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Out With the Old, in With the Old

Posted February 07, 2022 in News

Written by Jason Kelley, Xpanxion Technical Writer

Old fashioned computer

The good old days

In the earliest days of computing, 1959, when the future of computers was far from certain, and the viability of home computers was considered by most to be an impossibility, the first computer programming languages were being devised. Even before BASIC was written, early computers programs used languages like LISP, FORTRAN, and COBOL, specialized to handle certain computer needs. Modern languages have the benefit of time to determine what works and what doesn’t, which is why it might come as a surprise that many of the old programming languages are still in use today. Did they get lucky and create the perfect language before anyone even knew what computers would become?

According to a report by Reuters, COBOL in particular still accounts for 80% of in person transactions, 95% if ATM card swipes, and 43% of banking systems are still use mainframes running COBOL code. The language has been in steady decline since the 1980’s but the last decade has seen a sharp uptick in its popularity among programmers. Today there are 220 billion lines of COBOL code still in use. So, what is COBOL, and what’s keeping it out of the dustbin of history where so many legacy languages are relegated.

Survival of the fittest?

COBOL is an acronym that stands for Common Business-Oriented Language. Now we begin to see why it may have survived for so long. Market forces are a powerful director of what form computer hardware and software will take in the future. But the reason COBOL is still around, isn’t because it is superior to modern day languages. In many cases its quite the opposite. In the early days, as computer technology evolved, major industries began to adopt the best systems that were available on the time. As better languages were developed to handle the needs of the day, these industries had become too reliant on their mainframes running on legacy languages that worked well enough for their purposes.

Today some of those industries include:
  • Healthcare: 60 million patients
  • Banking: 95% ATM transactions
  • Travel: 96% of the bookings
  • Social security: 60 million lines of code
  • Point of sale: 80% of all transactions daily
  • IRS: 50 million lines of code

The future of languages past

COBOL itself has changed with the times, becoming object oriented in 2002, but even with its mostly successful attempts at modernity, these industries face a different problem. A modern COBOL programmer is hard to find. Even though there are applications for the language in the modern job market, it has been hard, until recently, for a student wanting to find a course on COBOL. That is if they are even interested in learning. The downward trend of the use of the language in the 80’s and 90’s had turned off many potential acolytes. The experienced COBOL programmers live in a sellers’ market, so they are either happy at the job they have, or they can cost a company quite a bit of money to hire. Today only about 15% of COBOL programmers are under the age of 35, and around 60% are over the age of 45. Even now, companies are having to entice some programmers out of retirement to fill some positions. That problem was only likely to grow as that curve moved the experienced programmers into retirement age.

That problem has two solutions. Train more programmers or migrate the legacy software to a more popular language that fulfills the same needs. The increase in the popularity of COBOL over the last decade shows that certain industries and educational institutions are willing to put in the time and money to create training programs to ensure that their legacy mainframes are taken care of in the future. Others find that its worth the effort to rewrite their mainframe code to a contemporary language so that they are more compatible with the cloud and other technologies of the future.

A modern student can find the resources to learn any language they want to learn with the help of the internet and programs like UST/Xpanxion’s Step IT Up. Through this program, people eager to fill much needed roles like COBOL mainframe engineers and other important IT positions can learn and gain work experience even if they don’t have a prior IT background. And beyond that, a company that has decided they’ve had enough of the old ways, can also migrate their mainframes to the cloud or get help from the professionals at Xpanxion.


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