Cobol comes to the cloud

Micro Focus updates Visual Cobol to include access to Azure and the Java Virtual Machine

Micro Focus has updated its developer platform for the Cobol programming language, adding the ability to run Cobol applications on Microsoft's Azure cloud service.

Visual Cobol R3, released Thursday, also offers a preview capability for Cobol programs running on a JVM (Java Virtual Machine), said Peter Anderton, Micro Focus' director of product solutions.

With this release, the company has done a lot of work in bridging this legacy language to modern computing environments. The language can even be a viable choice for new projects, Anderton argued.

Using Visual Cobol, a developer could write a Cobol application once and have it run unchanged on Unix or Linux, on a JVM, on an Azure-based hosted service or on the Microsoft .Net 4.0 platform, Anderton asserted.

The previous version of Visual Cobol was a plug-in to Microsoft Visual Studio 2010, allowing Visual Studio users the ability to write programs in Cobol. Version 3 also can be obtained as a plug-in for the Eclipse IDE (integrated development environment), in addition to Visual Studio.

For Azure-based applications, Visual Cobol takes advantage of Visual Studio 2010's innate capability to publish an application to an Azure cloud, the application hosting service offered by Microsoft and its partners. It is the first version of Visual Cobol to offer this capability, Anderton said.

For Linux and Unix users, Visual Cobol R3 now offers something called the Development Hub, which allows developers to write the Cobol code on the desktop and compile and debug the code on a remote machine.

This JVM technical preview is a trial run for a full product-ready version in Visual Cobol R4, expected to be released in May. Micro Focus developed a Cobol compiler that can compile Cobol code into Java bytecode, making it runnable on any JVM platform. "The technology is there, but the usability is not 100 percent there," Anderton said. This release, however, will allow developers to start working with the JVM in anticipation for R4.

"You can have Cobol alongside Java now. The interoperability between the two is so much easier. You can build composite applications that use the best language for each part of the job," he said.

For this release, Micro Focus has also extended basic Cobol with a number of additional C# and Java-like calls, with the idea that these constructs will make it easier for Java and C# programmers to use the language.

Created in 1959, Cobol was designed to simplify the process of writing programs by using a syntax more easily understandable by non-programmers. A considerable amount of Cobol code still runs today. The company estimates that 220 billion lines of Cobol code are currently in production, on mainframes and other systems.

Although Cobol is widely regarded as a legacy language, Anderton argued it could be a viable choice for new projects for a number of reasons.

"It is really fast in handling simple file structures and doing operations to massive data sets. Nothing else can match it," he said. It offers a numerical precision still difficult to obtain in other languages. For instance, it can carry out mathematical operations to 38 decimal places with truncation.

The language is also easy to learn. "It is one of the easiest languages to understand," he said.

Joab Jackson covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Joab on Twitter at @Joab_Jackson. Joab's e-mail address is Joab_Jackson@idg.com

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