On COBOL – O’Reilly

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We’ve all seen that the world (properly, governments, particularly state governments, to say nothing of the banks) is screaming for COBOL programmers—a cry that goes up roughly each 5 years. We one way or the other muddle by way of the disaster at hand, then folks overlook that it was ever an issue. It’s time we requested what the disaster actually is, and why it retains returning.


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COBOL is without doubt one of the earliest programming languages; it was invented in 1960 and rose to prominence pretty rapidly as a language that required minimal programming expertise. (Actual programmers wrote FORTRAN.) That’s not how COBOL’s inventors put it, however that’s, to some extent, what they meant: a language that was alleged to be simple for programmers to be taught, and that is also understood by enterprise folks. Simply take a look at what COBOL stands for: “Widespread Enterprise-Oriented Language.” A programming language for enterprise.

COBOL’s affect light within the 1980s, and now, there are billions of strains of code in governments, banks, enterprises, and elsewhere performing important enterprise features with no one to keep up them. COBOL programmers have grown outdated and retired, and no one got here alongside afterward.

What’s the language like? I’ve had event to take a look at COBOL code, and my response hasn’t been what I anticipated. It doesn’t appear to be any “trendy” language. But it surely’s not a wierd vintage from the times earlier than folks knew tips on how to design first rate languages. COBOL is a well-thought-out domain-specific language. It’s a enterprise language that makes use of the language of businesspeople. Keep in mind when Rubyists had been proud that they may write statements that regarded like idiomatic English? And that they may use metaprogramming to create domain-specific languages that used the vocabularies and ideas of various utility domains? That was no small achievement. And COBOL did it 40-odd years earlier.

Like different helpful languages, COBOL by no means disappeared; nevertheless it has had surprisingly little affect on the event of pc languages, and that makes it appear to be it has died. In 10 Most(ly) Lifeless Influential Programming Languages, Hillel Wayne argues that COBOL had little affect on the event of programming languages as a result of it got here from the enterprise neighborhood, and lecturers weren’t fascinated with it—for lecturers, it “wasn’t value taking note of.” Who needs to write down code that’s readable by bankers and enterprise folks anyway? The attract of talking a secret language that no one else understood was all the time enticing to programmers.

COBOL nonetheless made a lot of necessary improvements. It had an idea of information (like rows in a database), which was associated to an idea of hierarchical constructions, wanting ahead to C structs and maybe even objects. And it has a report generator—if that doesn’t sound attention-grabbing, keep in mind that one of many preliminary functions for Perl was report technology. And that one other almost forgotten early language, RPG, was invented purely to generate reviews. Stories aren’t glamorous, however they’re necessary.

Syntactically, COBOL requested a very good query: Why do we have to use the bastardized language of arithmetic to maneuver cash round, by saying one thing like “whole = whole + deposit”? Wouldn’t or not it’s extra pure to MOVE quantities from one account to a different? Don’t get too excited. MOVE seems like a proto-transaction, nevertheless it isn’t; it’s simply an project. Nonetheless, for those who’re fascinated by MOVE-ing cash relatively than project to a variable, these ideas will lead you to atomic transactional operations sooner relatively than later.

After all, there’s quite a bit that COBOL doesn’t provide. Whereas COBOL has been up to date with many of the options you’d count on in a contemporary language (since 2002, it’s even object-oriented), COBOL tends to result in very awkward spaghetti code and monoliths. That’s 1960s programming for you. GOTO was a necessary a part of each programming language (even C has a goto assertion). Modularization wasn’t well-understood, if it was understood in any respect. Libraries? The earliest variations of COBOL didn’t have a normal library, not to mention user-defined libraries. Net frameworks? You don’t need to know. Microservices? Neglect it.

So, the place are we now, with our billions of strains of COBOL working the world’s governments, and funds? I doubt there are a lot of 1960s mainframes left, however there are many emulations of 1960s mainframes working COBOL within the cloud a lot sooner than the {hardware} it ran on initially. And that’s one technique I’ve seen for sustaining COBOL: go away it as it’s, run it on an emulator, wrap it up in a microservice written in some “trendy” language, and hope you by no means have to the touch it. That buys time, however whereas “hope” could clear up the speedy drawback, it’s a poor long-term technique.

