Are COBOL experts no longer needed? A free compiler appeared, which reduces the need for developers

Are COBOL experts no longer needed? A free compiler appeared, which reduces the need for developers

We recently wrote about the fact that one of the oldest programming languages, COBOL, seems to be going out of business soon. And not because it is irrelevant, on the contrary, so far this language is in demand, mainly in the financial and banking industries. The whole point is that they are looking for a replacement for it, or rather, a way that will allow porting software written in COBOL to different operating systems. Previously, this was done by the IBM corporation, but now other possibilities have appeared. In particular, the free GnuCOBOL compiler.

What is this project?

As mentioned above, it is called GnuCOBOL. The team developed it for about 20 years, not so quickly, but still constantly adding and modifying something. Now GnuCOBOL can already be used in industry and the banking industry, where, in fact, software written in COBOL is involved.

The compiler allows large and very companies to gradually reduce their dependence on a language that is already half a century old. According to the developers, the main advantage of GnuCOBOL is the translation of a program written in COBOL to a representation of the C language for further compilation using the C compiler.

The project, in addition to being free, has another advantage — it can be used in the environment of various operating systems, including Windows, macOS, Linux, Android, BSD and others. An important point: COBOL is not at all in the form in which it appeared, the language is evolving. Today, there are several dozen versions, “dialects”, and the compiler can work with most of them.

GnuCOBOL is already used by a number of large companies, many of which prefer the free compiler to paid projects. For example, one of these options is the proprietary Micro Focus, which is now losing to new products in many ways. By the way, how commercial organizations switch to modern technologies.

As an interesting case, the French Ministry of Finance gave up the old server park and even the mainframe (we recently wrote about them), giving preference to new equipment and GnuCOBOL. All because switching to GnuCOBOL allows you to achieve increased performance and get rid of binding to one provider.

GnuCOBOL-related events include the publication of the first version of the integrated development environment SuperBOL Studio, written in the Ocaml language. It is distributed under the AGPLv3, MIT, and ISC licenses. SuperBOL Studio is an extension to the VS Code editor that works with GnuCOBOL. It is intended mainly for the development, debugging and profiling of projects in the COBOL language. SuperBOL also provides an LSP (Language Server Protocol) server implementation for integrating COBOL code navigation, analysis, and editing into another IDE.

By the way, there is another project from IBM. The corporation has developed a special set of tools for automatic conversion of COBOL code to Java code. And this is not a theoretical technology, not a proof of concept, but a commercial tool offered to the company’s partners. It is called Watsonx Code Assistant.

Code generated with Watsonx Code Assistant will not conflict with other systems, even if they are outdated. The code is object-oriented, and therefore, compatibility with both modules written in COBOL and with services such as CICS, IMS, DB2 will be supported.

And what about the programming language itself?

COBOL has been around for over 60 years. Despite this, it is still actively used. Of course, in the vast majority of fields it has been replaced by modern programming languages. But the fact is that in a number of countries, hardware systems with software based on this software still work. There are especially many of them in the USA.

That’s why COBOL keeps afloat and has even gained popularity in the last few years. So, for example, in August 2023, the language took 15th place in terms of popularity among YA. A year ago, he was in 31st place. Impressive growth. But after some time, maybe he will become history.

Here’s an infographic from 2017 created as part of a Reuters study. Of course, 7 years have passed, but it is unlikely that all these organizations and systems have switched to new languages ​​together – it is too expensive. Someone did, but the majority preferred the new, well-functioning and time-tested old one.

The problem is that there are still many systems written in the old language, but there are very few programmers who know them well and are able to write something in COBOL. And most of them are about 60-70 years old. Therefore, companies have to look for specialists all over the world.

Now, one must think, the dependence on the language will gradually decrease, as the number of tools for switching to other NAPs is increasing. Probably, we have to wait 3-5 years, but who knows, maybe more.

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