinced that COBOL will be running on systems a hundred years from now. Any Turing complete language could produce working code to solve anything (or well, as much as any other Turing complete one, anyway). Clearly there's some such code in COBOL, which it makes no sense to reimplement in another language just for the sake of reimplementing it. But I don't see the benefit of trying to revive COBOL development, there are now much better tools for the job. How long has it been since the term "Completely Obsolete Business Oriented Language" was coined? It's dead, Jim. The only tools needed are those to ease its passing.
  • 90% of transactions happen through COBOL? Is this supposed to make me want to programin COBOL?

    Sorry friends, but I have to work on code that matches my passion. Otherwise I would not be able to swing my legs out of bed in the morning and live my life with joy. Some people may be making a living with COBOL but none of the cool kids (myself included) will touch it.
    • by Rastl ( 955935 ) on Friday January 05, 2007 @01:36PM (#17475982) Journal

      Sorry but I had to let that one out. "Code that matches my passion." is priceless.

      When you start looking at a mortgage payment, car payment, grocery bill, doctor bill, etc. you'll realize that you work on something you can do well. Save your passion for your hobbies. Code on the bleeding edge at home.

      Do you honestly expect business to conform to what you want to do instead of what works for them? Answer truly. And if you don't come up with "Heck no!" you need to rethink how it works.

      Sure COBOL may not be for you. Good deal. Don't learn it. But if you're applying for a job and they need LegacySystem 5.7 and you tell them you don't know it, won't learn it, but would consider writing in BleedingEdgeSystem 0.54 you can pretty much figure out what the answer is going to be.

      I've been coding since 1976. Yes, 1976. I've learned many languages. Some I've liked, some I haven't. But if the business needs it I learn it. Sometimes I learn it just because I want to. I missed out on COBOL (don't ask) but may just add it to my list of things I want to investigate.

      I'm not being a troll or at least I'm not trying to be one. Some people will probably read that first exclamation and not go any farther. But sometimes you really do have to wake up and smell yesterday's coffee burning in the pot.

    • by Aardpig ( 622459 )
      I agree, corporate script kiddies like yourself should steer well clear of COBOL.
  • by Animats ( 122034 ) on Friday January 05, 2007 @01:20PM (#17475682) Homepage

    The big advantage COBOL has is that the language is serious about data storage. The language knows about structured files, databases, indices, and formatted fields. COBOL was the first language to have data structures.

    Look at what a mess it is to talk to a database from Perl, Python, Java, or C/C++. There's fussy glue code required, and the language doesn't help you make sure that field XYZ in the database comes out as field XYZ in the program. In COBOL, it's straightforward. The language knows about databases. There's even a good interface to MySQL. []

    It also has some formatting capabilities that HTML should have had. You can write CREDIT-CARD-NUMBER PICTURE 9999-9999-9999-9999. In some systems, that will eventually result in an input field on a green screen that will only accept four fields of all numbers with all digits filled in and will display a blank form field accordingly. HTML FORM fields should have worked that way.

    There are some real advantages to a language where components outside the individual programs can see, check, and use the data declarations.

  • by bishiraver ( 707931 ) on Friday January 05, 2007 @01:21PM (#17475694) Homepage
    One such company, Envyr Corporation [] (makers of iCobol), builds a solid windows-based IDE for COBOL. Their compiler supports many different architectures - AIX on RS/6000, DG/UX on AViiON (though, newer versions aren't supported on this platform), HP-UX on HP Series PA-RISC 1.1, Intel RedHat (above kernel 2.2 for newer releases), SCO (yeah, yeah, I know). They also support the full line of Windows OSes, though older versions like 98, NT and ME only have basic testing performed on them.

    They provide tools for transitioning from older Data General COBOL to newer OSes (Windows, RedHat).

    Interesting thing also, is they provide a cgi platform for COBOL.

    They also provide various APIs for C to interact with the COBOL program you have, services for code migration, etc etc.

    The company is run by several ex-Data General employees, and they really know their stuff.

    Disclaimer: I do not work for Envyr Corp, but I have family that does.

  • by scottsk ( 781208 ) on Friday January 05, 2007 @01:48PM (#17476210) Homepage

    Sorry, but I have to rant: Whoever wrote this has no idea what they're talking about.

