What’s new in Sitecore 9

October 17, 2017

By Thomas B. Howard – Director of .Net Practice

Today Sitecore announced its next major upgrade to the Sitecore platform – Sitecore 9.  Behind the scenes, we’ve been playing with the pre-release version for the last few months to get a feel for what’s to come. And as of yesterday morning, I’m proud to say I’m one of the first Sitecore 9 certified developers in the world. So you can be sure that TA Digital is trained, certified and ready to deliver on Sitecore 9 the first day it’s available!

There is a lot to love in this new version. Everyone is going to have their favorite new features, but, I wanted to share with you some of the mines. Here are my top four:

xConnect

As I was quoted in Sitecore’s official Sitecore 9 press release, “The new xConnect feature truly opens up Sitecore’s xDB analytics database—making it the perfect core system for any enterprise marketing technology stack.” And that really is what this new service layer does for Sitecore’s xDB – it allows you to connect Sitecore analytics date with customer data coming from any other system in your marketing stack.

It does this by introducing a new xConnect Client API. This new ODATA based endpoint is used to read, write and search xDB data. And that’s not just for external applications – Sitecore’s own application now use the Client API for all data access. This really continues Sitecore’s “API Forward” style of open application architecture.  In almost all areas of Sitecore development, we count on their being an API that allows us access to the data, enabling us to create unique applications and “headless” CMS implementations. We now have that same access and ability with xDB data!

But, if you go a little deeper, xConnect is doing more than this. It is fundamentally changing the xDB architecture in a very positive way.  xConnect is provider based and defines new services and new providers for those services. The new services are:

  • xConnect Collection Service
  • xConnect Search Service
  • xConnect Search Indexer

In the pre-release version, the only provider of the collection service was (drum roll please) SQL Server!  That’s right, no more MongoDB. Or at least, MongoDB won’t be a requirement.  I still expect the production version of Sitecore 9 will re-introduce MongoDB support for the collection service.  For search services the pre-release version required SOLR. Azure Search is sure to be included in the production release, though.

Marketing Automation

The new Marketing Automation system provides a drag-and-drop interface that lets you easily create automated marketing campaigns.

You can determine when to move contacts into a specific campaign based on rules or particular actions that they take.  For instance, once they complete a certain goal, or reach a certain order count in the eCommerce module.

And once a user has entered a campaign you can change behavior profile or engagement values or move them in or out of lists. These values can, in turn, be used for personalization of the website or other parts of the customer’s journey. And adding the user to specific lists provides an easy way to control the emails delivered to the customer via Sitecore’s EXM module.

As part of the automation plan, you can also setup listeners which allow you to determine when or if your customer moves on to the next step. Like the rules which determine when they enter the campaign, these can be based on a wide variety of rules or actions and can be time bound.  In other words, specifying that the user took a certain action within a certain number of days from the last step.

All of this controlled by a very easy to use and intuitive interface.

Configuration Enhancements

Sitecore is highly configurable. And along with that configurability comes the complexity of managing dozens of configuration files. Sitecore 9 introduces a couple of new features that will make this task just a little easier.

The first is the introduction of a Layers.config file to give you fine-grained control over the load order of configuration files.  Traditionally files loaded in in alphabetical order, so renaming files was the only way to control load order. That is still true within a given folder, but, now the exact order that folders are loaded can be clearly defined.

The second big improvement is the introduction of a “Role” setting to define the role the server should play.  This will greatly simply configuring the various servers in an application pool.  The new roles are Standalone, Reporting, Processing, ContentManagement and ContentDelivery. Once you’ve set the role, the other configuration files can use a “role:require=” statement on each configuration to determine whether a particular feature should be run.  The simplest example of this is access to the Master database, where the clause role:require=”Standalone or Reporting or Processing or ContentManagement” added to the master database configuration statements guarantees that a server with a role of ContentDelivery will not have access. This should really help to alleviate some of the common configuration errors we see in multi-server installations.

Sitecore Installation Framework

Ok, this area is a bit of a love/hate relationship for me right now. Sitecore 9 now features a new installation framework – Sitecore Installation Framework (SIF). This is a Power Shell-based framework that relies heavily on configuration files to define the installation. It’s easy to see how this is DevOps engineer’s dream. It is exactly what you need to create scripted deployments that are repeatable and verifiable. In the pre-release version of Sitecore 9, though, getting the scripts configured and running was a mammoth undertaking even for a developer’s single server installation. But I fully expect by the time of the official release Sitecore will have made it much smoother and maybe even included a GUI based installer.

Other major features, all of which warrant further examination include Federated Authentication, Sitecore Forms, a replacement for the old Web Forms for Marketers (WFFM), enhancements to the List Manager, Experience Editor, Federated Experience Manager and more. We’ll be taking a look at some of these enhancements in future articles.

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