Sitecore Symposium 2014 Day 2

Sitecore 122Day 2 of the SYMNA held much excitement as the keynotes and tracks kicked off with a bang (or at least with dancing). Michael Seifert delivered an excellent opening keynote to set the tone for the day (say “Experience” one more time) which entirely focused on learning the complete context of a customer in order to truly understand their experience. A few slick Sitecore 8 screens later and we were all itching to get our hands on it.

For me, the really neat part of it all was the tie-in to the Microsoft Azure machine learning computing. I can really see that part taking experience prediction on a whole new path that we haven’t gone down yet. However, this type of computing may be quite a ways off for a lot of small-to-medium business who are still wrapping their minds (and content) around basic personalization and A/B testing.

The Developer Keynote

Though I’ve been in the software industry a long time now, I’m relatively new to Sitecore.  Version 6.5 was my learning ground. The Developer Keynote, however, turned on the way-back time machine and showed us all the history of how and why Sitecore became what it is today.

Obviously, the discussion of the future of Sitecore is all about the Big Data sphere and xDB. The scalability of the new system will enable a lot of cool things down the pipe, and quite a few cool things right now. 

The biggest announcements, though, were about free goodies for all. The first came from Coveo who announced a free version of their search engine Coveo for Sitecore. We’ve worked with Coveo in the past and it’s a really solid search engine, with a lot of capabilities, but the sticker shock was a bit much for folks who just wanted a simple site search. With the free offering, that obstacle is gone. Coveo provides a comparison between Free and Enterprise on their product features page, but the big notes are that you won’t be able to crawl multiple sources, use analytics, or use DMS personalization on your results. You can get the analytics if you purchase the Gold Support, though.

The other announcement that got a lot of cheers was an online, searchable, documentation repository for Sitecore. It’s still in beta, but this was very well received by the crowd and I know that I’m excited to see if the search engine tuning will actually return the results I need for the questions I tend to have.

Moving to xDB in the cloud

One of the developer tracks I attended had Chris Castle and Brandon Royal from Sitecore presenting on the upgrade process to get onto xDB. Their case study surrounded the Launch Sitecore site where they followed the recommended upgrade path:

  1. Decide on “On Premise” vs “In the Cloud” for xDB.
  2. Upgrade to 7.2 (if on an older version)
  3. Run the update installation wizard for 7.5
  4. Convert all existing analytics data using the provided data conversion tool

The data conversion tool is defaulted to 1 thread, but Chris and Brandon recommended running 20-50 threads to speed up the process. The tool can also run multi-server. It essentially reads the existing data and transforms it into the new schema for your target 7.5 xDB MongoDB instance. Once the data is converted, you’ll need to rebuild the reporting database.

One cool thing was that the aggregation service is running as pipelines so you can extend it to aggregate data in any custom manner. This allows you to extend the default xDB schema to add your own data based on the data that was collected.

Sitecore Tools

The Sitecore Tools presentation by Mike Reynolds (MedTouch) and Sean Holmesby (Hedgehog) was definitely the highlight of the day for me. Using their fictional company “HedgeTouch” as a base, the audience was brought along a ride for the #SitecoreSelfie revolution. Using (and extending) Sitecore Instance Manager, MongoDB, Powershell Extensions, Sitecore Rocks, TDS, RAZL, and SPEAK, the session culminated with a hilarious dance video that incorporated the selfies that had been uploaded to twitter, including some taken during this session.

Wizardry aside, the number of extension points available in these tools is quite astounding. I hadn’t really looked at Powershell Extensions before, so it was nice to see what could be possible and what was already there out of the box.

On a side note: I cornered Sean after the session and found out that an upcoming version of TDS will support automated deployments and source control of roles and role memberships. I’ve had to custom build my own solution for this, so I’d much rather have it come with the product. Looking forward to that!

Project Skynet

I will start with this: Statistics are not my thing. Tim Ward amazed all with Project Skynet, but half of what he was talking about sorta went over me. I was able to catch the drift of where this was going, though, and I can definitely see the benefits of it. Essentially, Project Skynet customizes xDB so that you can begin to predict which personalizations you need to build based on test results. It can aggregate the data, determine multiple winners, and then look for commonalities in visitor data to suggest which winners should be personalized for which persona attributes.

There was gamification of the ‘guessing’ process where you can report on your authors and see who is guessing at the winners the best, but I’m not sure anybody would want that type of list actually in their department. Sounds like a way to get fired!

Around the Keystone booth

When I wasn’t in a session, I was hanging out at the Keystone booth and chatting with folks as they came by. Over the last few days, I had a few questions come up repeatedly so I figured I’d get those out to you here:

  1. Can you skin it?
    Yes. We have used bootstrap for all of our components as the base and then we’ve placed a configuration setting in Sitecore which you can update to include your own CSS into the bundle. Upload your CSS file, edit the config, and change to your heart’s content!
  2. How do I customize the components you provide?
    You can download the .NET Website project and get all of the ASCXs that are used for the components. This allows you to create copies of the component and customize them to your needs. You can access of all our business layer utilities and classes in your own custom components to leverage anything provided in Keystone.

Looking ahead to Day 3

Day 3 looks busy, and there are a lot of interesting tracks, but I think I’ll be trying to spend some time with folks at our booth. There are some great conversations happening there and I want to make sure I’m a part of them!

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