In praise of Cobol

Speaking Latin carries more kudos than Cobol in the modern IT community. That's not a useful prejudice

As we celebrate the centenary of Grace Hopper's birth, it may seem that her most famous creation — the Cobol language — is fit only for antiquity. Cranky, verbose, antithetical to modern ideas, it's only one step up from a slide rule in the estimation of the modern Java slinger or C sharpist.

That is a gross injustice. Cobol suffers by association with its past, a past of mythological giant monolithic mainframes and buttoned-down control freaks. The microprocessor revolutionaries may have won our hearts, but like victors everywhere they cemented their win by rewriting history. The revolution born from Cobol wrenched technology from the hands of the elite and gave it its first role in mainstream business.

Another important truth is that Cobol was one of the very few inventions of the early business computer industry that helped keep it open. Because Cobol is strictly machine-independent — in ways that more modern languages such as C are not, despite their lip service to the contrary — it opened the way for software that could be moved to faster hardware, even across vendors, to keep up with increased demand.

Cobol is also largely self-documenting, another factor that helped projects live on longer than the careers of their instigators. Companies could start planning IT strategies that weren't tied to the lifetime of one product, or the wishes of one hardware manufacturer.

And it works. There are uncounted millions of lines of high-quality Cobol code running at the heart of finance, engineering and utilites firms around the globe, often untouched across many generations of hardware. They are not rewritten in newer, better languages because for the tasks in hand there are no newer, better languages that justify the cost and risk of conversion.

It is the mark of good engineering that products be reliable, reusable, and work for as long as required. Cobol has proved itself capable of producing software that more than lives up to this standard.

Long after many of today's fads have disappeared into the bit bucket of history, Cobol will be working hard behind the scenes. It's not the solution to all problems. It never claimed to be. But it embodies many ideals that deserve praise, not scorn, and will for years to come. Grace's legacy is assured.