Bringing COBOL to the Modern World


COBOL is powering most of the critical infrastructure that involves any kind of monetary transaction. In this special interview conducted during the recent Open Mainframe Summit, we talked about the relevance of COBOL today and the role of the new COBOL working group that was announced at the summit. Joining us were Cameron Seay, Adjunct Professor at East Carolina University and Derek Britton of the Application Modernizing Group at Micro Focus. Micro Focus recently joined the Open Mainframe Project and is now also involved with the working group.

Here is an edited version of the discussion:

Swapnil Bhartiya: First of all, Cam and Derek, welcome to the show. If you look at COBOL, it’s very old technology. Who is still using COBOL today? Cam, I would like to hear your insight first.

Cameron Seay: Every large commercial bank I know of uses COBOL. Every large insurance company, every large federal agency, every large retailer uses COBOL to some degree, and it processes a large percentage of the world’s financial transactions. For example, if you go to Walmart and you make a sale, that transaction is probably recorded using a COBOL program. So, it’s used a lot, a large percentage of the global business is still done in COBOL.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Micro Focus is I think one of the few companies that offer support around COBOL. Derek, please tell people the importance of COBOL in today’s modern world.

Derek Britton: Well, if we go back in time, there weren’t that many choices on the market. If you wanted robust technology to build your business systems, COBOL was one of the very few choices and so it’s surprising when there are so many choices around today and yet, many of the world’s largest industries, largest organizations still rely on COBOL. If COBOL wasn’t being used, so many of those systems that people trust and rely on — whether you’re moving money around, whether you’re running someone’s payroll, whether you’re getting insurance quotation, shipping a parcel, booking a holiday. All of these things are happening with COVID at the backend and the value you’re getting from that is not just that it’s carried on, but it runs with the same results again and again and again, without fail.

The importance of COBOL is not just its pervasiveness, which I think is significant and perhaps not that well understood, but also it’s reliability. And because it’s welded very closely to the mainframe environments and to CICS and some other core elements of the mainframe and other platforms as well. It uses and trusts a lot of technology that is unrivaled in terms of its reliability, scalability and its performance. That’s why it remains so important to the global economy and to so many industries. It does what it needs to do, which is business processing, so fantastically well.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Excellent, thanks for talking about that. Now, you guys recently joined the project and the foundation as well, so talk about why you joined the Open Mainframe Project and what are the projects that you will be involved with, of course. I know you’re involved with the working group, but talk about your involvement with the project.

Derek Britton: Well, our initial interest with the Open Mainframe Project goes back a couple of years. We’re longtime proponents of the mainframe platform, of course, here at Micro Focus. We’ve had a range of technologies that run on z/OS. But our interest in the wider mainframe community—and that would be the Open Mainframe Project—probably comes as a result of the time we’ve spent with the SHARE community and other IBM-sponsored communities, where the discussion was about the best way to embrace this trusted technology in the digital era. This is becoming a very topical conversation and that’s also true for COBOL, which I’m sure we’ll come back to.

Our interest in the OMP has been going on for the last couple of years and we were finally able to reach an agreement between both organizations to join the group this year, specifically because of a number of initiatives that we have going on at Micro Focus and that a number of our customers have talked to us about specifically in the area of mainframe DevOps. As vital as the mainframe platform is, there’s a growing desire to use it to deliver greater and greater value to the business, which typically means trying to accelerate delivery cycles and get more done.

Of course, now the mainframe is so inextricably connected with other parts of the IT ecosystem that those points of connection and the number of moving parts have to be handled, integrated with, and managed as part of a delivery process. It’s an important part of our customers’ roadmap and, therefore, our roadmap to ensure that they get the very best of technology in the mainframe world. Whether it’s tried-and-trusted technology, whether it’s new emerging vendor technology, or whether in many cases, it becomes open source technology. We wanted to play our part in those kinds of projects and a number of initiatives around.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Is there an increase in interest in COBOL that we are seeing there now that there is a dedicated working group? And if you can also talk a bit about what will be the role of this group.

