Surround Tech Keeps IBM i Websites Hip to the Times
April 26, 2017 Alex Woodie
The World Wide Web has changed considerably since the first websites went live more than 20 years ago, and many IBM i shops have struggled to keep up. One midrange vendor helping IBM i shops adapt to the times is Surround Technologies, which has morphed its Web application development environment, called Accelerator, into a full content management system.
In today’s world, having a functional and good-looking website has become a business necessity. In many instances, the website becomes a portal that allows customers, business partners, and employees to access important documents or submit information. In others, the website has effectively become an extension of the company and its public face.
As websites have become more critical to business success, so have the challenges in creating good ones. Today’s websites need to work across all devices, including mobile phones, tablets, and PC desktops. Users expect them to be up-to-date and dynamic. They also expect them to integrate with social media.
Surround Technologies Accelerator has traditionally been a .NET developer-centric tool for creating new line-of-business applications that feature Web, Windows, and mobile interfaces and utilize IBM i as a database and business logic layer. The product, which functions as a plug-in for Microsoft Visual Studio, uses AJAX technologies and methodologies, as well as the ASP.NET model view controller (MVC) framework and a heavy dose of C# under the covers.
But that application development focus has been changing in recent years, particularly with the recent release of website content management system (CMS) functionality built into the tool. “Our CMS was born out of need,” Surround Tech CEO Lee Paul says. “A lot of these companies have really great enterprise business, but at some of the smaller IBM i shops, their Web presence has been lacking.”
Shops of all sizes have learned that static websites don’t cut it anymore. Many are looking to expose back-office functions (which may run on IBM i) through password-protected portals running on public-facing websites. Others are getting more sophisticated about use of video, images, and overall branding. None of it should be overlooked in today’s competitive, global, and 24/7 business environment.
Paul says the CMS functionality in Accelerator is akin to what companies can expect to get with Drupal or other popular open source products. “We’re not a CMS for somebody to go create four or five pages to show who they are. That’s not us,” he tells IT Jungle. “Our CMS is geared to companies who have to create custom built, dynamically driven websites.”
The first release of the CMS focused on serving static content, but the needs have gradually moved up the complexity ladder as customers demand better-looking websites. “Often they wanted fancy-looking content, but they were limited to making things bold, or italic, or adding an image here and there,” Paul says.
With Accelerator version 7.2, which Surround Tech unveiled earlier this month, the company has added new features that make it easier for non-developers to work with fancier-looking content. “Say they wanted a fancy banner or table,” Paul explains. “It was a little more than the content provider or even the Web administrator can think about and do.
“Now developer can build a custom piece, put it into reusable framework in a way that the content manager” can easily use, Paul continues. “This just reuses all this underlying complex code and make it nice and pretty for them.”
The new release also takes users’ social media play up a notch. In previous releases, website administrators were largely flying blind as to how their websites would render when partners or customers would link the page to their Facebook or Twitter accounts.
With version 7.2, Surround Tech has a new preview function that shows website admins exactly how their websites will render in various social media channels. The feature, which uses metadata to communicate exactly what the social media channels want to hear regarding image placement and titles, helps Accelerator users better control how they’re appearing in social media, and therefore to optimize their social messages.
The CMS also gets better multi-lingual support with version 7.2. The software ships with six preconfigured language packs for English, Spanish, French, Japanese, Portuguese, and Chinese. But these language packs don’t work with a customer’s own content. Thanks to integration with Google Translate in Accelerator 7.2, Surround Tech provides customers a way to jumpstart the translating websites to multiple languages.
It’s tough to overstate the importance of having a good-looking website to attract new business, and sustain existing customers. Surround Tech certainly understands this, which is why the company has shifted from a purely technical role to more of an advisory role, where it performs rapid prototyping as part of proof of concept engagements.
“We’ve moved beyond just basic business computing,” Paul says. “We’ve moved beyond providing good business software for your employees and business partners. Now we’re providing external-looking software. Our UX guy has been busy making things look good for our customers.”