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Ten Great Reasons to Learn COBOL

By Ed Airey | Small Business

December 9, 2013 marked what would have been the 107th birthday of Grace Hopper, an American computer scientist, naval admiral, and the Mother of COBOL. Created in 1959, COBOL is the development language that has withstood the test of time — it still powers 70% of all business transactions today! I challenge you to name another technology that has passed its fiftieth birthday and is still critical in today’s business world. There aren’t many!

To honor this great language, we’ve compiled what we consider to be the top ten reasons to learn COBOL. Check out our list below, and get coding!

1. COBOL is easy!

Learning COBOL isn’t like learning a completely new language: it’s English! It consists of English-like structural components such as verbs, clauses and sentences. Its readability means that you can understand what a program is doing without having to learn a whole new syntax.

To demonstrate how straightforward it is, here is an example of the “Hello world” program in COBOL:

Yes, that really is all you need to write to run this program. Did I hear someone say COBOL is verbose?

2. You can run it anywhere you like

COBOL has been ported to virtually every hardware platform. Programs written in this “write once, run anywhere” language enable businesses to reuse COBOL applications that were written decades ago on new platforms like .NET or JVM. The language itself is portable with data types and structures, which enables developers to write applications that can be ported to new platforms with minimal or no change. COBOL has been able to adapt to change: each new enterprise platform which emerges has had COBOL applications deployed there.

3. It will work tomorrow as well as it does today

Businesses already using COBOL are likely to continue to use COBOL rather than replace it. Replacing COBOL would be expensive – due to its enormous scale, time-consuming and risky, as well as being completely unnecessary. The year 2000 problem demonstrated that COBOL applications are cheaper to fix than applications written in more recent languages.

4. It gets the numbers right!

It is no surprise that the financial sector is underpinned by COBOL systems: banking, insurance, fund management, pension systems, payroll and credit cards, all depend on COBOL. COBOL’s numeric processing functions make it the perfect choice for applications where the tiniest fractional rounding error can make a crucial difference. It delivers arithmetic accuracy to 31 digits, making it the favorable choice for financial software.

5. You can use it with your favorite IDE

There’s no need to worry about learning a new toolset. You can develop COBOL applications using Visual Studio or Eclipse. These IDEs bring together all the great productivity aids you use today, such as IntelliSense and content assist, snippets, UI design tools and more, so coding in COBOL isn’t a chore.

6. You can get to your data fast

While COBOL can process data from a variety of sources, including just about any Relational Database Management System (RDBMS), it also provides direct language support for data files, outperforming database processing by miles. COBOL systems use indexed data files that maintain internal B-tree structures (meaning that speed and efficiency are two important features), providing rapid access to data even when data stores run into terabytes.

7. You don’t need to spend hours on documentation

COBOL is self-documenting. The readability of COBOL code and its rigid hierarchical structure make COBOL easy to read and maintain. When was the last time you read a comment, found that it had no relation to the code and spent the next half hour trying to make sense of the code and the comment? This happens all too frequently as a result of general application maintenance. Code changes, but comments are sometimes forgotten.

With a language that doesn’t need the same level of commenting as others, maintaining someone else’s COBOL code shouldn’t leave you tearing your hair out in frustration.

8. It’s fast!

COBOL has 50 years of optimizations under its belt, so it knows what it’s doing when it comes to data processing. Most COBOL code is also procedural, not object-oriented, so its old-school straight-line performance can give it a real edge over other languages.

9. It integrates with everything

COBOL systems have retained business value by integrating with new technology. For example, COBOL programs can be called by most other computer languages, deployed in Java application servers, provide backend Service-oriented Architecture (SOA) logic, read or write XML directly, or work with Unicode strings. By combining your new-found COBOL skills with systems you know today, you can enhance existing COBOL applications in the web, mobile and Cloud.

10. COBOL is everywhere!

We are surrounded by COBOL: it runs over 70% of the world’s business transactions. On codinghorror.com, Jeff Atwood comments, “the vast majority of us will use COBOL in one form or another as part of our daily existence.” As senior programmers retire, they must be replaced with a new generation of COBOL programmers, or the business world is likely to collapse completely. It makes sense to replenish the supply of COBOL programmers by training new ones.

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