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Why COBOL Could Come Back

timothy posted more than 6 years ago | from the cost-of-doing-common-business dept.

Programming 405

snydeq writes "Sure 'legacy systems archaeologist' ranks as one of the 7 dirtiest jobs in IT, but COBOL skills might see a scant revival in the wake of California's high-profile pay-cut debacle. After all, as Fatal Exception's Neil McAllister points out, new code may in fact be more expensive than old code. According to an IDC survey, code complexity is on the rise. And it's not the applications that are growing more complex, but the technologies themselves. 'Multicore processing, SOA, and Web 2.0 all contribute to rising software development costs,' which include $5 million to $22 million spent on fixing defects per company per year. Do the math, and California's proposed $177 million nine-year modernization project cost will double, McAllister writes. Perhaps numbers like those won't deter modernization efforts, but the estimated 90,000 coders still versed in COBOL may find themselves in high demand teaching new dogs old tricks."

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FIRST!!! (0, Offtopic)

EvilIntelligence (1339913) | more than 6 years ago | (#24512681)

Yeah, baby!!!

Why would they teach new people? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#24512683)

Just hoard all the money for yourself!

Who Cares What Language, It Reeks of Poor Design (5, Insightful)

eldavojohn (898314) | more than 6 years ago | (#24512731)

Got that? So if California goes ahead and builds a new payroll system, within nine years -- about as much time as it has taken to get the 21st Century Project off the ground -- the cost of fixing bugs in the new code could exceed the original cost of the project.

If software is implemented correctly, it will stand the test of time.

The fact that there seems to be some hard-coded values or formulas throughout this code is a fair indication that this COBOL architecture did not have the foresight of someone ever changing minimum wage. Where I grew up, minimum wage changed yearly as it was usually necessary to adjust for inflation. Now, if this is an indication of the rest of that software, I would opt for a newer technology. On top of that, I would go to the lead system engineer with a hand written note reading:

The software shall have a management interface for changing minimum wage and cascading that change correctly through all aspects of the software and other machines.

I'll bet this software isn't modularized. I'll bet this software has some pretty low security standards. I'll bet this software requires a client app installed on any user's machine.

Pull your head out of your ass, "dollar amount one
If you're short on funds, you're short on funds but if you're saying it's cheaper I would like to see your pricing chart for usability, stability, maintainability, etc.

Why COBOL Could Come Back

I think there will always be a niche market for every language but if you mean 'come back' like COBOL would become the average developer's language of choice I would curtly retort with a sharp 'ha.'

Re:Who Cares What Language, It Reeks of Poor Desig (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#24512865)

Right, well, I guess that's what I get for not really previewing ... here's the rest of "Pull your head out of your ass:"

Pull your head out of your ass, "dollar amount one < dollar amount two" is not always the cut and dried determining factor here. I would wager that most of the time the new software is more expensive than fixing the bugs of the old software but you're getting so much more than that if you do this right.

Re:Who Cares What Language, It Reeks of Poor Desig (5, Informative)

idobi (820896) | more than 6 years ago | (#24512933)

I think many people missed the point of the California problem. It wasn't limited to lowering everyone's earnings to minimum wage. The main problem was that after the budget was approved, everyone's wages needed to be adjusted again AND those people need to have back wages paid for the period that they we being paid less. That's a complex problem that most programs, even modern ones, probably are not designed to consider.

Re:Who Cares What Language, It Reeks of Poor Desig (4, Interesting)

polar red (215081) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513365)

yeah, as a software archeologist myself, i can testify that old systems still need maintenance: new laws, changes in organization, new products,... that means that those old systems all need continuous 'fine-tuning' - no administrative program really is 'complete'; to make matters worse: those systems get more and more complex. While a complete rewrite could save money in the long run, in the short term this would be very costly.

Re:Who Cares What Language, It Reeks of Poor Desig (1, Funny)

PC and Sony Fanboy (1248258) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513483)

software archeologist

yes, and I'm a quantum derivative trader using advanced neutonian physics and I do some speculative gold-mining venture capitalism.

er. what I mean is that I own mutual funds and buy gold on WoW. But the title sounds pretty.

Re:Who Cares What Language, It Reeks of Poor Desig (3, Insightful)

Krishnoid (984597) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513181)

If software is implemented correctly, it will stand the test of time.

Sturgeon's [Ll]aw [wikipedia.org] applies to software -- except probably with the 90% figure adjusted upward as some function of Moore's law [wikipedia.org] and the observations of Fred Brooks [wikipedia.org] , of Mythical Man-Month fame.

IMHO, after a couple decades of accretion of existing software systems, poorly implemented and even designed software systems are production reality today. If you don't take this into account, you're dealing with an ideal that will statistically exist only 10% or less of the time, and when it does, only when rigorous administration and maintenance is continuously applied to the software.

Re:Who Cares What Language, It Reeks of Poor Desig (5, Informative)

SatanicPuppy (611928) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513415)

Coming from someone who is currently supporting a legacy COBOL system, you're right on target.

COBOL is shit. Most legacy COBOL code is not designed with anything like what we'd consider "best practices" today. The language itself is unfriendly, and doesn't lend itself to the modern world.

What it does have is inertia. It works, right? Why replace it? It's the product of decades of business evolution, do you think you can replace that overnight? New code will never be as good.

Basically, they're comfortable with their crusty old bugs, and they don't want to deal with scary new bugs.

In my environment we've basically thrown this whole interface built on Oracle and Java on TOP of the old COBOL MPE/ix system. Placates the conservative financial types, while providing some modern functionality.

Still there are all kinds of problems with the old systems. You can end up with some really scary problems with old code, because it doesn't recover from failure like you'd expect modern code to. A java billing application running on a modern transactional database...If it crashes, you can just run it again. A COBOL app on a legacy database? That just ruined your day.

