Travelling backwards more than fifty years in computing is perhaps as stretched as rewinding by as many centuries in travel or commerce, politics or cuisine; but that’s what happened when I met Ashish Masand a few weeks ago. For, we were discussing COBOL (COmmon Business-Oriented Language), one of the oldest programming languages.

“A specification of COBOL was initially created during the second half of 1959 by Grace Hopper. The scene was set on April 8 at a meeting of computer manufacturers, users, and university people at the University of Pennsylvania Computing Center,” informs a Wikipedia page.

“Is COBOL still alive and around?” I ask Ashish, the Country General Manager of Micro Focus India (www.microfocus.com), a company that offers COBOL compiler technology ‘combined with a choice of development environments to provide the best fit for mainframe, Windows, .NET and UNIX/ Linux applications.’

COBOL came into being 50 years ago, on May 28, 1959, at a meeting of the Short Range Committee at the Pentagon, he narrates, over the lunch-hour interaction in Business Line. “Since then, the language has passed the tests of time and emerged victorious supporting over 30 million transactions per day. It has evolved from being just a mainframe language to being the core of every business.”

At the time of writing this, I check Google News for ‘COBOL’ and what appears first among 99 results is a Computerworld story about the Smithsonian museum’s plan to launch next summer a new exhibit that focuses on the ‘ancient’ language. And GCN.com has a post about the Social Security agency upgrading “its systems environment, which contains aging software that includes 36 million lines of COBOL code.”

Over the years, the language, though originally meant for mainframe developers, has grown and adapted itself to all the upcoming technologies, says Ashish. “Today COBOL applications can be SOA (service-oriented architecture) and Web-enabled and integrated with applications written in other languages, such as J2EE, JAVA and .NET. It touches everything from personal computing to connected applications and can be used to host applications on the cloud with ease.”

You may nearly fall off your chair hearing some of the numbers that Ashish mentions, such as that an estimated 75 per cent of the world’s business data is still processed in COBOL and that about 90 per cent of all financial transactions are in COBOL. Our conversation continues over the email.

Excerpts from the interview.

What have been the factors behind the endurance of COBOL, over the last several decades?

There are several characteristics that have contributed to COBOL’s success for the past several decades. COBOL applications have a long life as they simply cannot be discarded when some new programming language or technology appears. They are used globally in military and government agencies.

One of the design goals for COBOL was to make it possible for non-programmers, such as supervisors and managers, to read and understand the COBOL code. COBOL is a very simple language with no pointers and no user-defined functions. It is well suited to its targeted problem domain of business computing and contains English-like structural elements such as verbs, clauses, sentences, etc. and it is self documenting.

Can you talk about the capabilities that have been infused into COBOL in recent times?

COBOL has presence in a variety of segments to address diverse users, OO (object-oriented) COBOL being the preferred option amongst the new generation of developers. COBOL is fully integrated into the .NET framework in the same manner as C#.

For the Windows developers a full development and test environment is available within Visual Studio 2008 and for the Linux developers a fully integrated Eclipse Cobol development IDE is available.

The ability to extend and modernise COBOL applications into SOA and Web-enabled frameworks and portals whilst using the COBOL language for the extensions brings some interesting opportunities.

In today’s environment, COBOL has a greater heterogeneous ability than any other single programming language; so, in short, COBOL is a better fit for most domains, platforms, applications than the ‘flavour of the month’ IT (information technology) paradigms.

Tell us about some of the exciting projects you are working on.

L&T Infotech recently set-up a CoE (Centre of Excellence) on Micro Focus’s modernisation solutions. A few other Indian and global SIs (systems integrators) are in advanced discussions with Micro Focus to set up CoEs in India for modernisation, migration, ADM (application development and maintenance) services automation and application management offerings. The focus of these CoEs is to build value-added solutions capability and high-value services to meet increasing demand from customers.

In addition, a few application software product companies are in discussions with us to provide low-cost banking solutions to Tier-3 banks in India using Micro Focus Cobol technology and working with low-cost RDBMS (relational database management system) software compliant with the RBI (Reserve Bank of India) guidelines.

The interesting part is that the total cost per transaction of solutions built on COBOL is coming out to be around 5 times lower than the current core banking solutions in the market. This will give a great head start to small banks to compete with their larger counterparts using technology as an enabler to business.

We have provided our technology solutions to a few healthcare service providers from India to deliver solutions around HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) 5010 and also the ICD9 to ICD10 migration. Service providers have built their add-ons of intellectual property alongside, using Micro Focus’s modernisation tools to automate delivery of solutions for HIPAA and ICD (International Classification of Diseases) conversion services.

In another area, we are providing automation and productivity improvement tools for mainframe application development and management services. We are working with various organisations including captive off-shore companies, global SIs to improve their processes and improve productivity of their development teams, and help customers improve their time-to-market.

Does the academia support the study of COBOL?

Micro Focus has a global initiative (called Academic ConnecTION or ACTION) programme to combat the shortage of key COBOL skills; and the company has tied up with a hundred institutions world over for this initiative.

The programme aims to ensure that the developers-in-the-making are equipped with the vital COBOL-programming and core IT skills required by major corporations. The programme provides member-universities with free access to the latest technology and teaching tools for enterprise application development. Micro Focus estimates that around 9,000 students are now graduating every year with these vital skills, benefiting from the ACTION programme.

Additionally, Micro Focus’ core product for students and professionals wishing to enhance their core IT skills, Net Express for .NET, has been downloaded over 35,000 times. In India, we plan to launch the ACTION program with the academia very soon.

Where are the big gaps when it comes to COBOL talent that the industry is looking for?

One of the biggest challenges that the industry faces today is its ageing workforce working on COBOL. The present-day developers prefer to focus on the new-age languages like Java, .Net, J2EE etc., and not much learning has happened on COBOL in the recent past. This has led to a shortage in the number of COBOL developers leading to a gap between demand and supply. Internationally, the academia has already stepped up and started to bridge these talent gaps.

Any other points of interest.

There is a common misconception that COBOL is an old language. However, if we observe the trends in last three years, COBOL has surfaced as one of the most important languages, running mission-critical and enterprise scale applications. Customers are keen to retain these applications, and develop new application in COBOL. It’s an opportunity for the service providers to help these CIOs (Chief Information Officers).

Micro Focus has been able to develop solutions to deploy COBOL applications on ‘Cloud’ – as, for instance, on Amazon EC2 or Microsoft’s Azure platform. Many ISVs (independent software vendors) and CIOs are keen to use the cloud platform.

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