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This old programming language is much more important than you might expect. Here's why

A report suggests the use of one of the oldest programming languages could be a lot bigger than previously estimated.
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Written by Owen Hughes, Senior Editor on

New research on the global scale of the COBOL programming language suggests that there are upwards of 800 billion lines of COBOL code being used by organizations and institutes worldwide, some three times larger than previously estimated.

A global study with 1,104 respondents from 49 countries found that more than nine in 10 organizations continue to view COBOL as a strategic priority. It also found that 83% of organizations believe their COBOL-based applications will see out another 10 or more years.

COBOL – or Common Business Oriented Language – has been around since 1959 and is largely credited for helping to build the computer software industry as we know it today. It dominated business and government IT systems throughout the following decades, and large organizations still rely on it for running their mainframes and core business systems like payroll and accounts.

SEE: COBOL turns 60: Why it will outlive us all

The study, commissioned by IT company Micro Focus and conducted by research and analysis firm Vanson Bourne, put the amount of COBOL code in daily use at between 775-850 billion lines. The calculations were based on figures provided by developers, technologists and IT managers, who were asked to determine and calculate the volume of COBOL code in use at their organizations. 

Most commonly represented in the survey were developers (37%), followed by managers/directors (31%), IT architects/consultants (13%), VP and C-level executives (8%), and system admins (5%).

Micro Focus said the findings reinforced the importance of continued investment in COBOL as "the most trusted of core business legacy systems technologies," particularly within digital transformation initiatives.

Nearly half of respondents to the Micro Focus survey said they expected the amount of COBOL in use at their organizations to increase during the next 12 months. Similarly, rather than ripping out and replacing old legacy systems, 64% of respondents said they intended to modernize their COBOL applications – creating a demonstrable need for continued COBOL investment and modernization by "next-gen" developers.

SEE: Programming languages: Python dominates, but developers are adding these new languages to stand out

"Whether this increase in code is externally driven or motivated by new technology or business transformation initiatives, it is clear that the importance and volume of COBOL in use continues to grow each year," said Jimmy Mortimer, senior research consultant at Vanson Bourne. 

Cloud was found to be the primary technology driving application modernization. When asked about their company's plans for COBOL and the cloud in 2021, 43% of respondents said their COBOL applications support cloud, or otherwise will support cloud by the end of 2022. In addition, 41% said new business projects would require integration with existing COBOL systems.

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