I would hope that the response to the situation would be to finally migrate your systems, not to accrete more levels of unsupportable crap by dragging COBOL programmers out of retirement, or forcing existing programmers into that outdated mold. I know the money types though; they are perfectly capable of trying to stick with the outdated method simply because it's in their comfort zone.

Re:Who Cares What Language, It Reeks of Poor Desig (5, Informative)

bws111 (1216812) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513519)

Yup, no doubt the people that implemented this system were complete idiots, unable to come up a system that was 'well designed'. Oh wait, I wonder what 'good design' was when this was written. Maybe it included things such as 'being able to run in a machine with 16MB virtual address space, with 1MB real memory installed'.

As for security, you're probably also right there. It seems just about every week I read a report of some COBOL-based payroll system being hacked (which you would expect, since there are probably thousands of such installations). Oh wait, I never read that.

It seems to me you are quick to criticize, without even a basic understanding of the requirements for this change. It is NOT some simple 'raise minimum wage'. It is 'temporarily lower ALL employees wages (hourly and salaried) to minimum wage'. When the budget is passed, put the wages back where they were and issue back pay. Don't forget about little details like deductions for taxes, insurance, retirement, etc. How do you calculate the withholding rate for income tax? What do you do when someones deductions exceed their pay? When the pay is restored, what do you do about people that have left, retired, or died in the meantime?

I think that the timeframe they give is not all that unreasonable, considering all that must be done. It will take a substantial amount of time just to come up with complete requirements. Then the coding must be done. Since this is a financial application I am sure there is much testing, and probably some fairly stringent auditing that must also occur.

Save money (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#24512747)

I though SOA and web 2.0 stuff is supposed to save money?

Re:Save money (1)

ardle (523599) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513073)

And COBOL was human-comprehensible. SOA is definitely in the realm of COBOL, except that it goes one better: not only is the code difficult to read but there's lots more of it.
Nobody better tell 'em that the majority of that code is simply copying Strings around, or we'll all be outta work...

Re:Save money (1)

PC and Sony Fanboy (1248258) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513525)

most programming languages are human comprehensible... provided you've been trained in them.

And isn't that the point? We need people trained in COBOL to understand COBOL. So human comprehensibility or not, we're still stuck using old technology (which is not always a bad thing).

I don't get it (4, Insightful)

snl2587 (1177409) | more than 6 years ago | (#24512765)

Why do people think it's so hard for a new person to learn COBOL? It's not exactly like learning Japanese: find a good reference book, write a few practice programs, and voila.

I personally haven't needed to learn COBOL, but I see no reason why that strategy I just described, which has worked for me with every programming language I've ever learned, can't be applied here.

Re:I don't get it (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#24513019)

I used to do programming/support software written in a 60s era language. It was a step up from COBOL (One of the companies products was written in COBOL, and it sucked), but it wasn't modern. I suspect less than half of my coworkers had a CS degree, and I didn't consider any of them hardcore CS types. In fact, over half were women. Thing is, it's dull and boring business logic. There are probably a few hundred thousand bored housewives with the aptitude to learn and do COBOL programming. Hell, even CmdrTaco could probably do it... with a spellchecking IDE.

Re:I don't get it (5, Insightful)

Smidge204 (605297) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513027)

To expand on your analogy a little:

You get your Japanese reference book, study hard, maybe even get your 1-kyuu certification (I think four years of study for that is typical for non-native speakers?)

So you get a job translating. Your first project is to translate a recently discovered and unpublished early 1900's work written by someone like Touson Shimazaki or Mori Ougai. Good luck!


Re:I don't get it (2, Insightful)

snl2587 (1177409) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513249)

This is why I said learning a new programming language was NOT like learning Japanese. True, legacy systems use older versions of a language. But there are still a limited number of commands which are well-documented.

I work with legacy systems a little (but not COBOL) and I say this from experience: deciphering someone's shitty programming style in an antiquated language sucks. But it's doable with little training in the language.

Re:I don't get it (5, Insightful)

SQLGuru (980662) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513421)

It's actually no different than trying to decipher some code writen in a language you are already an expert in. I'm fluent in both PL/SQL and T-SQL and sometimes I look at a procedure and just have to rewrite it from scratch because the original author wrote horrid code. Sometimes I look at it and can trace through it to figure out what it does, crappy or not. Sometimes it's beautiful and pristine and easy to understand. In the end, I have to make a change to it and I figure out how to change it without breaking anything. Then I move on to something else.

If it were COBOL, I might have a slight hurdle learning the syntax, but already knowing how to code and knowing several languages (BASIC, FORTRAN, C, C++, C#, Java, PL/SQL, T-SQL, etc.) means that a loop is a loop whether it's a FOR i=1 to 15 type loop or a for(int i=1; i [lt] 15; i++) type loop. Syntax can be deciphered with a reference manual. Programming and understanding code is a skill.


I once met an old xbase programmer... (1)

Spy der Mann (805235) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513437)

One of his clients had an xbase program that needed to be updated, but the original programmer had this stupid idea of encrypting the program so it couldn't be decompiled. Meeting with the old programmer who moved to the coast was pretty expensive, but finally the old code could be finally read.

It was a royal mess.

My friend decided it would be simpler to analyse the software case by case (see why UML isn't that bad?) and recreate the interface including keyboard shortcuts and everything.

The project took him less than a month and the client was completely satisfied.

Re:I don't get it (1)

ArmyOfFun (652320) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513425)

Does he have to do it by himself? Or will he have access to a couple of people well versed in Japanese? It makes a big difference.

