AWS Public Sector Blog

Improving government services: IDE extension for COBOL syntax highlighting wins the third annual AWS Hackathon for Good

At the Amazon Web Services (AWS) Nonprofit Hackathon for Good, 484 participants built solutions to help relieve the burden on developers in the government who are facing increasing demands on their systems during COVID-19. Hackathon participants were tasked with improving the workflows of the frontline developers who maintain mission-critical COBOL applications. The winning solution created an integrated developer environment (IDE) extension for COBOL syntax highlighting, and is now available in the Visual Studio Code (VS Code) Marketplace.

COBOL was created over 60 years ago and powers many state and federal systems including the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services (DHS), Department of Defense (DoD), and Internal Revenue Service (IRS). COBOL is foundational to our banking infrastructure, powering over 90 percent of all ATM transactions and plays a major role in the transportation industry, specifically for airlines and freight. In the time of COVID-19, many states are having issues managing the increased quantity of unemployment claims, applications for loan payments, and updates to taxpayer information.

Despite the prevalence of COBOL, there is a shortage of developers who know the language and many IDEs don’t have COBOL support. For developers who maintain these legacy COBOL applications, access to popular IDE extensions and plugins aren’t always available. This year, the AWS public sector developer community came together to help fix this problem and improve the workflow of COBOL developers.

Out of 22 projects submitted, one project won the title of grand champion (and the AWS Hackathon for Good champion’s belt), while three additional projects won individual categories. Read for more details on these winners and their solutions.

Grand Champion: COBOL syntax highlighting, beautify your COBOL code
The winning solution, created by Shashi Ranjan—COBOL syntax highlighting—is an extension created for VS Code that focuses on syntax highlighting and includes several other minor features like auto-closing for brackets and code folding for COBOL. Shashi’s goal for creating this project was to learn COBOL while creating his first marketplace extension. This project was selected because of the high code-quality, value to COBOL developers, and inclusion in the VS Code Marketplace.

In the future, Shashi would like to implement a code auto-completion feature. For now, you can check out the extension or install it at no cost on the VS Code marketplace.

Category Winners

“Why didn’t I think of that” winner: IDE for COBOL to Java Remodeling

Team IDE for COBOL to Java Remodeling won the “Why didn’t I think of that” category. IDE for COBOL to Java Remodeling is an Eclipse-based tool for dual-nature projects (COBOL/Java) that can be seamlessly compiled, debugged, and deployed without the need to modify or rewrite the COBOL components until the developer desires to do so. The reason for building this plugin was a search for a COBOL compiler and runtime combination that enables the use of COBOL application business logic within a pure Java framework. This project was chosen because of the obvious need for COBOL to Java remodeling, and because COBOL to Java was the focus of our hackathon breakout sessions.

The team plans to further develop the IDE capabilities to add COBOL refactoring and the capability of handling embedded languages within COBOL source at edit-time and while debugging. This Eclipse-based tool is available at

“Outside the box” winner: COBOL Docs, a simple and easy docs extension for COBOL developers

The winner of the “Outside the box” category, COBOL Docs is a VS Code extension for quickly and easily looking up COBOL documentation. The extension allows COBOL developers to instantly view cheat sheets and docs inside the VS Code editor, improving the development workflow.

The team plans to make this plugin fully available in the VS Code marketplace. For now, view, download, or even contribute to this extension on GitHub.

“Everyone loves automation” winner: COBOL Ready, COBOL samples for VS Code

Khaled Abouseada won the “Everyone loves automation” category for COBOL Ready, COBOL Samples for VS Code. COBOL ready is a VS Code extension that provides a library of raw COBOL code samples and comments to get your project started quickly, then run your code in the cloud. The extension was built off of a forked version of an existing VS Code COBOL extension that provides syntax highlighting, intelligence, and snippets for COBOL. This project was selected because allows developers to quickly and easily create a “Hello world” environment for their COBOL project.

The team would like to add the ability to connect and run the code in the cloud instantly with free trials via API. Until then, COBOL Ready is available on GitHub.

To learn more about migrating COBOL-based applications to the cloud, check out our hackathon breakout sessions. These video sessions are available on demand, and guide viewers through a migration from COBOL to serverless Java.

Read stories about past AWS Nonprofit Hackathon for Good, and check out some tips for hosting a virtual hackathon.