A number of states continue to run the decades-old programming language on mainframe systems--including critical unemployment claims systems.
Wanted: COBOL programmers. You wouldn't expect to see them on the list of high priorities alongside ventilators, face masks, and healthcare workers, but COBOL programmers are in growing demand in some states in the fight against the coronavirus.
More than half of the states in the US, including California, New York and Pennsylvania, still rely on decades-old mainframe systems based on COBOL, according to Reuters.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has issued a call for volunteers who know how to code in the 60-year-old COBOL (common business oriented language) programming language because many of the state's systems still run on older mainframes, according to CNN.
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In Kansas, Gov. Laura Kelly said the state's Department of Labor was in the process of modernizing from COBOL but then the virus interfered. "So they're operating on really old stuff," she told CNN.
Connecticut has also admitted that it's struggling to process the large volume of unemployment claims with its "40-year-old system comprised of a COBOL mainframe and four other separate systems." The state is working to develop a new benefits system with Maine, Rhode Island, Mississippi, and Oklahoma. But the system won't be finished before next year.
"Literally, we have systems that are 40-plus-years-old," Murphy said recently, CNN reported. "There'll be lots of postmortems, and one of them on our list will be 'how did we get here, where we literally needed COBOL programmers?'" COBOL was developed in 1959, according to the National Museum of American History.
"It's a programming language that was used to create a very significant percentage of business systems over the period of the '60s, '70s, and even into the '80s," Joseph Steinberg, a cybersecurity expert, told CNN.
But over time, coders have moved away from the aging language.
"The general population of COBOL programmers is generally much older than the average age of a coder," Steinberg said. "Many American universities have not taught COBOL in their computer science programs since the 1980s."
COBOL remains relevant
Yet, despite a dwindling number of COBOL programmers, a 2017 report by Reuters found that there are still 220 billion lines of COBOL in use today. Forty-three percent of banking systems are built on COBOL and 95% percent of ATM swipes rely on COBOL code.
COBOL is also being used in federal agencies such as the Department of Veterans Affairs, Department of Justice, and Social Security Administration, according to a 2016 report by the Government Accountability Office.
A 2018 report by the inspector general for the Social Security Administration found that the administration maintained more than "60 million lines of COBOL" with "millions more lines of other legacy programming languages." The inspector general urged the administration to modernize its systems.
In 2008, then-California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wanted to issue minimum-wage checks to 200,000 state workers, but the state's controller at the time said it would need at least six months to reprogram California's COBOL-based payroll system to issue the minimum-wage checks.
Michael Cohen, director of state administration with the Legislative Analyst's Office, observed at the time that "It's an example of a number of computer systems in which the state made a large investment decades ago and has been keeping it going the last few years with duct tape."
Today, with more than 44,000 COVID-19 cases in New Jersey, the last thing the governor should have to worry about are computer systems, Steinberg told CNN.
"Governors should not have to think about computer systems during a pandemic," he said, "and we should have systems that if there are emergency situations, should not make the emergencies worse."
Helping address the need
IBM is addressing the call for skilled COBOL coders by working in tandem with the Linux Foundation's Open Mainframe Project to create three new initiatives to address the immediate need:
- Calling all COBOL Programmers Forum. A new forum where developers and programmers who would like to volunteer or are available for hire can post their profiles and credentials. This is open to those looking for employment, retired skilled veterans, students who have successfully completed COBOL courses, or professionals wanting to volunteer.
- COBOL Technical Forum. A new resource for being actively monitored by experienced COBOL programmers providing free advice and expertise. This tool will allow all levels of programmers to manage issues, learn new techniques, and expedite solutions needed as programmers alter this critical code.
- Open Source COBOL Training. A brand new open source course designed to teach COBOL to beginners and refresh experienced professionals. IBM partnered with the clients and universities to develop this in-depth course which is available for free to anyone.
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