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Common Business-Oriented Language (COBOL)

Kyle Guercio
Last Updated August 16, 2022 9:10 am

What is COBOL?

COBOL stands for Common Business-Oriented Language. It is a 60-year-old programming language that is still widely used today. COBOL is an English-like computer programming language used for business. The syntax was developed to be simple and explicit so that non-programmers in business environments could understand it without needing an extensive knowledge of coding.

COBOL language

To maintain its comprehensibility, COBOL has strict rules regarding syntax and organization. The code for a program written in COBOL is broken up into divisions that make it easy to locate and understand the individual components. Each program consists of four divisions:

  • Identification division
  • Environment division
  • Data division
  • Procedure division

Why is COBOL still used?

COBOL remains so popular that 70-80% of all business transactions worldwide are still written using the language. And these are not small companies. Its advocates include the likes of powerhouse organizations like IBM, UPS and Cigna. Here are some of the main reasons COBOL is still used:

  • Backward compatibility: A large reason COBOL has been able to maintain relevance is thanks to its backwards compatibility. This means modern enhancements to the language can still support legacy applications that have long been widely ingrained in business operations.
  • Data: Even when COBOL was first developed, the creators understood the business value of collecting data. Because it was designed for business-oriented applications, the language is able to govern large amounts of data thanks to its advanced file management capabilities.
  • Logical structure: Staying true to its original purpose, COBOL has retained its logical structure to make it easy to read and modify for individuals in the business world who do not have a background in programming.
  • Versatility: Another reason COBOL is used by such a wide variety of organizations is that it’s not exclusive to specific technologies. It can be executed and compiled on multiple operating systems (OS), such as Windows, Linux and more. It can also be executed on a variety of devices, including high-end and personal computers.
  • Reliability: Its logical structure not only makes COBOL understandable but also makes it easier to identify issues and debug code.

History of COBOL

COBOL was developed in 1959 by CODASYL (Conference/Committee on Data Systems Languages) and sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense to create a language for data processing. It was partially based on the programming language FLOW-MATIC, as well as IBM’s COMTRAN (COMmercial TRANslator).

The Department of Defense forced computer manufacturers to provide support for the COBOL language, which resulted in its widespread adoption. By 1970, COBOL was the most widely used programming language in the world.

The language was standardized in 1968 and has been revised four times since then. One of those revisions from 2002 expanded the language to include support for structured and object-oriented programming. The object-oriented modification, OO-COBOL, can support modern features, like Unicode, locales and more advanced data types beyond strings and integers.

As the year 2000 approached, there were multiple issues that needed to be resolved regarding COBOL due to the fixed-length of data fields and business applications’ heavy reliance on dates. Many programmers contributed to resolving the year 2000 problem (Y2K) for COBOL and many organizations remained using it rather than switching to newer languages.