Ask the Experts: What’s the deal with COBOL?

by | Aug 31, 2023

AI may offer a way to refactor, transform & validate COBOL code. We asked the experts what it means for business.

The following is an interview with David Silvetti, Robert Schattke, and Don Spoerke, edited for brevity and clarity. 

What’s the importance of COBOL today?

Most of the world’s business applications are written in COBOL, aka Common Business Oriented Language. COBOL is easy to maintain and arguably still the best business logic language for the long term.   

But opinions vary on its value. I’ve heard it called everything from an “ancient immortal computing demon” and “antiquated great grandfather” to “indispensable to modern business.” It depends on who you ask – and they may all be right!

“Some of the longest running and most reliable applications were written in COBOL.”
Robert Schattke, Senior Architect, Adaptigent

Why is COBOL still so popular?

COBOL was designed for business data processing, and it is exceptionally well-suited for that purpose. It supports payroll, banking, airline booking, printing reports, ATMs, mortgage loans, and check-clearing systems—something like USD 3 trillion flows through COBOL systems daily. 

How hard is it to get off COBOL?

Pretty challenging. The Commonwealth Bank of Australia found this out when it spent five years and USD 700 million on this process.

IBM’s announcement that WatsonX Code Assistant for Z will use AI to translate COBOL into JAVA sounds promising – but it has limitations. For example, if the AI recommends that some applications stay in COBOL, they will stay in COBOL – even as the rest of the services transform to Java. Is there a world without COBOL in the future? Hard to say.

3 Challenges to moving off COBOL 

1. Translation. The sheer volume of COBOL code still in existence means translating billions of lines of code. It’s a time-and-resource-intensive process. And it requires expertise in both the source and target languages. Its reputation as old-fashioned makes it hard to find programmers, especially in the US.

2. Replication. Recreating the business functions that COBOL provides isn’t a simple copy-and-paste exercise. COBOL code includes the instructions and business logic specific to one company. Often, it’s intertwined with other enterprise systems created by several generations of programmers. All that has to be rebuilt.

3. Risk tolerance. Moving from COBOL requires an extensive amount of regression testing of mission-critical applications before transitioning to a new language and platform. For most industries, they cannot afford the resources to take on such an endeavor without a guarantee of success. 

“COBOL and PL/1 are old but not antiquated. They work perfectly, just like they did 50 years ago.”
Spoerke, Product Evangelist, Adaptigent

Some businesses run COBOL in other places. How does that work?

Migrating away from COBOL

Right. Some companies kept COBOL, but run it elsewhere – rehosting in the Cloud, or in Windows®, Linux, etc. Of course, the feasibility of rehosting depends on how stringent the requirements are for reliability and performance.  

The businesses that took their legacy COBOL code and moved it to a Windows environment now use a COBOL compiler to convert/translate the COBOL source code into machine-understandable code. Any company running and maintaining COBOL applications in distributed environments uses a COBOL compiler. Many companies save money on IT expenses or free up mainframe MIPS for other applications this way. 

Are all COBOL compilers the same?

No. For example, Fujitsu NetCOBOL® is an enterprise-class COBOL compiler and integrated runtime environment. I’m biased, of course, since Adaptigent is the exclusive global distributor for NetCOBOL outside of Japan. But NetCOBOL is unique from other COBOL compilers on the market for several reasons, including:

  • It gives users all the power of other compilers but with no runtime fees.   
  • License purchase is by number, not name or machine. Whether it’s one machine or one thousand, there’s no extra cost to deploy.   
  • The compiler works with .NET, Linux, Windows, and Solaris, and it can be used to migrate from a different COBOL compiler.  
  • The ability to incorporate other programming languages makes it especially valuable, as new functionalities don’t necessarily need to be developed in COBOL code.  
  • It works with Visual Studio. 

How expensive are runtime fees?  

One contact said they were billed USD 350,000 in runtime fees for one yearon top of the licensing and maintenance fees. I heard from another customer who was comfortable with the proposed licensing and maintenance fees of a vendor, but they backed out when they learned the runtime fees would be more than USD 70,000 for 60-70 users.

Again, that’s what makes NetCOBOL such an outstanding COBOL compiler – no runtime fees. 

What do you recommend for companies using COBOL? 

At Adaptigent we’re agnostic about enterprise systems, languages, and formats because we support modernization and data integration across them all. If a company thrives on its mainframe and wants to orchestrate applications with APIs, great! If a business is looking for a new COBOL compiler, wonderful!

We want businesses to use their IT to its fullest capacity, and we provide the software and expertise to do it all. 

Want to talk more about COBOL? Reach out or visit Adaptigent’s solutions page.