Brain drain: Where Cobol systems go from here

When the last Cobol programmers walk out the door, 50 years of business processes encapsulated in the software they created may follow.

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Cobol's image problem

A procedural language, Cobol is not perceived to be as agile as object-oriented languages for modern programming needs such as mobile apps and the Web. And despite the availability of state-of-the-art Cobol development environments -- including IBM's Enterprise Cobol on the mainframe and Micro Focus's Visual Cobol, which integrates well with Microsoft's Visual Studio development suite for .Net -- Cobol is widely viewed as a legacy language.

Nearly half (49%) of the respondents to our survey whose organizations don't use Cobol said the reason is that the language is simply outdated.

Not everyone agrees, of course. "Cobol has had lasting value, and it's not broken," says Kevin Stoodley, an IBM fellow and CTO of enterprise modernization tools, compilers and security at IBM.

A majority of the Computerworld readers who took part in our survey seem to concur with Stoodley: 64% of the respondents said that their organizations still use Cobol -- more than any modern language except for Java/JavaScript and Visual Basic. That figure is actually slightly higher than the response rate to a similar question the last time we conducted a survey on Cobol use, back in 2006: In the previous survey, some 62% of the respondents said they still used Cobol.

To what extent do your organization or systems use these programming languages?

Language nameA lot A littleNone
Cobol 48% 16% 37%
JavaScript 41%41%19%
Java39%40% 22%
C#26% 25% 50%
VB.net25% 38% 38%
Visual Basic22% 49% 30%

Base: 202 IT professionals.

Percentages may not add up to 100 because of rounding.

In the more recent survey, over 50% of the respondents said that Cobol represents more than half of all internal business application code.

"There has been no renaissance for Cobol," says Accenture's Burden. "There's not a whole lot of new development going on. But our clients are enhancing their core applications and continue to maintain them." Indeed, 53% of the respondents said that they're still building at least some new business applications in Cobol. The vast majority of that code is still being written for mainframes.

But the fact is that many IT organizations don't have much choice but to continue using Cobol. Migrating large-scale systems built in Cobol is costly and risky. "They might want something more flexible, but they just can't do it. They're captive to Cobol," Burden says.

The down economy has helped put off the inevitable, says Compuware's Vallely. "Economic issues provided everyone with a hall pass because not as many folks were looking to retire," he says. But as the economy improves, retirement plans may pick up too. "Organizations are trying to be more proactive," he adds.

"No other language has seen as big an impact from changes in the demographics of the workforce as has Cobol," Vecchio says. Going forward it will become more difficult to maintain a Cobol portfolio.

"The inflection point will come when enough Cobol programmers have retired that an organization can no longer tolerate the risk," he says. At that point, most of those programs will migrate -- but not all.

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