This content is part of the Essential Guide: Guide to app portfolio management and legacy modernization

COBOL (Common Business Oriented Language)

Contributor(s): Trea Lavery

COBOL (Common Business-Oriented Language) is a high-level programming language for business applications. It was the first popular languaged designed to be operating system agnostic and is still in use in many financial and business applications today.

COBOL was designed for finance, human resources and other business computer programs. Unlike some high-level computer programming languages, COBOL uses English words and phrases to make it easier for ordinary business users to understand. The language was based on Rear Admiral Grace Hopper's 1940s work on the FLOW-MATIC programming language, which was also largely text-based.  Hopper, who worked as a technical consultant on the FLOW-MATIC project, is sometimes referred to as the "grandmother of COBOL."

Before COBOL, all operating systems had their own associated programming languages. This was a problem for companies that used multiple brands of computers, as was the case with the United States Department of Defense, which backed the COBOL project. Because of its ease of use and portability, COBOL quickly became one of the most used programming languages in the world. Although the language is widely viewed as outdated, more lines of code in active use today are written in COBOL than any other programming language.

Cobol market today

In years immediately preceding the year 2000, COBOL skills were in high demand to prepare legacy code for Y2K. It is still commonly used at financial institutions, such as banks, and by applications used in government agencies. However, the number of programmers with COBOL experience is steadily decreasing, as those who learned COBOL while it was popular are entering retirement age. Suprisingly, COBOL is once again being taught in some universities -- this time to support application modernization and the DevOps movement.

While many organizations do still use the language, the lack of skills and burdensome text-based code is beginning to be replaced or integrated with more modern coding languages, such as Java, .NET, and C++. However, this can be a complicated and costly process, as these programs are often run on legacy mainframes that are difficult to replace, and because of the sheer amount of code still in use. After the turn of the century, the demand for COBOL programmers was not as great and many schools stopped teaching the language. 

This was last updated in May 2017

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COBOL, File Management and easy to write features awesome! Readability is just like English language had great time working with the language!
Do you think COBOL is outdated, or is it still useful?
I think COBOL is outdated because Java is easy to write any kind of program for any programmer.
Very useful.
I haven't written COBOL since college back in 1982. It may just be the companies I have worked for but I have seen very little of it in the field.
For batch business processing there is no better language. Java is lousy for batch biz processing.
As it is a simple language and every one understand, then it is useful.


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