COBOL (Common Business Oriented Language)

This definition is part of our Essential Guide: Guide to app portfolio management and legacy modernization
Contributor(s): Sybren Brouwer and Reg Harbeck

COBOL (Common Business Oriented Language) was the first widely-used high-level programming language for business applications.

While the language has been updated over the years, COBOL programs are generally viewed as being outdated. Today, however, a majority of payroll, accounting and other business application programs still use COBOL despite the growing popularity of more modern programming languages such as Java, C++ and .NET. In fact, there are more existing lines of programming code still in use written in COBOL than in any other programming language.

COBOL evolved from the pioneering work of Rear Admiral Grace Hopper in the 1940's. Hopper felt it was important to have a programming language that resembled natural English -- one that would be easy to write and easy to read. In years immediately preceding the year 2000, many COBOL programs required change to accommodate the new century and programmers with COBOL skills were in high demand to prepare legacy code for Y2K.

After the turn of the century, the demand for COBOL programmers was not as great and many schools stopped teaching the language. To many people's surprise, COBOL is once again being taught in universities -- this time to support the DevOps movement which requires employees to have both development and system operation skills.


This was last updated in October 2014

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