Cameron Seay: If your question was, is there an increased interest in working in COBOL because of the working group, the working group actually came as a result of a renewed interest in the written new discovery in COBOL. The governor of New Jersey made a comment that their unemployment was not able to be processed because of COBOL’s obsolescence, or inefficiency, or inadequacy to some degree. And that sparked quite a furor in the mainframe world because it wasn’t COBOL at all. COBOL had nothing to do with the inability of New Jersey to deliver the unemployment checks. Further, we’re aware that New Jersey is just typical of every state. Every state that I know of—there may be some exceptions I’m not aware of, I know it’s certainly true for California and New York—is dependent upon COBOL to process their day-to-day business applications.

So, then Derek and some other people inside the OMP got together and started having some conversations, myself included, and said “We maybe need to form a COBOL working group to renew this interest in COBOL and establish the facts around COBOL.” So that’s kind of what the working group is trying to do, and we’re trying to increase that familiarity, visibility and interest in COBOL.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Derek, I want to bring the same question to you also. Is there any particular reason that we are seeing an increase in interest in COBOL and what is that reason?

Derek Britton: Yeah, that’s a great question and I think there are a few reasons. First of all, I think a really important milestone for COBOL was actually last year when it turned 60 years old. I think one of your earlier questions is related to COBOL’s age being 60. Of course, COBOL isn’t a 60-year-old language but the idea is 60 years old, for sure. If you drive a 2020 motor car, you’re driving a 2020 motor car, you’re not driving a hundred-year-old idea. No one thinks a modern telephone is an old idea, either. It’s not old technology, sorry.
The idea might’ve been from a long time ago, but the technology has advanced, and the same thing is true in code. But when we celebrated COBOL’s 60th anniversary last year—a few of the vendors did and a number of organizations did, too—there was an outpouring of interest in the technology. A lot of times, COBOL just quietly goes about its business of running the world’s economy without any fuss. Like I said, it’s very, very reliable and it never really breaks. So, it was never anything to talk about. People were sort of pleasantly surprised, I think, to learn of its age, to learn of the age of the idea. Now, of course, Micro Focus and IBM and some of the other vendors continue to update and adapt COBOL so that it continues to evolve and be relevant today.

It’s actually a 2020 technology rather than a 1960 one, but that was the first one. Secondly, the pandemic caused a lot of businesses to have to change how they process core systems and how they interact with their customers. That put extra strain on certain organizations or certain government agencies and, in a couple of cases, COBOL was incorrectly made the scapegoat for some of the challenges that those organizations face, whether it was a skills issue or whether it was a technology issue. Under the cover, COBOL was working just fine. So the interest has been positive regarding the anniversary, but I think the reports have been inaccurate and perhaps a little unkind about COBOL. Those were the two reasons they came together.

I remember when I first spoke to Cam and to some of the other people on the working group, you said it was a very good idea once and for all that we told the truth about COBOL, that the industry finally understood how viable it is, how valuable it is, based on the facts behind COBOL’s usage. So one of the things we’re going to do is try to quantify and qualify as best we can, how widely COBOL is used, what do you use it for, who is using, and then present a more factual story about the technology so people can make a more informed decision about technical strategy. Rather than base it on hearsay or some reputation about something being a bit rusty and out-of-date, which is probably the reputation that’s being espoused by someone who would have you replace it with something else, and their motivation might be for different reasons. There’s nothing wrong with COBOL and it’s very, very viable and our job I think really is to tell that truth and make sure people understand it,

Swapnil Bhartiya: What other projects, efforts, or initiatives are going on there at the Linux Foundation or Open Mainframe Project around COBOL? Can you talk about that?

Cameron Seay: Well, certainly. There is currently a course being developed by folks in the community who have developed an online course in COBOL. It’s the rudiments of it. It’s for novices, but it’s great for a continuing education program. So, that’s one of the things going on around COBOL. Another thing is there’s a lot going on in mainframe development in the OMP now. There’s an application framework that has been developed called Zoe that will allow you to develop applications for z/OS. It’s interesting that the focus of the Open Mainframe Project when it first began was Linux on the mainframe, but actually the first real project that came out of it was a z/OS-based product, Zoe, and so we’re interested in that, too. Those are just a couple of peripheral projects that the COBOL working group is going to work with.

