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COBOL drinks from cloudy fountain of youth

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One of computing's longest survivors is being hauled into the world of cloud computing, object-oriented programming, and virtual machines.

Micro Focus today plans to deliver Visual COBOL R3, a development environment it said positions COBOL for the next 10 years by meeting the needs of those maintaining it.

Despite the language being over 50 years old, there still exist more than 200 billion lines of COBOL code with five billion lines added to live systems each year, according to Micro Focus, which claims that more transactions are processed by COBOL applications than there are Google searches made each day.

Entrenched though it might be, it's not COBOL that developers are getting trained in – people are learning C# and C++, Java and Ruby, and hacking code using IDEs such as Visual Studio and Eclipse.

That means headaches for those still running their businesses on COBOL – and there are plenty of them, according to Micro Focus: COBOL runs retail point-of-sale terminals, hospital systems, phone networks, and billing systems.

Visual COBOL R3 brings changes to the COBOL language such as C# and Java-like constructs to make COBOL programming easier for .NET and Java devs, while also making it possible to program COBOL applications using Visual Studio 2010 and Eclipse.

Also added is the Visual COBOL Development Hub for Linux and Unix servers, which lets you compile and debug COBOL code on your desktop remotely.

Micro Focus says Visual COBOL R3 lets Visual Studio 2010 and Eclipse developers code for COBOL using all the IDEs’ familiar features such as auto complete, Intellisense, and context sensitivity. COBOL will also understand WPF and WCF commands in .NET.

As for the language, Visual COBOL R3 will deploy .NET and Azure apps natively using Microsoft's Intermediate Language (IL). On Java, COBOL is deployed as byte code to run inside a Java Virtual Machine (JVM). The JVM part is still just a technology preview, with finished product planned in Visual COBOL R4 in three months.

Underpinning all this are the Visual COBOL R3 compilers: Visual COBOL R3 converts COBOL's English-like statements – the essence that has made the language so accessible for programmers during the last 50-odd years – into files that the machine understands. The compilers provide the necessary runtime support to open and close files and understand specific machine dependencies.

There has been plenty of work in the past using compilers to make COBOL talk to .NET and Java. Micro Focus product solutions director Pete Anderton claimed the fact that Visual COBOL R3 compiling to Microsoft's IL and byte code in Java, combined with improvements in the compilers, will improve performance of your made-over COBOL app.

Anderton said that taking existing COBOL apps to the cloud using Visual COBOL R3 would let you capitalize on the value of proven apps while tapping the benefits of elasticity, web access, centralized control, and zero-latency rollout of the cloud. Putting COBOL in the JVM would help organizations on their way towards simplifying their IT infrastructure, he said. ®

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