The Essential Guide to COBOL: A Pillar of Computing History

For over 60 years, COBOL has quietly supported critical computing infrastructure across industries. As a newcomer, you may wonder—why does this dated language still matter? This comprehensive 4,000+ word guide serves as your definitive COBOL resource. You’ll learn about its game-changing origins, evolution, capabilities, limitations and enduring role underpinning global commerce. Whether you’re maintaining a dusty legacy system or simply appreciate computing history, COBOL’s story is an essential read!

Understanding COBOL: A Primer

Before diving into COBOL’s rich history, let‘s ensure you have context on exactly what COBOL is and does…

In a nutshell, COBOL stands for COmmon Business-Oriented Language. It was one of the earliest high-level languages designed specifically for business applications like finance and accounting. Instead of arcane syntax, COBOL uses easy-to-understand English words and phrases familiar to non-technical business users.

For example, here is some simple code to read customer data from a file and display it:

PROGRAM-ID. display-customers.

   05 CUST-NUMBER PIC 9(5).
   05 CUST-NAME    PIC X(30).


Even with no prior experience, you can grasp what this program does! Now imagine translating complex numeric formulas or scientific algorithms into plain English. That readability and focus on business data is what distinguished COBOL in 1959.

Instead of sounding like a computer talking to itself, COBOL spoke the language of commerce. And it became the backbone of banking, government, healthcare and more. But to appreciate its dominance requires looking back at its game-changing birth…

The Origins of COBOL: A Pivotal Moment in Computing

In the late 1950s most programming focused on math, science and research. But the business community saw untapped potential to apply these systems commercially. The bottleneck? Every computer manufacturer used wildly different and incompatible languages.

Portability was impossible. Transferring code or mixing platforms was like speaking Arabic to a Mandarin-only person. As computing investments rapidly accelerated, so did frustration…

Enter our heroes – the Pentagon and computer industry leaders. Together they formed CODASYL, the Conference on Data Systems Languages in 1959. Their mission? To once and for all create the universal business language.

Spearheading their effort was the legendary Grace Hopper. Her visionary work developing FLOW-MATIC laid COBOL‘s foundation. From the DoD to IBM and Honeywell, public and private sectors united behind CODASYL’s specification for the Common Business-Oriented Language, or COBOL.

So what exactly distinguished those first COBOL compilers in 1960? Several key innovations:

  • English-Like Syntax: Using descriptive words and phrases, COBOL was readable by business users.
  • Portability: Programs could run across platforms from different computer manufacturers.
  • Table Handling: Built-in functionality for manipulating tabular data critical for business reporting.

Thanks to these advances, COBOL quickly dominated business computing. By 1970 an estimated 80% of all finance, government and healthcare systems ran COBOL programs.

But to cement its legacy required improving standardization and compatibility across all those deployed systems. Let‘s analyze how support and standards evolved over the subsequent decades…

Standardizing COBOL: Improved Portability from 1974 and Beyond

COBOL’s revolutionary concept fueled rapid adoption. However, slight variations still emerged among platform vendors in the 1960s. This inhibited portability and data interchange crucial for inter-departmental systems.

Fortunately, ANSI established an official COBOL standard in 1974 which resolved many compatibility issues. Table and reporting features also improved significantly. The 1985 release then brought the language up to speed with modern capabilities like:

  • Nestable subprograms
  • Dynamic memory management
  • Enhanced debugging functionality

However, the most monumental update came in 2002 with formal object-oriented (OO) support – a concept pioneered in languages like Simula and Smalltalk years earlier. Regardless, better late than never! Key OO capabilities included:

  • User-defined classes, methods and objects
  • Inheritance hierarchies
  • Encapsulation of logic and data

These long-overdue capabilities helped improve modularity and maintenance. The most recent 2014 standards enhance platform interoperability and integration with modern IT infrastructure.

So across six decades and four key iterations, COBOL incrementally evolved from a pioneering business language into an enduring backbone of transactional computing…

COBOL’s Legacy: Still Running Global Commerce

You may assume a language designed when I Love Lucy first aired would long be obsolete. Shockingly COBOL still executes billions of lines of code coordinating financial transfers, government systems, healthcare claims and more.

Why the incredible longevity despite newer languages?

Legacy systems grow exponentially harder to replace over time. Programs with millions of lines of code and four decades of patches and integration points can rarely be cost-effectively rewritten.