    COBOL is the glue language in a stack of application components sold by IBM including CICS (or ISPF), VSAM, DB2, etc. These are quite modern and up-to-date, and run on the mainframes that make the world go around by providing reliability and uptime at load levels beyond the wildest dreams of PC and Linux users. Sure, anyone could learn COBOL basics in a day or two, but you're not going to learn and certainly not going to "modernize" a COBOL program running against a DB2 database. COBOL is a glue language that glues together high-performance relational database access, high-performance presentation-layer management (CICS makes Windows API programming look simple!), etc to process umpty transactions per second, where umpty is a number beyond the reach of most Linux boxes. You're never going to "modernize" this stuff because it's the only thing around that can do what it does at that throughput level. The COBOL part is just a driver among the different components. Even the business logic has been factored out into stored procedures now.

    There is no problem bolting on web access to databases and data warehouses, or stuff like that, but whoever wrote that (imagine that, a consulting group who will come in and modernize everything for you!) has absolutely no idea what COBOL applications are or do. You are most definitely not going to port legacy applications to new platforms that use CICS or ISPF for their presentation layer! Get a clue. And what platform are you going to port your COBOL program to? The mainframe is already the highest end platform of all time - there's nothing with more throughput - I doubt a company would take the notion of porting to MySQL on an Intel box very seriously. The bottom line is people use the IBM application stack because it works, at a performance level where nothing else works.

    Sure, it would be fantastic to have an open source COBOL compiler with a MySQL precompiler so people could learn the language (ever tried to parse COBOL!?). And a Mono COBOL compiler would be fantastic. But no one is going to port their mission-critical business applications from a mainframe to a virtual machine runtime environment. You might use C# or Python to create new apps to access the data in new ways, offline, but you're not going to port mission-critical stuff.

  • RTFA! This is just an ad for Micro Focus.
  • To paraphrase what Charlton says about his rifle.
  • The software engineering research communities have been aware of the problems (decreasing number of developers, hardcoded business rules, required integration with other systems, ...) tied to legacy software systems, and there's still active research going on in these areas.

    <shameless plug>
    In our research group e.g., we're evaluating aspect-orientation (AOP) as a means to both reverse-engineer (understand) and re-engineer (modify) legacy software written in Cobol or C. To this end, we've designed
  • by natoochtoniket ( 763630 ) on Friday January 05, 2007 @03:20PM (#17477904)

    The problem with all of these modernization projects is not the language. It is the mass of old data, and the huge mass of business rules that are implemented by the old code. Reimplementing the business rules in new code, without interrupting the business, is just about impossible. Turns out the easy way is usually to just port the old Cobol code to the new environment.

    The problem is not the language. The problem is the environment. Consider: A lot of that old Cobol code presently runs on Autocoder 790 systems, which are run by emulators on an OS 360 system, which is run by an emulator on a 390 series "mainframe", which is run by an emulator in the old Sun box that gathers dust in the corner of the old data center.

    We really don't need a new language. What we need is something like a Cobol compiler, with an ISAM file-system emulation library, that outputs code for a well defined machine such as a java virtual machine. Then the resulting executables can run on whatever box happens to be handy next year.

    This is either funny or insightful. Maybe both.

  • COBOL+VB (Score:3, Informative)

    by dtfinch ( 661405 ) * on Friday January 05, 2007 @04:25PM (#17479262) Journal
    Some of the scariest shit I've ever seen. The old parts are written in COBOL, a pile of over 4000 scripts with 6 character filenames that work together to form an ERP system. It originally used flat files to store records, with multiple record types in each file. At some point they managed to upgrade to a real database server without significant code changes, which means multiple record types, with completely different fields, in each table. It updates database records using the ever popular "delete and reinsert without any atomicity" method, occasionally (dozens of times) deleting a major customer's records because it crashed while updating them. New parts of the ERP system are written in VB6, and store much of their data in Access databases, despite that there's a perfectly good database server they could use. At one point I wrote a script to monitor one of the Access databases and backup and repair it each time it became corrupted.
  • by dazedNconfuzed ( 154242 ) on Friday January 05, 2007 @05:30PM (#17480592)
    Just to twist knickers, there's Object-oriented COBOL running on the Java Virtual Machine [].
  • You know.... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Shads ( 4567 ) <shadus.shadus@org> on Friday January 05, 2007 @10:46PM (#17484354) Homepage Journal
    ... I can program in C/C++, Pascal/Delphi, Java, VB/Basic, Perl, a bit of Ruby, Python, and several shell scripting languages/applications like sed/awk. I find cobol to be the most obnoxious pain in the ass language I've ever used. I had to take two semesters of it in college and I hate it. I hate it just like I hate RPG. They're underpowered, obnoxious, and annoying to work with. Screw cobol, screw rpg. I'd sooner bag groceries than program in either language.

Research is what I'm doing when I don't know what I'm doing. -- Wernher von Braun