'Stopgap' programming language, COBOL, turns 60

By Natasha Doyle
Wednesday, 18 September, 2019

'Stopgap' programming language, COBOL, turns 60

Computer language COBOL is celebrating its 60th year supporting vital business and government systems.

Once considered a stopgap for data processing, COBOL has worked its way into the hearts of ATMs, credit card services and other business, finance and administrative systems around the world. As of 2013, software provider Micro Focus estimated the language had over 200 billion lines of code in operation and helped facilitate more than 30 billion transactions per day.

In the late 1950s, installing a data processing program cost around US$800,000 on average and translating programs to run on new computers took US$600,000, according to ‘Everything Explained Today’. However, a survey showed that a common business language could make the process faster and cheaper.

As a result, COBOL was born. In 1959, a group of computer manufacturers, users and academics — called CODASYL — sought to develop a language that was problem oriented, used word-based commands, focused on ease of use rather than power or performance and would be compatible across a wide variety of machines with little modification, Nathan L Ensmenger explained in his book, The Computer Boys Take Over: Computers, Programmers, and the Politics of Technical Expertise.

The project — backed by the US Department of Defence — attracted Remington Rand UNIVAC representative and FLOW-MATIC inventor Grace Hopper; computer scientist Jean Sammet, who later developed IBM’s Formula Manipulation Compiler (FORMAC) and was in CODASYL on behalf of Sylvania Electric Products; as well as other representatives from the likes of Burroughs, GE, Honeywell, Phillips, IBM, RCA, the US Air Force, the Navy’s David Taylor Model Basin and the National Bureau of Standards.

As the first English word-based programming language, FLOW-MATIC formed the basis for COBOL. In fact, in a 1980 interview, Hopper said COBOL was “95% FLOW-MATIC”, with only a small influence from IBM’s Commercial Translator (COMTRAN).

In 1960, Remington Rand UNIVAC and RCA developed COBOL compilers and demonstrated cross-platform compatibility, with the program running successfully on both manufacturers’ machines. Soon after, the US Department of Defence forced manufacturers to provide COBOL unless they could prove it wouldn’t improve the machines’ capabilities and COBOL was on its way to becoming an industry standard, Ensmenger explained.

According to ‘Everything Explained Today’ COBOL has been reviewed four times since it was standardised in 1968, with the current standard being ISO/IEC 1989:2014. It has also expanded to support structured and oriented programming.

Micro Focus Senior Vice President, Application Modernisation and Connectivity, Chris Livesey said despite the language’s age, it has evolved and is “fully equipped to meet today’s and tomorrow’s business needs”.

“Modernising trusted COBOL systems is a proven path to success, which is why COBOL is and will remain to be the bedrock of digital transformation.”

Micro Focus Global Director of Product Marketing, Application Modernisation and Connectivity, Derek Britton added that COBOL applications are “continuing to be enhanced and extended”, while the language “remains readable enough for anyone to learn and maintain it”.

“COBOL continues to modernise — it is a language that was designed to stand the test of time, with six decades of heritage, billions of lines of value and scores of practitioners using it to this very day,” Britton said.

Image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/AliFuat

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