I understand not wanting to replace your only COBOL programmer with someone with no COBOL experience. On the other hand, I don't see a problem hiring someone who has never programmed COBOL into a COBOL shop. As long as someone can program well in more than one language it shouldn't be a problem. If the new guy is still struggling after about a month or two, you let him go. Hire him as a contract-to-hire if you're really worried. Even if you burn through a few guys this way, it's still going to be vastly cheaper than hiring a COBOL guru with 20+ years experience. Especially if you just need someone for maintenance/bug fixing/small enhancements.

Re:I don't get it (1)

DeadDecoy (877617) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513109)

But then how else will HR fulfill their asinine and unreasonable quota of resume skills. If I didn't know better, I'd say you're trying to put them out of a job.

Re:I don't get it (4, Funny)

Waffle Iron (339739) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513233)

Why do people think it's so hard for a new person to learn COBOL? It's not exactly like learning Japanese: find a good reference book, write a few practice programs, and voila.

In my case, I've taught myself to use a couple of dozen programming languages over the years, and I've mastered several of them. However, I've never managed to make it all the way through the senseless boilerplate headers of any COBOL program before puking. Once the monitor is covered with puke, it's too hard to see the screen well enough to continue.

Re:I don't get it (2, Interesting)

morgan_greywolf (835522) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513253)

COBOL itself isn't all that hard. What you also have to know is the stuff that goes with COBOL on a mainframe environment like CICS (pronounced 'kix') and so forth. And then there's the difference between theoretical knowledge and real world experience. It's one thing to learn C by reading K&R, it's another thing to apply that knowledge to writing a real application or a piece of system software.

Just because you can learn COBOL doesn't mean you can match skills with some of those 90,000 coders.

(Spoken by someone who actually knows COBOL, and has actually written a real-world application in COBOL).

Re:I don't get it (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#24513385)

Spoken like one of those 90,000.

It may be hard, but it can be done. Programmers are smart and can be taught new things.

I have never simply read a reference and then claimed knowledge of a language. I just jump right it. There's your real-world experience.

Re:I don't get it (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#24513413)

No, as someone who wrote plenty of COBOL in the dark ages, you absolutely *do* get it.

Whatever the problem here is, it's not the COBOL, which for all its faults, was meant to be comprehensible almost by someone who'd never seen a computer before. Anyone who can write code in anything can write complex COBOL programs in about 4 days.

Bah (1)

BoomerSooner (308737) | more than 6 years ago | (#24512767)

I hate COBOL. Was forced to take a class in college and they told us it'd be easy to get a job if we took the advanced course. Who the fuck wants to work on 60s tech? I took C instead and am much happier for it.

Re:Bah (1)

cryfreedomlove (929828) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513085)

Same here, except for me I was in college 20 years ago. They told me that there were a lot more jobs available if I took the COBOL classes. I willfully decided to deny myself that 'opportunity'. All jobs are not the same. I have to love a job to take it and I don't love COBOL jobs.

Acronym (3, Funny)

sm62704 (957197) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513185)

Crappy Old Bad Obsolete Language

Mod parent up! (1)

Spy der Mann (805235) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513451)

Insightful, underrated, funny, whatever. But it surely made my day.

Re:Bah (4, Funny)

geekoid (135745) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513235)

I know COBOL programmers making 150 an hour that have been on the same contract for 10 years.
They work 40, and rarely are on call.

So there is a certain appeal. Plus COBOL is interesting.
I mean C? who wants to work on 1970's tech?

Re:Bah (1)

SoCalChris (573049) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513319)

I took C instead and am much happier for it.

So you decided to go with a nearly 40 year old language instead of the nearly 50 year old one?

Don't get me wrong, C is a good language, and still relevant. I just wouldn't complain about COBOL's age, and then start talking about how you learned C instead.

Re:Bah (2, Funny)

ShieldW0lf (601553) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513423)

The US is about to experience total economic meltdown. After the Fannie May and Freddie Mac debacle, loans to the nation will be harder to come by, damn near half the population is about to retire, there are more people in Law, Finance and Advertising than there are in skilled trades, companies are fleeing overseas, etc, etc, etc.

You're going to see little old ladies with wheelbarrows of cash unable to buy bread in short order, just like when the Cold War ended. Who really cares about fixing these financial systems? It's just wasted effort by a nation that has a lifetime of hard work and painful sacrifices ahead of them. Why even bother?

Counterpoint: Bah (2, Insightful)

rah1420 (234198) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513435)

I love COBOL. I have programmed in many languages throughout the years but I can do my best work in COBOL. I recently started working on it again after a 10 year hiatus and was amazed at the advances in the language.

The thing that you don't understand is that unless your college did not keep up with the compilers that were deployed, that COBOL is not "60's tech" any more. Yeah, it has its idiosyncracies but so do any other 3rd generation languages.

Reminds me of Hook (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#24512773)

"...and you had better deliver. Or no amount of clapping will bring you back from where I will send you."

You COBOL devs have 3 years!

No Thanks (5, Interesting)

Black-Man (198831) | more than 6 years ago | (#24512781)

I learned COBOL in college 20 years ago. I hated it and immediately knew COBOL, TSO, JCL, CICS was not for me. The user was shielded from the complexities of the system, whereas Unix and 'C'... everything was there to learn and discover. No 2-inch IBM manuals to sift through.

Now I work at a place w/ the dinosaur and DB2/COBOL on the backend and I am forced to fix the crap COBOL code written by folks who are long retired. And it sucks... big time. And why these 50-something COBOL programmers think they are hot stuff is beyond me. COBOL is EASY compared to C/C++ or even Java/C#.

The sooner the dinosaur is extinct... the better.

Re:No Thanks (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#24512951)

You say "COBOL is EASY" like it's a bad thing.