There are other things we want to do from a curriculum standpoint down the road, but fundamentally, we just want to be a fact-finding, fact-gathering operation first, and Derek Britton has been taking leadership and putting together a substantial reference list so that we can get the facts about COBOL. Then, we’re going to do other things, but that we want to get that right first.

Swapnil Bhartiya: So there are as you mentioned a couple of projects. Is there any overlap between these projects or how different they are? Do they all serve a different purpose? It looks like when you’re explaining the goal and role of the working group, it sounds like it’s also the training or education group with the same kind of activities. Let me rephrase it properly: what are some of the pressing needs you see for the COBOL community, how are these efforts/groups are trying to help them, and how are they not overlapping or stepping on each other’s toes?

Cameron Seay: That’s an ongoing thing. Susharshna and I really work hard to make sure that we’re not working at either across purposes or there’s duplication of effort. We’re kind of clear about our roles. For the world at large, for the public at large, the working group—and Derek may have a different view on this because we all don’t think alike, we all don’t see this thing exactly the same—but I see it as information first. We want people to get accurate current information about COBOL.

Then, we want to provide some vehicle that COBOL can be reintroduced back into the general academic curriculum because it used to be. I studied COBOL at a four-year university. Most people did when they took programming in the ’80s and the ’90s, they took COBOL, but that’s not true anymore. Our COBOL course at East Carolina this semester is the only COBOL course in the entire USC system. That’s got to change. So information, exposure, accurate information exposure, and some kind of return to the general curriculum, those are the three things that we we can provide to the community at large.

Swapnil Bhartiya: If you look at Micro Focus, you are working in the industry, you are actually solving the problem for your customers. What role do these groups or other efforts that are going on there play for the whole ecosystem?

Derek Britton: Well, I think if we go back to Cam’s answer, I think he’s absolutely right that the industry, if you project forward another generation in 25 years’ time who are going to be managing these core business systems that currently still need to run the world’s largest organizations. I know we’re in a digital era and I know that things are changing at an unprecedented pace, but most of the world’s largest organizations, successful organizations still want to be in those positions in generations to come. So who is it? Who are those practitioners that are coming through the education system right now, who are going to be leaders in those organizations’ IT departments in the future?

And there is a concern not just for COBOL, but actually, many IT skills across the board. Is there going to be enough talent to actually run the organizations of the future? And that’s true, it’s a true question mark about COBOL. So Micro Focus, which has its own academic initiative and its own training program as does IBM as do many of the other vendors, we all applaud the work of all community groups. The OMP is obviously a fabulous example because it is genuinely an open group. Genuinely, it’s a meritocracy of people with good ideas coming together to try to do the right thing. We applaud the efforts to ensure that there continues to be enough supply of talented IT professionals in the future to meet the growing and growing demand. IT is not going away. It’s going to become strategically more and more important to these organizations.

Our part to play in Micro Focus is really to work shoulder-to-shoulder with organizations like the OMP because between us, we will create enough groundswell of training and opportunity for that next generation. Many people will tell you there just isn’t enough of that training going on and there aren’t enough of those opportunities available, even though one survey that Micro Focus ran last year on the back of the COBOL’s 60th anniversary suggests that around 92% of all application owners of COBOL systems confirmed that those applications remain strategic to their organization. So, if the applications are not going anywhere, who’s going to be looking after them in the next generation? And that’s the real challenge that I think the industry faces as a whole, which is why Micro Focus is so committed to get behind the wheel of making sure that we can make a difference.

Swapnil Bhartiya: We discussed that the interest in COBOL is increasing as COBOL is playing a very critical role in the modern economy. What kind of future do you see for COBOL and where do you see it going? I mean, it’s been around for 60 years, so it knows how to survive through times. Still, where do you see it go? Cam, I would love to start with you.

