Latest language in Web services: Cobol

Forty years on, Cobol is still growing. The latest money-saving idea is to put Cobol on Microsoft .Net Server

Cobol, the biggest established language in the old-fashioned mainframe environment is set to make the jump to the new world of Web services. There is a still a vast amount of code in use that is written in the 40-year old programming language, and in the current downturn, users can't afford to junk it for new systems. The Cobol industry is set to continue, with products that link that code to Web services front ends, or port it to Web services platforms. Micro Focus is planning to launch a version of its Cobol compiler for Microsoft's new .Net Server operating system. By the middle of 2003, Cobol will be one of the languages which can run as managed code in the Common Language Runtime (CLR) of Microsoft's Visual Studio .Net environment. This will allow Cobol code to be debugged in the same environment as C++ and other Visual Studio CLR languages. "There will be a beta version of Cobol for .Net Server in February," said Ian Archbell, vice president of product management at Micro Focus. This will allow new Cobol applications or code to be ported. The full product should be available during the summer of 2003. Cobol (common business oriented language) was one of the first high level programming languages, developed in 1959 under the sponsorship of Rear Admiral Grace Hopper. Prevalent on mainframes, it became a standard in 1968 and still holds 70 percent of enterprise data and 95 percent of enterprise applications, according to Archbell: "Without our software, Amdocs, PeopleSoft and the others would not exist." Despite Cobol's age, and the age of many of the programs written in Cobol, it is not being replaced, said Archbell, partly due to the current downturn and IT managers' need to get full value out of installed systems. "Two or three years ago, people would have said replace Cobol," said Archbell. "Now there are no big projects, only incremental developments." Much of the Cobol code out there is on legacy platforms such as ICL VME systems, HP3000s or Wang machines, he explained. These can be retired if the code is moved to new platforms. Another money-saving trick is the inclusion, in a future version of the company's Net Express product, of transactional abilities. This means users can swap out the expensive transaction monitor (such as IBM's CICS, or Tuxedo) which they currently have to run. The company also allows Web services to link to existing Cobol applications -- in a claimed thirty days -- with a product called Enterprise Link. This is aimed partly at services companies. "CIOs (chief information officers) are under more budgetary pressure than ever before in IT history," said Cory Isaacson, chief executive of Web services integrator Compuflex. "Everyone thinks of Web services as an inter-company protocol, but they can be used inside the company as an inter-application protocol." Compuflex offers to create a proof-of-concept Web services front end to existing Cobol applications for free. In moving Cobol to Web services, Micro Focus and Compuflex have been doing more business with Java (J2EE) environments than .Net, since most Cobol applications are running on non-Microsoft platforms, in parts of the enterprise where Microsoft has little influence: "Large IT shops with a large systems background prefer J2EE," said Isaacson. "Windows is about a quarter of our business," agreed Archbell, although Micro Focus' products support development on Windows for delivery on other platforms. Micro Focus is a long-established name in business software. Bought by Merent, in 1998, it was spun back out again last year and "has been profitable since", said Archbell. "We're delighted to be free from Merent," he said, explaining that the company's former owners missed a trick by attempting to play down the role of Cobol. In previous years, Micro Focus has moved with the times by offering versions of Cobol for other new paradigms such as Object Cobol.

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