Re:No Thanks (1)

larry bagina (561269) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513145)

Maybe it is a bad thing. (VB is easy, too). Garbage in, garbage out. In this case, the garbage in is the low skill and intelligence needed. The garbage out is 2 digit years, poor design that requires 6 months of work to adjust salaries, etc.

Re:No Thanks (5, Insightful)

sm62704 (957197) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513081)

COBOL is EASY compared to C/C++ or even Java/C#.

That's a strength, not a weakness.

Re:No Thanks (3, Insightful)

PC and Sony Fanboy (1248258) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513335)

You know what is easier? basic. Whether it be Q-basic, Watcom Basic or Woz's handcoded apple basic... it is much easier that COBOL too.

Does that make it better?

Re:No Thanks (1)

AKAImBatman (238306) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513505)

You know what is easier? basic. Does that make it better?

Yes! In some situations, BASIC is "better".

If that confuses you, then you need to learn that "better" is a subjective term. Depending on the circumstances, what is "better" and what is "worse" will change places. In more modern terms, we tend to say, "Use the right tool for the right job." Of course, if all you have is C^H a hammer...

Re:No Thanks (1)

geekoid (135745) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513267)

"COBOL is EASY compared to C/C++ or even Java/C#."
that's a good reason for it to go extinct~ I mean, who needs easy when you can have overly complex bloat and 5 times the cost?

Re:No Thanks (1)

rbanffy (584143) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513281)

Isn't being easy a good thing?

I mean, if the harder it is to develop software the better, we would be doing it all in hardware ;-)

protected against identity theft? (1)

peter303 (12292) | more than 6 years ago | (#24512795)

I've wonder why I've seen so few reports of massve database leaks from Federal and State financial systems compared to industry. My guess is there are few hckers conversant in COBOL, OS-360 and nine-track tapes. One of the rare bright spots in this mess.

Re:protected against identity theft? (1)

topham (32406) | more than 6 years ago | (#24512883)

Have you ever tried to get data into, and out-of most mainframe configurations? At best companies will use an FTP like file queue system. You drop files into a folder and the system transfers them to the mainframe, and the reverse.

Hardly a system ripe for l33t script kiddies to hack

Maybe for maintenance, but (1)

gnasher719 (869701) | more than 6 years ago | (#24512819)

I took a COBOL course at university in the very late 70s, passed, never touched it again. Then bought a book a few years ago from the bargain book, read through it, and the language is just absurd. Ok, it would have been hard to design something better in the 50s when it was created, but it is just horrible. If we really want a cheap, simple language to do bog standard things without all that newfangled stuff, then the dBase language would be ten times better. And dBase on todays hardware would just _fly_.

What COBOL really needs (5, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#24512825)

What COBOL really needs is a hip new framework to make it "cool", just like Ruby!

I propose COBOL on Rails. Any takers?

Mod troll if you wish. :-)

Re:What COBOL really needs (1)

Rycross (836649) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513035)

How about Cobol .Net [dotnetheaven.com] ?

Re:What COBOL really needs (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#24513243)

How about Cobol On Cogs [coboloncogs.org] ?

Re:What COBOL really needs (1)

Anonymous Meoward (665631) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513343)

I know for a fact that the NC state gov't paid contractors nicely during the dot.com bust to turn COBOL into Java.

I'd imagine you'd make quite a bit for yourself if you could automate that process, or just write a decent COBOL interpreter.

The devil would be in the many many many details. I never learned COBOL, but I know enough about it to know that it's a simple language made horrendously complex with an assload of coupling between I/O subsystems and formatting/presentation code. And then there's database access..

Re:What COBOL really needs (3, Funny)

lpontiac (173839) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513383)

You mean like Cobol on Cogs [coboloncogs.org] ? :)

Re:What COBOL really needs (2, Funny)

MPAB (1074440) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513469)

Rip off the B

"find me a college that teaches it" (5, Insightful)

bill_mcgonigle (4333) | more than 6 years ago | (#24512837)


find me a college that teaches it

What kind of college class would teach COBOL except as a historical curiosity in passing? Their job is to teach kids how to design good software and understand theory. You know, with local variables, objects, exceptions, assertions, and stuff?

COBOL used to target 'business systems'. I'm sure there are several superlative programmers doing COBOL work, still, but business systems programmers tend to be the largest area under the curve, and that's not a problem. The Ruby and Python guys can sit several sigmas out arguing about which provides the better lambda calculus, but meanwhile Java is providing most of the features 'average' programmers need.

If there's a lesson to be learned from the article it's that business systems software isn't ever 'done'. You need to be continually modernizing, with good methodologies, or you're gonna get stuck like Cal-e-forni-a one day. That's either a problem or an opportunity, depending on your perspective, but this isn't an industry standing still.

Re:"find me a college that teaches it" (1, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#24513089)

Southeast Community College in Milford Nebraska http://www.southeast.edu/academics/default.asp [southeast.edu] is One College that still teaches COBOL. They've done some re-vamping with the curriculum since I've been there (creating a COBOL back-end with a pc front-end) but COBOL programming is still their main language. They have multiple hiring agreements with large companies such as DST http://www.dstsystems.com/ [dstsystems.com]

Re:"find me a college that teaches it" (4, Informative)

Rinikusu (28164) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513295)

My old 2 year school still teaches COBOL, RPG, and AIX classes (Southwest Tennessee Community College) and even offers a 2 year A.S. degree in those technologies. The University of Memphis used to teach COBOL in the MIS track, but I have a feeling they've jumped on the .NET bandwagon. I can't speak for the rest of the country, but Memphis, TN has a lot of legacy mainframes and one of my former employer still churns out around 10k lines of new COBOL code a year, at minimum.

