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What is COBOL?


COBOL stands for Common Business Oriented Language. It is imperativeprocedural, and object-oriented. A compiler is a computer program that takes other computer programs written in a high-level (source) language and converts them into another program, machine code, which the computer can understand. COBOL takes data from a file or database, processes, and outputs it. In short: COBOL takes data in, computes it, and outputs it afterwards.

In the context for this guide, we assume compilers are translating from a high-level programming language, such as COBOL, to create an executable program for use on mainframe-hosted application, perhaps to run large-scale batch or transaction processing jobs. This OpenText Supportline tutorial explains how to compile a COBOL program for the mainframe.

Updated February 2022:

Micro Focus (now part of OpenText™) today shared the commissioned results of a global, independent market survey, showcasing an unprecedented amount of COBOL code in use, and a remarkable market opportunity for application modernization. According to the global survey, COBOL is viewed as strategic by 92 percent of respondents, and the amount of COBOL code in daily use increased significantly and three times larger than previously estimated at 775-850 billion lines of code. (Previously reported market estimates, often a couple of decades old, have been in the 200-300 billion range)

“As organizations look to deliver on IT strategies through modernization and digital transformation initiatives, the findings of the latest COBOL Survey demonstrate the continued importance of COBOL for application modernization and business change,” said Ed Airey, Director of COBOL Product Marketing, OpenText. “800 billion lines of code reinforces the importance, and continued investment, in this most trusted of core business system technologies. This significant volume of COBOL application code in the marketplace represents remarkable value for organizations and requires ongoing investment as part of a larger modernization strategy. For IT leaders, supporting core business systems, COBOL application modernization lies at the heart of digital transformation.”


Key findings of the OpenText COBOL Surveys include:

  • Global COBOL Code Volume hits new highs: More than 800 Billion lines of code running on production systems and in daily use, far exceeding any previous estimates.
  • The direction is continued growth: nearly half of the survey’s respondents expect the amount of COBOL in use at their organization to increase in the next 12 months. Furthermore, last year’s research report showed that over half of respondents (52 percent) expect for their organizations’ COBOL applications to remain for at least the next decade, with more than four in five expecting that COBOL will still be in use when they ultimately retire--creating a need for continued COBOL investment and modernization for next gen developers.
  • COBOL remains strategic for organizations: 92 percent of respondents stated that their organizations’ COBOL applications are strategic with future IT strategy and application portfolio alignment with new technology being listed as the key drivers for COBOL modernization.
  • Modernization of COBOL applications is the preferred path forward: As opposed to a rip and replace approach, 64 percent of respondents intend to modernize their COBOL applications and 72 percent of respondents see modernization as an overall business strategy.
  • Cloud is the primary technology driving application modernization: When asked about their company’s plans for COBOL and the cloud in 2021, 43 percent of the survey’s respondents stated that their COBOL applications do and will support cloud by the end of the year. In addition, 41 percent stated that new business projects require integration with existing COBOL systems.

You can learn more about in the survey press release, or watch our recorded webinar to learn more details about the survey results and How much COBOL is really out there?

2022 global COBOL survey results

Micro Focus (now part of OpenText™) commissioned a global, independent market survey by Vanson Bourne, showcasing an unprecedented amount of COBOL code still in use strategic importance in 92% of the respondent’s organizations, and a remarkable market opportunity for application modernization. Download this free ebook to learn key points in the survey results.

Read the ebook


How old is COBOL?

COBOL is now 63 years old, and was officially given its name on September 18th, 1959. COBOL is the result of US Department of Defense work in the late 1950s to develop a common business language suitable for different kinds of mainframes. The initiative, called CODASYL (or the Committee on Data Systems Languages), drew on Grace Hopper’s FLOW-MATIC, Univac’s AIMACO, and IBM’s COMTRAN. It has been the dominant language for building business systems ever since.

Who still uses COBOL?