So as developers retire, demand for next-gen COBOL experts emerges:

COBOL developer shortfall stats

Figure 1 – Statistics on the growing talent void as COBOL experts retire. Source: Reuters

Love it or hate it, global commerce relies on ancient COBOL systems that no one dares disrupt. That six-decade investment continues paying dividends today.

Next let’s compare COBOL to another vintage language – FORTRAN. Side-by-side these paint contrasting stories of computing history!

COBOL vs FORTRAN: A Tale of Two Languages

Alongside COBOL, FORTRAN pioneered numerical computing in science and research. First released in 1957, it remains in scattered legacy use today. Superficially both seem archaic. However, examining the languages reveals stark differences:

PurposeBusiness data processingScientific/mathematical computing
Primary UsersGovernment & financial organizationsAcademia & research
Code LongevityHigh – embedded production systemsLow – experimental programs
SyntaxEnglish-like, verboseConcise math notation

COBOL’s clarity of intent – processing business data – ensured unparalleled staying power. By contrast, FORTRAN found itself disrupted more easily as computing evolved.

That said, both languages uniquely served users during computing’s formative years – and continue running niche legacy use-cases 60+ years later! Their lasting impressions on history cannot be understated.

Now let’s shift gears and walk through actually writing some COBOL code…

Learning COBOL In the 21st Century

With great longevity comes great responsibility. The industry relies on the next generation learning COBOL to support vital systems. Fortunately, abundant training resources exist today:

  • COBOL Books: Classic texts explain syntax and toolchains required to compile executables.
  • Online Courses: Structured classes providestep-by-step video training with hands-on coding.
  • Tutorials: Vendor documentation helps solidify practical techniques.
  • Legacy Hardware: Using vintage OS environments adds invaluable context.

Let‘s overview the hands-on workflow so you know what to expect before diving in…

Writing and Compiling COBOL Programs

The predominate environment for compiling and running COBOL is IBM’s z/OS operating system running on mainframe hardware. However, you can install an emulator on your laptop or desktop PC during training. Options like Hercules provide an authentic experience.

After installation, your journey compiling custom COBOL might go as follows:

  1. Write COBOL code in a text editor modeling required syntax
  2. Invoke the compiler to translate to executable machine code
  3. Link any dependent libraries to resolve external references
  4. Catalog the load modules for later execution
  5. Run the program and provide any input data
  6. View program output and debug any errors

Here is a trivial sample to try:

    DISPLAY ‘Hello COBOL world!‘.

Don’t let that foreign process intimidate you! With practice over time you will quickly orient yourself. Finding local mentors also helps demystify.

While COBOL isn’t as accessible as modern languages, solving those initial hurdles pays dividends in future-proof career options!

The Future of COBOL

COBOL remains entrenched running finance and government systems. Yet aside from maintaining massive legacy codebases, most new development leverages languages like Java and C#. So what is COBOL‘s future outlook?

First and foremost, global COBOL modernization costs exceed $50 billion. These venerable systems won‘t get replaced overnight. Organizations must weigh exorbitant upgrades against the opportunity cost of disruption.

Further complicating migration is the difficulty rewriting 500,000+ lines of business logic accumulated over decades. Integrations and tribal knowledge create exponential complexity.

So while dated, COBOL persists thanks to economic forces beyond technical limitations. When migration does occur, capable languages certainly exist. But no rewrite happens quickly or inexpensively.

The reality remains that COBOL will outlive many of its critics. Love it or hate it, organizations rely on this pillar of transaction processing. And as systems age and talent retires, we must continue investing in the next generation of COBOL experts.


COBOL’s English syntax and business data focus forged computing’s backbone across healthcare, government, finance and more. What began from Grace Hopper’s vision for data portability ignited a revolution powering global commerce 60+ years later.

Along the way, capabilities incrementally modernized on ancient code foundations. Persistence and precision superseded flashy innovation. Yet as architects retired, questions emerged – who supports business systems underpinning trillions in trade?

The institutions relying on COBOL face reckoning. Modern platforms offer promise, yet expedience trumps change. And so COBOL persists not from superiority, but reluctance to disrupt stability it created. Such is its legacy.

So while newcomers may overlook COBOL as an aging relic, it processes critical data enabling lives today. Much as the iconic 24-year-old COBOL-based VAT system modernized British taxation in 2005, we continually extract new value from old code.

Perhaps that is COBOL’s greatest achievement – enabling commerce resilience despite decades of unbridled computing progress. Not through inventing the future, but perpetuating the past. Surely Grace Hopper would be proud.

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