What a lot of folks also don't realize is, you don't just rip out a multi-million dollar mainframe system and just replace it with something new. It's also not as simple as "just coding it in Java" and deploying on that hardware. Hell, even writing it in C has issues on many of these machines. The mainframe I was exposed to didn't support the full ASCII character set and you had to use trigraphs. You can't just "apt-get compiler-for-language-of-choice" on these machines, nor download a .msi and get an instant installer.

These are mainframes. They don't even have a filesystem that you would recognize, much less a bash prompt. JCL anyone?

The point is, it's not a simple matter of just porting the software into a modern language. You'll also have to build out the entire hardware system, write the software, test extensively, and then run both concurrently to ensure consistency, and all of that costs money. Lots and lots of money. If what you have works for what you need it for, there's no impetus to change until something like this comes along. However, I'd be willing to bet it's easier and cheaper to change *policy* (the laws) than to scrap the old system completely and rebuild it from scratch.

Most of the article is bunk... (1)

Lumpy (12016) | more than 6 years ago | (#24512855)

Honestly if WEB2.0 makes websites more expensive, where does it require that a website MUST HAVE web2.0 crap on it?

Honestly I find that most customers despise all the junk that comes with web2.0 and do not want it, let alone pay for it.

Same for everything else, making it more "complex" is by desire not by necessity. California's problem is because of a lack of programmer on staff and the fact the request is a wierd one as far as a payroll system is concerned. you do NOT normally cut people's wages for a temporary time while tracking the wages cut and then paying them back after the fact. What they want is complex but they dont want to pay for it.

Re:Most of the article is bunk... (1)

bigman2003 (671309) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513337)

I agree completely.

This is just a STUPID plan that nobody could have forseen.

If you do design software, unfortunately this comes up all the time, and it hurts, even when you are expecting it. This just happened to me recently:

"Okay, new federal regulations state that we need to track the number of miles travelled for all trips."
"Okay, but we only store mileage on auto travel, because that is how they get reimbursed."
"We need it for air travel, and train travel if there was any."
"Umm...okay, I guess I could use mapping software to determine distances."
"But we only will track air travel on US based carriers. We also only want business class travel."
"We don't store that information."
"Well, you need to get it."

F me.

A Question For SW developers? (2, Interesting)

loose electron (699583) | more than 6 years ago | (#24512857)

Does this make sense? As a HW person, I dont have a clue, but I would be curious to know what the conventional wisdom is here. Should this stuff be used in an obsolete language, using code constructs that were dictated by HW limitations (Y2K and 2 digit nonsnense) OR Should this be done in something that is HW independent (Java - if I can show my ignorance here) or something like C++?

Teach me here folks!

Highly likely (2, Insightful)

jrothwell97 (968062) | more than 6 years ago | (#24512867)

COBOL could easily make a comeback, because it's so damn easy to learn. I could train a cuttlefish to write a complex accounts program in COBOL. Heck, I bet even Mike Huckabee could probably manage to work out "Hello World".

Perhaps the reason it may come back is because of the complexity of modern languages. Most OOP variants are horrifically difficult to understand, and a return to the statement-based languages of yesteryear might actually be a good thing: let the coder get on with writing his code, and let the interface builder do all the fancy OO stuff.

Re:Highly likely (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#24513323)

You're right that there's a language problem, replacing over-complicated messes like C++ or Java with a language that's simple but totally gimped isn't much of a solution. In *any* language worth using, it's possible to choose between statement style code and powerful abstractions simply by using the style you are most comfortable with. We have a *serious* problem when C++ is the canonical language to get stuff done in, and is thought of as something that a coder "graduates" to. I've had people tell me that they programmed a little back in the day, but couldn't get the hang of C++. All I can say is, "It's not you, buddy!"

Why is CA unique ? (1)

bugs2squash (1132591) | more than 6 years ago | (#24512875)

There are 50 states and they must have pretty much similar payroll requirements.

Why is CA not able to make small changes to its payroll procedures so that they match the closest practices of one of the other 49 states and then just buy the system from another state.

That's funny (1)

marcus (1916) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513147)

You just noticed that California is not like the rest of the country!


LOL! That's a good one!

Same COBOL guys from Y2K? (3, Informative)

zentechno (800941) | more than 6 years ago | (#24512903)

I learned COBOL way back when (1984 to be precise, then used it for a few years and it eventually rotted out of my brain). I was thinking of coming out of COBOL Retirement back when I heard what huge demand Y2K was putting on the lack of COBOL knowledge. What happened to the Y2K COBOL team -- did they help the state of CA then? I'm guessing if CA didn't find a replacement in 10 years (which is not-so-suspiciously just before everyone starting fretting over Y2K), I don't really see it happening now, or I'd dig out my old COBOL disks, dirty up my resume (re)writing a few more COBOL programs, send out a resume, and move to sunny CA and $clean $up -- but anyone whose been a contractor has already thought like this.

COBOL, Web2.0, etc. (1)

TerranFury (726743) | more than 6 years ago | (#24512925)

All this talk of "skills" is bogus. Anybody who's a halfway decent programmer can be up and running with any language in under a week.

Seriously. Computer programming is computer programming. There are a few different philosophies for how to write code, but beyond that all the rest is syntax.

Re:COBOL, Web2.0, etc. (2, Insightful)

s31523 (926314) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513211)

It's not just the COBOL aspect. It is the legacy PDP-11 that is running it, or the VAX-VMS, or whatever... The language is easy, but figuring out how to login, setup the build environment, decode the weird legacy build script, and then transfer the program load to the target computer can be a tall order for a noob.
And what hot young smart kid wants to learn all this for next to nothing pay and the prospect of never using the skills again?
It can be done, however, and whoever has these systems should make it a priority to start finding a good maintainer either by trade or self-taught or make a replacement system.

the guy wasn't going to reduce the pay anyways (1)

Locutus (9039) | more than 6 years ago | (#24512949)

do you think he might be exaggerating some so that the pay cuts would not be implemented?

