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September 2003

COBOL meeting shows language’s future

HP World session focuses on options for new environments

By Steve Hammond

Pursuant to the events of November 14, 2001, the Energizer Bunny can no longer be the mascot of MPE. And the way things are looking these days, the grande dame of programming languages, COBOL, can adopt the stance of that fuzzy little guy — because the 2003 meeting of SIGCOBOL showed us that the language has legs for many more strong years.

Jeannette Nutsford led a meeting that covered both ends of the COBOL spectrum — from discussion of standards to revival meeting evangelism. The meeting at the Georgia World Congress Center covered all the bases of what she called “our best and most loved language.”

After Jeannette was convinced to extend her SIG leadership for another year, she discussed how she and her partner Ken have represented Interex and its membership on both the US-based J4 COBOL Standards committee and the international WG4 Standards committee. She reported that the next COBOL standard will be COBOL 2008 and her pet enhancement, dynamic tables, should be included in it. Dynamic tables allow a program to run one time with 500 entries in a table and 200 in the next, dynamically expanding and contracting to accommodate the data.

Any member of Interex and SIGCOBOL is invited to attend these J4 standards meetings. So if you feel a need to speak out for an enhancement, Jeannette and Ken will be happy to take up your cause, or you can do so yourself.

The meeting was then turned over to vendor presentations. Acucorp, Transoft, MBS, Microfocus, PIR Group, The Kompany and Fujitsu all gave short presentations about their respective products and services. The choice of environments to migrate onto keeps growing — Linux, .NET, HP-UX, Sun and AS/400 are all now migration options that these vendors and their products offer and support.

HP’s Randy Roten then announced that a patch has been released to correct a long-standing (but only recently discovered) bug.

The bug, which has only been encountered in one large program, occurs when you are using the optimize option. When using any version of COBOL/iX prior to and including A.04.21 (the most recent) and OPTIMIZE=1, instructions may be reordered to cause silent data corruption. There is only one reported case of this and HP has been unable to duplicate the problem in a small program.

This case involves a MOVE of spaces to some (non-word aligned) target fields followed by two MOVEs from the source fields to the same target fields. It will work fine unoptimized, but OPTIMIZE=1 caused one of the reordered instructions (the one that blanks the first byte of the target) to be executed in the wrong sequence (after the first byte was moved to the target).

The defect has been fixed in version A.04.22 of the COBOL compiler available in patch COBMXJ7 A/B/C for MPE/iX 6.5/7.0/7.5. In order to release the COBOL compiler with this fix to the Backend, another Backend defect had to be fixed as well. This defect involved performance issues (for more details, see JAGae39390). Previously, the Backend had new millicode routines added to support the new C language data type “long long.” There was a dramatic performance degradation found in a very atypical COBOL benchmark program that did numerous multiplies so COBOL was rebuilt with the older Backend as a workaround. To fix this problem, some code was changed to decide whether to bind the new millicode (for C) or the old millicode routines (for everyone else). A compiler has to be rebuilt with this new Backend before it will behave differently and COBOL is the only affected language as of this time.

Randy took some heat because the patch is not available for MPE 6.0.

Then the fun began. The vendor representatives came to the front for a question and answer session that quickly became a mass repudiation of the “legacy” and “obsolete” labels that have been attached to COBOL programs recently. Tim O’Brien of Fujitsu pointed out that a Gartner Group study reports there are over 280 billion lines of COBOL codes in regular use today. (Point of reference: if you counted one number per second, it would take over 8,000 years to count to 280 billion.)

This “obsolete” language still handles a vast majority of business processing done today. Irving Abraham of Microfocus noted that they have a customer managing a Formula 1 racing team that uses COBOL programs and that many ATM machines have COBOL embedded on chip handling their processing.

Unfortunately, the MTV/Nintendo generation of programmers being produced today have minimal exposure to COBOL. Luckily, this is changing. Mike Jones of Acucorp reported that he has heard recently that recruiters are having trouble placing recent college graduates who only have Java on their resumes. But a combination of COBOL with one of the newer languages seems to make the candidate more “placeable.” There followed a discussion of how important it is to get colleges to understand this reality and to keep COBOL in the curriculum. There has been some success as the universities start to see the realities of the job market.

Members of the SIG pointed out that COBOL is a strong, stable, secure language. One attendee noted that most of the recent system ‘hacks’ attack bytestream-oriented languages. Since COBOL is not bytestream-centric, it is inherently far more secure.

As the meeting drew to a close, one speaker pointed out that a 13-year-old Bill Gates cut his programming teeth on a time-share DEC computer, modifying a COBOL payroll program. If the language was good enough for him, it should still be good enough for the rest of us.


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