Sunday, 26 July 2009

COBOL on the mainframe

It was 50 years ago today... Sgt Pepper taught a band to play – so might go the lyrics to Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the title track for the Beatles’ eighth album and first concept album, which was released on 1 June 1967. And it was 50 years ago (although not to the day) that Grace Hopper gave the world COBOL – COmmon Business-Oriented Language.

It seems that a committee comprising William Selden and Gertrude Tierney from IBM, Howard Bromberg and Howard Discount from RCA, and Vernon Reeves and Jean E Sammet from Sylvania Electric Products completed the specifications for COBOL in December 1959. So where does Grace Hopper fit in? Well, the specifications were greatly inspired by the FLOW-MATIC language invented by Grace Hopper, and a couple of others. The name COBOL was agreed by the committee on 18 September 1959.

COBOL programs couldn’t run until compilers had been built, so it wasn’t until December 1960 that what was essentially the same COBOL program ran on two different makes of computers – an RCA computer and a Remington-Rand Univac computer.

Not surprisingly, there have been a number of developments in COBOL over the 50 years. The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) developed a standard form of the language in 1968 (known as American National Standard (ANS) COBOL). There was a 1974 revised version, and in 1985 there was another revision. And the most recent revision was 2002.

Still, after 50 years, there can’t be many people using it – after all, the computer industry is high tech, not old tech! This view, which I heard quite forcibly expressed the other day, is simply not true. Figures quoted – and Im never sure how anyone could accurately know this, but it seems about right – suggest that there are more than 220 billion lines of COBOL in use – arguably 80% of the world’s actively used code. It’s also been suggested that there are 200 times as many COBOL transactions in a day than Google searches!

Now, a lot of this code is on mainframes, and companies like Micro Focus are keen to get mainframers onto other platforms. One difficulty with this for mainframers is what to do with their COBOL programs. To help, Micro Focus last week announced Reuze, a tool for migrating business processes from the mainframe to Windows, without having to rewrite applications.

In most cases, Reuze allows the COBOL programs to remain unchanged, eliminating the need to rewrite the source code for SQL Server or to remove mainframe syntax, says the company. It supports 64-bit Windows architectures and the .NET Framework.

The product has two components: Developer, a client-based graphical tool for migrating applications to Windows; and Server, the deployment environment for the migrated applications. Developer includes an integrated development environment based on Microsoft Visual Studio, and allows for cross-team collaboration.

I’m sure smaller mainframe sites will find this of interest; larger ones, perhaps less so. But whatever size machine you run your COBOL on, say happy birthday to it!