And think about it, they must have a way to reduce pay so that can't be the problem. What is probably the issue is that there is probably nothing in place to keep track of the back pay these people would get after a budget was finally passed.

It surprises me I've not seen this tie in the press between the guy saying the software is too old and the same guy saying he would not reduce the pay. Ya think maybe he's looking for a legal way to not reduce the pay?


Re:the guy wasn't going to reduce the pay anyways (3, Informative)

jesdynf (42915) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513049)

I've seen it, sure, but... I dunno. I've got no reason to think the guy's lying.

You want everybody's pay cut down to six whatever? I can do that for you in /ten minutes/. Guaranteed. You say you want it to happen, I make it happen.

You want everybody's pay cut down to six whatever, recalculating all employees as if they were paid on an hourly basis, reclassifying employees as appropriate, comply in full with all labor codes while I do so, maintain an escrow account with the difference between their real pay and their current pay, pay that out at some undetermined point in the future -- and have all of it work, perfectly, the first time and every time, taking full responsibility for every employee of the STATE OF CALIFORNIA?

Man says six months, I'm not telling you he's wrong.

Agreed; probably same speed as IRS stimulus checks (1)

peter303 (12292) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513405)

The IRS was cranking out its first stimulus checks within two months of being ordered to. They claimed they could do it a little faster, but were waiting for the April 15 filings to improve their address database. (The tax-address database is 95% accurate at the end of April, but decays to 85% accuracy by the beginning of April because Americals move often.) There were some snafus as expected. Also there was some complexity as the categories and amounts of checks - about the same complexity as Arnold's demands.

I can see it now . . . . (2, Funny)

MarkvW (1037596) | more than 6 years ago | (#24512979)

Object-Oriented COBOL, Visual COBOL, JAVA-BOL, COBOL++ . . . Functional software subordinated to the elaborations of the programming class!

California! Prepare to warmly welcome your programming overlords!

Re:I can see it now . . . . (2, Informative)

Shados (741919) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513051)

I can't tell if you're jesting, or if you simple don't know that most of the cobol variants you named actually do exist....

Re:I can see it now . . . . (1)

MarkvW (1037596) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513117)

I didn't know. Thanks. Your comment sure made me laugh!

Good news and bad news (5, Funny)

base3 (539820) | more than 6 years ago | (#24512987)

Good news: There's a job for someone with legacy COBOL skills because the State of California needs someone to update their payroll software to pay their workers minimum wage.

Bad news: The gig pays minimum age.

"Can't Be Done" (1)

Knara (9377) | more than 6 years ago | (#24512989)

What I thought was the most amusing was an article I was reading yesterday on this, where bigwig in question stated they had spent $_hugeAmount of dollars to determine that it just couldn't be done. That it was "impossible" to make the system behave in the ways that they wanted it to behave. The whole thing is much more political than technological, anyway. A big pissing match in government.

Anyway, COBOL wasn't so bad when I had to learn it. FORTRASH was more fun, though.

fuC4? (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#24512993)

Endangered species ... forced breeding!?! (1)

PolygamousRanchKid (1290638) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513003)

Hey, we seem to have more gorillas than COBOL programmers: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/7544967.stm [bbc.co.uk] . I'm not exactly sure what that means.

But endangered species seem to get sponsored forced breeding programs.

I don't want to visualize that for COBOL programmers.

I Was Going To Be Funny And Put Some COBOL Code In (1)

Skeetskeetskeet (906997) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513005)

But I didn't have the space for 3000 lines of code to print out HOLY SHIT.

as i said before (1)

halfEvilTech (1171369) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513015)

COBOL raises taxes...

newclear powered star gazing & hand waving ret (-1, Offtopic)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#24513041)

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by ourselves on everyday 24/7

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The real skill is 'thinking before coding' (4, Insightful)

myawn (562028) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513063)

One thing about the mainframe coding mentality was that compilation time was expensive, processing time was expensive, and sophisticated debuggers didn't exist (and it's expensive to print 500+ page core dumps on fanfold paper). So programmers tended to do much more up-front design so that the first effort tended to be much higher quality.

Or, as I saw on someone's whiteboard once, "It's easier to teach a COBOL programmer C than to teach a C programmer discipline".

KISS (3, Interesting)

Archangel Michael (180766) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513069)

Keep IT Simple Stupid.

No, not it, IT.

Keep Info Technology Simple. We tend to want to add in all the bells and whistles we "want" but don't "need" because we can.

When I build a system from scratch, it is fast, clean efficient. It has everything one of the user "needs" to do their job. It is fast, efficient and clean. And it doesn't have problems if they keep it that way.

But they start adding in all the add-ons, upgrades, multiple versions of the same basic tools. Google, Yahoo, Myspace, Coupon cutter, Weatherbug, Ding (SW Airlines) etc ....

Then they start to complain about how "slow" and "Buggy" the computer is. All those bells and whistles do nothing but distract the user from doing what he OUGHT to be doing.

I see this within applications as well too. Feature creep is a real problem, as is trying to over simplify the front end, at the expense of the back end.

Take a look at the comparison of Vista and XP, there is NOTHING in Vista that is really "needed", but it is a bloated mess when compared to XP. why?

