I can’t find the obituary for COBOL

Vendors chide the government for keeping programs running that were coded in COBOL. But there's still life in the market of this much maligned language.

In an age of ever faster product lifecycles, the government relies on at least two things from the Eisenhower administration.

The first B-52 bomber was certified for operation in 1952 and entered service in 1955. The inventory of 58 bombers still in service today, the H series, weren’t built until 1961.

They’re like the proverbial George Washington hatchet — along the way the handle, the blade and the wedge were replaced, but otherwise it’s all original. I saw one take off and land many years ago in Fort Worth, Texas. I’d hate to be on the receiving end of whatever that contraption can deliver.

The common business-oriented language (COBOL) debuted in 1959. Like the B-52, the programming language has evolved a lot during its many iterations. Experts have been complaining about it almost since its inception, but COBOL programs persist.

When you hear, as we do every filing season, that the IRS runs “systems from the Kennedy administration,” critics are trying to say, although they don’t know it, that the original logic written in some early version of COBOL is still running. The hardware, of course, has been replaced multiple times and I’d guess the code has been refreshed. IRS programmers rework it every year because the tax laws change.

The government relies on some old stuff, like the B-52 and COBOL applications. Photo: Air Force

Even a B-52 can’t fly forever, so last month the Air Force awarded the engineering and manufacturing development contract for a replacement to Northrop Grumman. The competitor, a partnership of Lockheed Martin and Boeing, has protested. That’s about it for bomber-making capabilities in the U.S. Defense Industrial Base. I bet a decade will pass before the new bomber makes its debut.

In the meantime, while it’s true current pilots might be flying the same planes their grandfathers flew, they’re not using the same avionics or electronic warfare systems.

As for COBOL, applications running it persist throughout the government, and also much of industry. Contractors hate it. Many feel its continuance is an affront to those selling modern application development services. They point out how old COBOL programmers must be, how they’ll die soon. They ask what will the government do — with all that old code, what young C-sharp programmer would want to join the government?

I first heard that warning about 30 years ago. If the fabled programmers were 80-years-old then, golly, by now they are all the way past their centennials.

But a casual Internet search shows a still lively market in COBOL. A British company, Micro Focus, describes how it took old, complicated code operated by Cyprus’ treasury and re-engineered it into a modern Windows application using its Visual COBOL product.

Several open source forums include sections for COBOL programmers, and there are open source COBOL tools such as compilers available. A healthy ecosystem supports the modernization of COBOL programs — some, the vendors claim, without having to delve into the spaghetti code.

I also found sites offering COBOL programmers, one in the Philippines who charges $5 per hour, another in India who charges $16 per hour. From their pictures they don’t look 110, but rather quite young.

Yet at more than one conference I attended in the past week, vendor representatives wondered when the government would ever cut the cord that ties it to old COBOL applications.

Agile development is gaining traction in the government. It’s thought to throw off usable code faster than traditional development styles, and maintain a tight coupling between what users actually need and what coders develop. It proceeds function by function in short periods, so projects don’t get off the rails, wasting time and money. Agile often goes with an organization on so-called DevOps mode, in which programmers and users collaborate. This happens under a Scrum Master, who keeps the development team nimble.

So maybe there’s a way legacy COBOL applications can be reverse-engineered using some agile process. One service-disabled, veteran-owned small company, CompNet Federal Solutions, was looking for a Scrum Master who is a DevOps team member and supports COBOL, located in Washington, D.C.

Hmmm …

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More commentary from Tom Temin