The lowdown from NOLA

I don’t have anything technical to write about this week, as all my time has been taken up with a trip to New Orleans for the Sitecore MVP Summit and the SUGCON NA user group conference. So instead of the usual code, there are a few things about these events I’d like to discuss…

What new stuff is coming in the future?

There was a great deal of “what’s coming next” information released during SUGCON. There was lots at the MVP Summit too, but most of that is under NDA so I can’t talk about it sadly – suffice to say there’s some awesome stuff on the far-future roadmap.

But some key points from what was made public include:

  • Sitecore are working on a big bug-fixing push. They’re aiming to release monthly updates over the next year while they work to try and clear 50% of the open bugs that users have reported. These will fix issues in both the 7.0/7.2 and 8.x lines.
  • It sounds like v7.5 is pretty much being abandoned. (“It’s the Windows Vista of the Sitecore world” joked twitter) If you’re running that, it doesn’t look like it’s part of the big bug bash. The advice is to upgrade to the v8.x line as soon as practical.
  • I think (not entirely sure) we saw the first public discussion of the upcoming v8.2 release – which is scheduled in the middle of 2016. Features being slated for this release include:
    • A new “xConnect” API to allow external integrations into the analytics framework. Your tills, your RFID readers, your CRMs and any other processing systems which need to record or process analytics data will have a sensible way to do so.
    • A full abstraction for analytics data storage, which removes the need for direct access to the xDB storage layer. No more hand crafting your reporting queries, hopefully.
    • An approach to “express upgrades” – allowing the potential for going from 7.x to 8.x in one process. This doesn’t sound like it’s going to be a magic bullet – after all automating the upgrade of solutions that have custom code written against specific versions of Lucene is unlikely to work. But it does sound like it will provide advice and support for dealing with your customisation, and will roll up all of the individual update steps into a single process – leaving you to focus on fixing your code to deal with the breaking changes.
    • It’s making a start on addressing the compliance privacy and security implications of xDB. At present the situation with PCI compliance for Commerce and PII compliance for XDB isn’t great – but they’re starting down the path of dealing with the need to encrypt this data in a sensible way to keep it safe.
    • The story for running Sitecore on Azure PaaS gets much better. There will be no need for the specialised Azure module, and you will be able to deploy your site from the standard publishing tools inside of Visual Studio.
  • There’s lots happening in the Commerce world too:
    • In the future the releases for Sitecore’s Commerce Server offering will be aligned with the releases of the rest of the platform.
    • There’s some dramatic rework of this software coming. We’re going to see all the key transaction management UIs move into SPEAK applications inside Sitecore, as well as lots of re-writing of code to make it more modern and maintainable.

What was the SUGCON buzz?

The buzz was fantastic, frankly. I can’t remember the last time I attended a community run event where there were (literally) standing-room-only presentations going on. The turnout was great, the people there were engaged with the Sitecore world, and there was some fantastic content too. It was one of those events where it would have been great if all the sessions had been recorded, as there were quite a few times when I would happily have listened to all of the sessions in one slot.

But out of the sessions that I did attend, the following stuff struck home:

  • After years of grumping from some quarters about how difficult unit and integration test of Sitecore solutions is, we’re now in a place where you can do some really good stuff with the tools available.
    • Sitecore are listening to our grumbling, and their newer code has much better approaches to handling the bits of the system you commonly need to abstract. They’re not going to make breaking changes to the older code that’s harder to test, but they are talking openly about how you can use auto-generated Fakes, or write your own abstractions to deal with the remaining issues.
    • The Sitecore.FakeDb project in particular, along with the great data abstraction provided by tools like Glass or Synthesis are a key enabler here to let us try to focus more on automated test. As one presenter said, Sitecore.FakeDb “is the gateway drug to unit testing” in Sitecore.
  • There’s some great work going on in the community around automation of common tasks. People were discussing both DevOps-style setup automation (a topic I’ll be publishing some things about soonish) and deployment / build automation for CI.
    • The adoption of DevOps processes for Sitecore has some significant advantages for those of us working on long term clients. The description of “Snowflake servers” (where everything ends up unique after years of patches and deployments) vs “Phoenix servers” (where you happily tear them down and rebuild them via automation on a regular basis) resonated with me.
    • Inside your Sitecore instances, the automation options provided by the Powershell Extensions for Sitecore have the opportunity to make our lives much easier. Combining DevOps automation with PSE Remoting looks really powerful – that’s part of my impending write-up of some work I’ve been doing.
    • We also heard about the interesting potential of the new “Transparent Synchronisation” features of Unicorn – where you can use serialised items as a complete replacement for parts of you Sitecore database. While there are some obvious performance implications here, the possibilities in development environments look intriguing.
  • The increased focus on scale of Sitecore installs brings some interesting issues.
    • Focused on website performance and/or looking at international sites? One of the areas which needs thought is the implication of having your images living in the Sitecore database. While there’s a fairly good OTB story here for many scenarios, when you’re striving for top notch performance and scale for international sites, looking into CDNs can offer big gains. The flexible nature of Sitecore makes it surprisingly easy to host your images in a CDN while still gaining all the content editing and image optimisation features Sitecore allows.
    • And it’s also important not to forget the political ramifications of scaling out across countries. Both the data protection issues, such as “if you target Russia, your PII needs to stay inside Russia” and the legal / technical ramifications of trying to serve content behind the “Great Firewall” of China were discussed.
  • And there are interesting new things available in the world of Search too. Coveo announced their work towards machine-learning for relevancy ranking of search results, as well as their new “search as a service” model. In the future we’ll be able to license an integration with Coveo-in-the-cloud on “usage level” licensing rates.

Outside of the details of the presentations, it’s worth calling out the scale of the achievement that SUGCON NA was. 370 people attended. For a community organised event, that’s massive. And I think it goes to emphasise just how engaged and vibrant the community around Sitecore is.

If only we had some sort of community-driven solution for the jet-lag…

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