They don't want to KISS, they want "fancy", and fancy breaks, and is more expensive to fix when it does.

ridiculous (1)

burris (122191) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513077)

I don't care how complicated the rules are for paying California employees or how many people there are. Raises, seniority, pensions, CalPERS, bonues, whatever. That they take 9 years and nearly $200 million and still not be able to build a new payroll system to replace the old one is astounding. Everyone involved should be shot and the contractors taken to court.

COBOL just works (5, Informative)

One Intention (671320) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513083)

Where I live, COBOL is used everywhere. I'm 33 years old and I use it on a daily basis and have been since I graduated from college 10 years ago.

Companies like Wal Mart, ACXIOM, and large transportation companies such as JB Hunt, ABF, USA Truck, Wingfoot Commercial Tire, and Data-Tronics use it day-in and day-out.

However, unlike the COBOL I always read about here on Slashdot, the code we work with is standardized, modularized, and backed with a relational database (IBM DB2).

I also happen to work in more modern languages (compared to COBOL) such as PHP, ASP, and .NET, and compared to them, working on COBOL is like taking a day off. It's top-down design makes it easy to read and follow, and as long as you aren't dealing with "go to" code, it's no harder than anything else out there.

Don't disregard a language simply because it's old, or because you don't have a fancy IDE to rely upon. Compared to some of the messy AJAX implementations I've seen, I'd take COBOL any day.

COBOL is hard-pressed to compete (1)

OldOOCoboler (1340497) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513101)

Yes the technologies have become more complicated, but using COBOL for new development won't change that. Just because standard procedural COBOL can't (easily) particpate in an SOA enterprise doesn't mean we don't WANT the application to be part of the SOA. So we usually wrap the COBOL in Java, or convert it to a COBOL object (yes, there are such things). You could leave the app out of the SOA and do a lot of ugly EDI (or more likely swivel-chair interfacing), but that only means you've made thing simpler by making them less useful.

So leave procedural COBOL exactly where it is today - the legacy that we have to keep running but that we also should be working to replace.

Now OO COBOL is another matter. If building new functionality (including writing new programs) in a large legacy COBOL system then IMHO using OO Cobol can make sense. If you want to use OO technology and you are bound to a legacy system then OO COBOL is easy, whereas calling a Java object can be a PITA (the native data types just don't match up, Exceptions work differently, even simple objects like String can't be passed, COBOL is not strongly-typed, garbage collection works differently, etc etc. The list goes on and on).

New code isn't that bad (2)

MikeRT (947531) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513115)

It's the way that we're expected to code. I'll give an example of what I mean. I first learned a bit about using SOAP via SOAP::Lite in Perl. Setting up a CGI script to run web services in Perl is so easy that I have to pinch myself to realize that, yes, Virginia, I really am using Perl and not Python or Ruby when using that package. My day job is Java-related, so I tried Axis2, which seems to be the popular way to do SOAP with Java.

Like all things Java Enterprise Edition, it required at least a dozen steps to replicate a few in another language. XML files everywhere, deploy it here, now put this file here, now that file there. Start this, do that.


Oh, right, because we need a server that costs 10s of thousands of dollars to run something that a free copy of Apache would run in half a dozen scripting languages that are tried and true. Besides, as a condescending executive told me in college during a business presentation, no one uses PHP, Perl, etc. anymore. It's all enterprise shit with hellaciously expensive servers and support packages.

Re:New code isn't that bad (1)

Drake42 (4074) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513481)

Of course it's insanely complicated to use. If everyone can do it easily you don't need to hire and IBM/M$ consultant to help you with it.

They don't care about you getting your work done, they care about making money.

Complex applications. (1)

wassabison (1339055) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513171)

*And it's not the applications that are growing more complex, but the technologies themselves.*
In my experience this is not true. Every year customers want to collect more and more data and have it analyzed in more complex ways. They also, want to interface with more and more systems.

Costs going up? (1)

pmontra (738736) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513191)

Partially offtopic:

Multicore processing, SOA, and Web 2.0 all contribute to rising software development costs

My experience is that new technologies are letting me produce more complex stuff in a fraction of the time I used to create simpler programs. Maybe I'm just getting better at coding, but my take is that development costs are going down.

Maybe they just want so many new features that technology advances can't keep up with all those requirements.

Re:Costs going up? (1)

Shados (741919) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513497)

The issue is the support afterward. You an pump out something in a fraction of the time, but building a new piece of software was always easy (analysis aside, but if people did their job back then, you can just dig out their doc... thats a huge IF though, as it doesn't happen often).

The catch is the support afterward. Take your typical internal web application. You can pump a fairly complex one of those in a few weeks, or a very complex and powerful one in a few months with a good thing.

Problems start after its deployed. There's all the session issues, the security concerns, integration with third party librairies that often become moving targets, cross-browser issues (yes, even if you ignore IE...Firefox 2 to Firefox 3 broke a few things, for example... nothing major, but enough to force some to go back in the code), and so on and so forth. Oh, and the quality of developers in general went way down, so even if it SHOULD be easy, idiots manage to make it hard for everyone else (coupled with management who won't fire them because its so hard to find people lately).

If you take a modern language, use only the default stuff, make the application command line via SSH/Telnet... you won't have all these issues... Once the software goes through QA, it most likely will work and always work (thus why many Cobol apps are still purring along... nothing to do with COBOL itself).

Wait...COBOL? (1)

superdan2k (135614) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513213)

Like what? COBOL on Rails? Because awesome.

Cobol still runs on hardware (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#24513225)

Eventually the COBOL systems will be replaced simply because they run on computers that aren't compatible with today's designs. Hardware like transistors, capacitors, and resistors all break down chemically over time. When that happens it not a simple matter or taking the code and running it on a different machine.

I had mod points but didn't see Uninformed listed (3, Informative)

crosseyedatnite (19044) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513371)

Oh the dilemna of mod points....