One source lists more than 29,010 companies as still using COBOL, about 0.8% market share. Another estimates that 200 billion lines of COBOL code are still active, and that 90% of Fortune 500 companies, most notably big finance, insurance companies, airlines and retail point-of-sale systems rely on COBOL.

A 2017 Reuters study lists 43% of banking systems still use COBOL, while COBOL applications still power more than 65% of enterprise software and 70% of business transaction processing, including 95% of ATM swipes. One live government system is 60 years old.

Created for transaction processing, COBOL applications help run payroll programs, manage government pension funds, operate banking systems, manage hotel bookings, book airline tickets, and much more. Estimates largely agree COBOL systems support more than $3 trillion in daily commerce.

COBOL is a domain-specific, or specialist, language. In this case, the specialism is business programming. It is this specificity, portability, and the relatable syntax that has helped keep the COBOL story going.

Why do enterprises still use COBOL?

COBOL persists for many equally valid reasons. One is that nothing is as flexible or reliable as COBOL. Banks, for example, need complete accuracy. COBOL outperforms Java in that respect. Another is that many of biggest enterprises in the world use core applications written in COBOL, and intervention is too risky, or expensive. COBOL’s enduring usefulness in a constantly changing digital world provide the combination of continued innovation and reliability which are IT necessities.

As recently as 2012, the IT group at the Bank of New York Mellon had to tend to 112,500 different COBOL programs – 343 million lines of code.

In 2008, the Commonwealth Bank of Australia announced a $580 million AU plan to replace its core banking platform. The job took more than five years, cost more than $1 billion AU ($749.million US). The third reason is that integrated development environments (IDEs) the software development tools where developers write, build, test, and debug mainframe programs. These solutions, such as Micro Focus™ Visual COBOL, can modernize COBOL applications to support future innovation, making replacement unnecessary.

Is COBOL still relevant?

OpenText, IBM, Fujitsu and GnuCOBOL are the leading vendors of COBOL compilers. While a lack of skilled COBOL programmers is widely touted as an issue, there are solutions, including Micro Focus™ Visual COBOL Personal Edition.

Visual COBOL PE integrates with Microsoft Visual Studio and Visual COBOL for Eclipse to enable COBOL application development on the most popular integrated development environments.

This portability, the means to move core applications and systems from where they are to the platforms that will best support future innovation, that form a key plank of many digital transformation strategies.

For example, COBOL applications’ portability make them a natural fit for virtual and cloud deployment, most notably off-site hosted infrastructure service providers, including Microsoft Azure or Amazon Web Services.

Other mainframe modernization plays will be different. Mainframe to cloud is just one option; physical to virtual is another. Others may want to embrace open source by taking their UNIX operating system to Linux. The key is to look where the market is going; new platforms such as Docker, automation through Kubernetes; maybe .NET, JVM, Windows, zLinux, AWS, Azure, or GCP is where you want to be.

The point is COBOL, enabled by OpenText tools, is not an anchor holding you back, it is the launchpad for future innovation.

These tools bridge the gap between established technologies that have served the enterprise well, and innovation to support the business going forward. Using Visual COBOL, enterprises can harness the flexibility of the cloud, and improve responsiveness to future demand, while enabling efficient infrastructure management.

How can I learn COBOL?

The beautiful thing about COBOL, is that it is relatively easy to learn. COBOL consists of English-like structural components such as verbs, clauses and sentences. Its readability means that you can understand what a program is doing without having to learn a whole new programming syntax, and its rigid hierarchical structure make COBOL easy to read and maintain. There’s also no need to worry about learning a new toolset. You can develop COBOL applications using familiar tools such as Visual Studio or Eclipse. These IDEs bring all the great productivity aids you use today such as IntelliSense and content assist, snippets, UI design tools and more, so coding in COBOL isn’t a chore. Are you ready to learn this legendary programming language, or ready to jumpstart your career in COBOL development?

OpenText makes learning COBOL easy

OpenText has created instructor-led videos, hands-on tutorials, resources, and courses, plus we provide all the COBOL development tools you need--available to download for free. Take the course and earn your Micro Focus™ COBOL certification.

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