There is a scene in the Broadway hit Spamalot in which a peasant jumps up from a cart of corpses and vigorously complains that he's "not dead yet". It's a humorous side-story to the main theme of the search for the Holy Grail. One might be accused of thinking of COBOL in the same way, as a side-story to the current major themes of mobile and web development, or perhaps as a historical footnote to the current narrative. IBM's recent announcement of major upgrades to its COBOL compiler technology provides a good reason to pause in our headlong pursuit of the latest technology to reflect on the value of COBOL applications in enterprise software portfolios.
While mobile and web technologies often garner everyone’s attention, the reality is that most organizations that have been around for more than 30 years still run their core business processes using systems that were written in COBOL. Anything that makes these apps easier to evolve and extend is a very good thing. The reality is that evolution and extension of these apps is critical to business success. In order for the flashy-new-social-networking-enabled mobile and web Systems of Engagement to succeed, the workhorse Systems of Record and Systems of Operation are going to have to evolve apace. This means that they must take advantage of the latest architectures as well as being refactored and modularized to align with a service delivery model.
Service orientation has the promise of being able to insulate the Systems of Engagement from changes in the legacy systems, but by itself it does little to solve the long-term evolution problem. Refactoring old applications and improving the modularity is key, and improvements in COBOL development tools is essential to this effort. Improvements in compiler technology is an important part of supporting the evolution of these important applications. COBOL is never going to return to being the lingua franca of the corporate software development world; in fact, it seems unlikely that any language will achieve the same level of dominance once held by COBOL. Nevertheless, COBOL still has an immensely important role to play. When organizations can leverage and extend the value of their investment in their COBOL assets, more resources will be available for creating value in new ways. That’s good for everyone, regardless which language they speak.