Cameron Seay: Yeah, absolutely. We are trying to estimate how much COBOL is actually in use. That estimate is running into hundreds of billions of lines of code. I know that, for example, Bank of America admits to at least 50 million lines of COBOL code. That’s a lot of COBOL, and you’re not going to replace it over time, there’s no reason to. So the solution to this problem, and this is what we’re going to do, is we’re going to figure out a way to teach people COBOL. It’s not a complex language to learn. Any organization that sees lack of COBOL skills as an impediment and justification to move to another platform is [employing] a ridiculous solution, that solution is not feasible. If they try to do that, they’re going to fail because there’s too much risk and, most of all, too much expense.

So, we’re going to figure out a way to begin to teach people COBOL again. I do it, a COBOL class at East Carolina. That is a solution to this problem because the code’s not going anywhere nor is there a reason for it to go anywhere, it works! It’s a simple language, it’s as fast as it needs to be, it’s as secure as it needs to be, and no one that I’ve talked to, computer scientists all over the world, no one can give me any application, that any language is going to work better than COBOL. There may be some that work as good or nearly as good, but you’re going to have to migrate them, but there’s nothing, there’s no improvement that you can make on these applications from a performance standpoint and from a security standpoint. The applications are going to stay where they are, and we’re just going to have to teach people COBOL. That’s the solution, that’s what’s going to happen. How and when, I don’t know, but that’s what’s going to happen.

Swapnil Bhartiya: If you look at the crisis that we were going through, almost everything, every business is moving online to the cloud. All those transactions that people are already doing in person are all moving online, so it has become critical. From your perspective, what kind of future do you see?

Derek Britton: Well, that’s a great question because the world is a very, very different place to how architecture was designed however long ago. Companies of today are not using that architecture. So there is some question mark there about what’s COBOL’s future. I agree with Cam. Anyone that has COBOL is not necessarily going to be able to throw that away anytime soon because, frankly, it might be difficult. It might be easy, but that’s not really the question, is it? Is it a good business decision? The answer is it’s a terrible business decision to throw it away.

In addition to that, I would contend that there are a number of modern-day digital use cases where actually the usage of COBOL is going to increase rather than decrease. We see this all the time with our larger organizations who are using it for pretty much the whole of the backend of their core business. So, whether it’s a banking organization or an insurer or a logistics company, what they’re trying to do obviously is find new and exciting business opportunities.

But, upon which they will be basing their core business systems that already run most of the business today, and then trying to use that to adapt, to enhance, to innovate. There are insurers who are selling the insurance quotation system to other smaller insurances as a service. Now, of course, their insurance quotation system is probably the version that isn’t quite as quick as the one that runs on their mainframe, but they’re making that available as a service to other organizations. Banking organizations are doing much the same thing with a range of banking services, maybe payment systems. These are all services that can be provided to other organizations.

The same is true in the ISB market where really, really robust COBOL-based financial services, packages, ERP systems, which are COBOL based, and they have been made available as cloud-based as-a-service packages or upon other platforms to meet new market needs. The thing about COBOL that few people understand is not only is it easy to learn, but it’s easy to move to somewhere else. So, if your client is now running Linux and it says, “Well, now I want it to run these core COBOL business systems there, too.” Well, maybe they’ve taken a move to AIX to a Power system, but the same COBOL system can be reused, replicated as necessary, which is a little known secret about the language.

This goes back to the original design, of course. Back in the day, there was no such thing as the “standard platform” in 1960. There wasn’t a single platform that you could reasonably rely on that would give you a decent answer, not very quickly anyway. So, in order for us to know that COBOL works, we have to have the same results compiled about running on different machines. It needs to be the same result running at the same speed, and from that point, that’s when the portability of the system came to life. That’s what they set out to do, built that way by design.

Swapnil Bhartiya: Cam, Derek, thank you so much for taking the time out today to talk about COBOL, how important it is in today’s world. I’m pretty sure that when we spend our whole day, some of the activities that we have done online touch COBOL or are powered by COBOL.