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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Where is COBOL being used today?

Through my job I get to see many different shops using various technologies in many different ways. It continues to amaze me how folks are using COBOL to run their business.

For instance, I've seen multiple shops using COBOL to process high volumes of payment transactions, medical claims, EDI transactions, loan approvals, shipping transactions, etc. But quite literally one of the "coolest" things I've seen was in a refrigerated warehouse.

The people in this sub zero degree environment have to wear cold weather gear, including gloves, and walk around pulling items from shelves for shipping. Their old process was to print out their pick list and begin going around the warehouse to fill up their bins. As they pulled the items, they would make notes on their paperwork as to quantities pulled, inventory counts, etc. Off and on came the gloves. It worked but it wasn't ideal.

Their IT department came up with a solution which allowed them to arm the warehouse workers with headsets and a handheld device. The handheld replaced their printouts and instead of writing, they spoke into the headset. Voice recognition software translated their responses and automatically updated the bill of lading, inventory quantities, etc by calling existing COBOL routines running on a backend server. The operators loved it and their efficiency went up exponentially. Slick stuff huh?

While the headsets and handheld devices were the new item in the mix, the fact they could tie into their existing COBOL applications saved them a ton of time and money to put this in place.

Another shop I visited did work with nuclear "things". I found in talking with them that the COBOL inventory management system was rather critical in determining what item sat on a shelf next to what item. If certain things were place incorrectly, it would result in a big flash of light and most of the eastern seaboard would go away. Talk about a high stress system to maintain! Imaging being the guy responsible for making a change to that COBOL application and then putting the changes into production. I'm thinking the old "I'll just test it in production approach" wasn't used much. *grin*

So, now your turn. What's the coolest thing you are doing or have you've seen someone do with COBOL?


  1. I know a company which has a COBOL program which takes COBOL source code and outputs JVM class files (directly, no intermediate steps) which can then run on the Java Virtual Machine on just about any computational platform. It is an experimental/developmental bit of code, but it works and produces very fast and efficient bytecode.

    You might have heard of them!

  2. A friend passed me this tidbit...

    I was at a gala in San Diego about 10 years ago for COBOL’s 40th and after the technology sessions, there was a party aboard a US Navy guided missile destroyer. Basically a floating missile launching pad(s).

    The ship was capable of inflicting intense directed damage with all the different missiles and torpedoes; some could have been nuclear tipped, but they wouldn’t say.

    It had two ‘Gatling’ guns, one on each side of the ship, capable of 3000 rounds a second – designed to simply overwhelm and disintegrate anything coming towards the ship.

    All this stuff, the navigation, the weaponry, the controls, was handled in a large room in the core of the ship with 360 degree monitors.

    I asked one of the sailors whether COBOL was used – he told me about half the software was COBOL, the rest tailored JOVIAL and some ‘special’ stuff.

    I’ve heard the ship right now is off coast of Vietnam, near the Koreas.

    The folks who use the excuse “if COBOL were widely used, I would have known” simply do not know their lives depend on it.

  3. It interesting that you mention COBOL being used in a refrigerated warehouse. I did the coding for the handheld scanner for a large frozen food distributor in Delaware several years ago. We used FlexGen to create the COBOL source code. The last I knew, they were moving toward voice response units similar to your description. From this system, they created vehicle loading maps, bills of lading, invoices, orders, etc. All of their systems were/are in COBOL, and interact with each other.