IBM still makes brand spanking new Big Irons. But they're not quite as big as they used to be. And they do more. And they also do stuff like run Linux.

Please go educate yourself before you look like a bigger moron.

Re:Cobol still runs on hardware (3, Informative)

pauls2272 (580109) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513453)

>Eventually the COBOL systems will be replaced simply because they run on computers that
>aren't compatible with today's designs.

Completely wrong. There is Cobol code from 1960s running on todays IBM Z10 processor. IBM is almost always backward compatible. IBM ain't Microsoft where the code breaks every couple years when MS releases a new windows or a service pack.

Just call me Pham Nuwen, (1)

MadMidnightBomber (894759) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513261)


Could be better (1)

slapout (93640) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513269)

I hate Cobol. But I will say that it could be a decent language with some revamping. Things that make it a nightmare:

All variables are global
No parameter passing to functions
The PERFORM keyword is way overloaded
Can't put comments on the same line as code

A for loop looks like this:

no decent statistics (2, Insightful)

hellfire (86129) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513273)

I'm having problems following the money on this article. Does an article that says COBOL may not be so bad really attract a lot of eyeballs for ads?

I say this because the article is bullshit on a tortilla. They talk about how much bugs cost and how many people found, but how does that truly compare to 10, 20 even 30 years ago? They had a source, why didn't they put that in?

No software is perfect. I'm even willing to agree that complexity has increased while quality has decreased, but by how much? The problem is you can't make these assertions without proper comparative facts, including adjustments for inflation.

Finally, COBOL is COBOL. Programs designed in COBOL are, on average, less complex than today's programs. They require more resources to develop, which means more manpower or more time. Also can COBOL be integrated with a front end website? Generate PDFs on demand? Perform EDI? Have sophisticated tools to make integration with newer languages and systems easier? Can you build it as an app on top of a relational or OO database?

COBOL was sufficient for it's time to do what it needed to do. It may be sufficient for many processes now. But COBOL isn't going to magically come back and everyone's going to start creating sophisticated ERPs from scratch with it. It's just another tool.

All this has happened before, (2, Funny)

AP31R0N (723649) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513307)

All this will happen again.

Dodgy Management = Bad Code (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#24513367)

COBOL allows one to produce unmaintainable "spaghetti" code quickly and on a whim - or tight deadlindes - or deadhead despotic management overseers - or....

Then, when the next Yr2K or serious paradigm/technology shift arrives - and the code pool has to be rewhacked to include graphic screens, internet, InterOrbital RFID NeurAINet or whatever, etc.

"Industry" will wail and moan, wring their hands, and cast dire forecasts. And gobble up atrocious consultation fees partly paid by governmental incentives dished out in a panic to avoid impending shareholder-doom.

More modern coding bases, object more readily to simple, old fashioned, "bad" code. Management in general too stupid and harried to administer good coding (including foresight and planning for exceptions and updates) gets what it "motivates" for.

And coding-automation seems to be the sensible direction. Plus collaborative validation. That's usually too much trouble for whatever executive-ishy modism harried underlings are supposed to be whipped into producing constantly revised contradictory results for.

I hope that bringing back a heavily-patchworked bad-code engine - because admin can't produce, verify or manage decent code - is really just the silly joke it really should be.

Oddly enough (1)

ShadowGamers (999766) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513387)

All of my programming lecturers are versed in COBAL (among other things). Hell, one of them even wrote software for banks back in the day...

COBOL Less Expensive? (2, Informative)

kenh (9056) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513417)

As a recovering COBOL Programmer (MVS/XA, IMS/DB, CICS, DB/2, VSAM, JCL ;^) I find it hard to believe that coding COBOL programs is "cheaper" in any real, absolute sense. If you are comparing "KLOC", then yes, COBOL is cheaper, because each line is "easier", but it likely does less work than a "higher-level"language line of code would do...

Comparing LOC per function point, not sure - it seems that we have lower expectaions/goals for COBOL code, so function points don't really compare.

Is it because programmers are cheaper for COBOL, ignoring function points and KLOC? Perhaps, but that ignores the likely greater number of cheaper COBOL programmers.

COBOL, Mainframes, and timesharing technologies have been on the way out for my entire career (I've been in IT since the late 80's), and the driver seems to be fashion, and it's saving grace is always that these proven technologies have stood the test of time and still work just fine, thank you very much.

Also, I refuse to believe that it would take half a year to cut state worker salaries to minimum wages - they can accomodate annual salary increases can't they?

Perhaps I'm confused (1)

Relic of the Future (118669) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513475)

Where is it written that the new system MUST be written to run on multiple cores, MUST use SOA, and, stupidiest of stupids, MUST use Web 2.0 gimmicks? If the cobol solution is so bad, wouldn't even a simple, naive, application still be an improvement? And if they avoid the bells, whistles, and buzz-words, not so prohibitively expensive?

(Okay, SOA will possibly help in the long term (if they do it right) with any future re-writes. But Web 2.0? Seriously?)

I am happy (2, Interesting)

Mong0 (105116) | more than 6 years ago | (#24513477)

I am so glad that COBOL is not a sexy language. Why? Because it keeps the majority of coders out and keeps the need for developers at a high premium. This allows those of us that know COBOL and actually enjoy coding it to laugh all the way to the bank.

I have been coding COBOL/DB2 for ten years now and have never once felt that I could not get another job doing the same thing making the same or more money.

You can make the statement that COBOL is a dead language all you want but banks, insurance companies, telecoms, energy companies, etc. will continue to use and develop new project around COBOL because "no one has ever been fired for going blue".

You go ahead and continue to develop your little web apps and I will know I have a stable job out look for the next 30 years.

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