The true drawback isn’t simply the dearth of programmers fluent in a language that’s now not fashionable. There are additionally cultural issues that must be addressed—and which have options that transcend “practice up a brand new batch of COBOL programmers.” First, one casualty of the “language wars” of the 90s and 00s is that we’ve an growing variety of programmers who establish with one language: they’re JavaScript programmers, or Java programmers, or Python programmers, or Rubyists. Dave Thomas’ and Andy Hunt’s recommendation to be taught a brand new programming language yearly is simply as legitimate because it was after they first wrote The Pragmatic Programmer; nevertheless it goes sadly unheeded. To be an excellent programmer, it’s essential to expose your self to new concepts, new methods of fascinated by issues—and, within the case of COBOL, outdated concepts. Programmers who can’t be coaxed out of their consolation zone aren’t going to be taught COBOL; however in the long term, they’ll show to be much less worthwhile, no matter what trendy language they know.

Second, COBOL programming requires an understanding of enterprise programming. Whatever the language, that’s an more and more uncommon specialty. How do you deal with monetary portions, like {dollars} and cents? In case you say “floating level,” go to the again of the category. Roundoff errors will kill you. In case you say “use integers, and divide by 100,” that’s not significantly better. The basic drawback is that binary numbers usually are not good at representing decimal fractional values. However that’s lore that the majority present programmers have by no means discovered.  (And we haven’t even began fascinated by forex conversions.)

Third, engineering selections made within the 1960s, 1970s, and even 1980s aren’t the selections we’d make at present. The engineering was definitely legitimate for its time, however trendy engineers often don’t perceive why. I’ve heard many up to date programmers speak concerning the Y2K drawback (representing years within the 1900s with two digits) as “technical debt.” That represents a misunderstanding of the problems the unique programmers confronted. In an setting when knowledge was entered on 80-column punched playing cards, saving 2 characters was a Huge Deal. In an setting the place the most important computer systems had reminiscences measured in Kilobytes (and a small variety of Okay at that), saving 2 characters was a Huge Deal. This isn’t engineering that must be replicated, nevertheless it does must be understood. 

Fourth, outdated enterprise software program was monolithic—and monolithic in a really deep sense. It tended to mannequin types that people would fill out, and that couldn’t be submitted till the shape was full. There’s typically no technique to save your work, as a result of—why would it’s essential to? You went to the unemployment workplace in individual; you allow while you hand the applying to the individual behind the desk. An incomplete type goes into the wastebasket; why waste worthwhile storage on it? Placing an internet interface in entrance of these monoliths results in a predictable consequence: lengthy, complicated types that may take hours to fill out, and which can be near unusable on the fashionable Net. In creating GetCalFresh, a streamlined utility for meals help in California, Code for America discovered that the outdated type took an hour to fill out—however candidates typically relied on public computer systems in libraries that didn’t enable classes longer than a half-hour. Since incomplete types couldn’t be saved, it was unimaginable for candidates to complete making use of. Transferring a COBOL utility to an emulator, working it within the cloud, and hacking collectively a Net frontend isn’t going to unravel issues like this. The excellent news is that this is a chance to re-think your service and make it simpler. The unhealthy information is that it’s not a fast repair.

So, what’s wanted? Sure, we want extra individuals who know and perceive COBOL applications. There’s a variety of outdated code that must be maintained, pure and easy. But it surely goes deeper. COBOL is simply one other programming language; if we’re going to keep up (or change) that software program, we want programmers who perceive the engineering selections that made the software program what it’s. We additionally want engineers and managers who’re keen to take a look at our present scenario—for instance, the large surge in unemployment functions—and suppose past the short-term answer. What does it take to re-invent present programs, relatively than simply change them? How can they grow to be extra human-centric? Can they be redesigned to match the best way we stay and work now? Placing an internet front-end on a monolithic enterprise course of from the 1950s is the street to failure.

That’s the brand new technology of COBOL programmers that we want: folks to do the tedious, unglamorous work of re-inventing, re-engineering, and automating authorities functions, enterprise functions, and far more. Reimagining these processes is artistic work, nevertheless it requires a special form of creativity from implementing a brand new web site. I beforehand wrote concerning the distinction between blue- and white-collar programming. COBOL could be very, very blue-collar. And really, crucial. Each time the cry for COBOL programmers has gone up, we’ve muddled by way of; this time, we must always do one thing higher.

The way forward for programming is re-understanding the previous, and re-inventing it to fulfill our present challenges.



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