There has been much publicity around Sitecore’s latest release, version 9, which comes with significant advancements in marketing, data, automation and customer experience management. For many organizations, the decision to and justification for upgrading can be challenging, especially if their current build is stable and daily operations are running smoothly. This acts as a guide for organizations so that they can understand the benefits and considerations for upgrading to Sitecore Version 9.
If you prefer a more visual and in depth perspective on the benefits of Sitecore 9 for marketers, we've hosted and recorded a 50 minute webinar- you'll find it here: How to get more Customer Insights than ever
Sitecore versions in brief
The following table outlines the key differences and advancements in the most commonly deployed versions of Sitecore as of Q1 2018, with the timeframes of each major and minor release. Generally, Sitecore releases a minor update once or twice a quarter, and a major update twice a year.
6.5 - 6.6
7.0 - 7.2
8.0 – 8.2
“next generation capabilities for data-driven and omni-channel marketing”
Architecture re-centralized on xConnect layer, allowing easy and abstracted access to the analytics database (xDB); key modules such as automation and forms are refreshed and improved; machine learning module Cortex has been introduced; support for headless JS-based applications
Sitecore Commerce re-architected and released; full PaaS support in Azure
Key upgrade opportunities
With Sitecore 9 comes the opportunity for organizations to rethink several strategies and themes alongside the direction of the industry:
Your Cloud Strategy
Sitecore Cloud on Azure offers great efficiency in your ability to deploy and scale infrastructure on demand, while reducing on-premise costs. Using native Azure services and a pay-as-you-go usage-based model can simplify IT operations.
With Sitecore 9 you can still go with on-premise and IaaS models either in Azure or other data centers, but PaaS deployment may prove to be a game-changer for many organizations. This is a great juncture to re-evaluate your overall infrastructure and associated IT costs given the increased maturity of the Azure platform and available services.
With xDB support for SQL 2016 and search on Azure Search in version 9, you can now deploy Sitecore entirely in Azure. Learn more here.
NB: Sitecore PaaS deployment on Azure is available for version 8.2 as well, but we expect wider adoption and re-configuring to Cloud as part of upgrades to version 9.
Your Data Strategy
For organizations looking to re-align along a more centralized data strategy, Sitecore has beefed up the tools and connectivity needed to play a strategic role and contribute highly valuable data.
1. With Sitecore 7 and 8 we had the introduction of the xDB, a flexible and powerful database collecting behaviour across the customer journey. With Sitecore 9, we have the introduction of xConnect, a web API-based service layer making it easier to pull in and push out xDB data to all channels and external business systems, in a structured, abstracted way. This makes is much easier to do the following:
- Enriching the xDB and ability to personalize with CRM data
- Capturing physical/IoT data such as with beacon technology
- Exporting xDB data into a data warehouse for business intelligence
2. Better built-in support for GDPR legislation. Sitecore 9 offers mechanisms that make it easier for teams to comply, such as personally identifiable information (PII) flags on Contact fields considered PII-sensitive, and built-in functions such as “Right to be Forgotten” which anonymizes a Contact.
3. Finally, and most excitingly, Sitecore 9 introduces the ability to embed machine learning (ML) logic directly into the application with Cortex, which has been framed as “your personal data scientist” inside Sitecore.
Machine learning offers a lot of value to marketing applications. It can:
- Automate processes by replacing human judgement with prediction or pattern recognition (example: automated personalization)
- Discover new patterns and segments we didn’t know existed (example: segment discovery)
The Sitecore community had been innovating with Sitecore ML in previous versions, but Cortex offers a framework that makes it easier to embed machine learning models within content authoring and marketing workflows. If you’re looking to drive even more business value from your xDB data, experimenting with ML models is now easier than ever. Read more here.
Your Commerce Strategy
Sitecore Commerce for Version 9 touts its advantage as “one connected platform” and indeed the ability to tag, track, measure and optimize the entire end-to-end journey is a strong value proposition. Many organizations struggle with separate platforms serving different slices of their customer journey, making it difficult to build an accurate picture of customer behavior and opportunities for improvement.
Historically, Sitecore Commerce was an evolution of Microsoft Commerce Server. This iteration has been re-architected to take full advantage of micro-service architecture and Sitecore’s native personalization, testing and automation features all the way through to post-transaction – a true “data-driven personalized shopping experience” with all the features you’d expect: cross-selling, up-selling, product catalog, inventory and storefront models, and hooks into popular PIMs, fulfillment engines and payment providers.
If you’re looking to introduce or streamline your e-commerce operations, the argument to have the end-to-end experience served by one platform is compelling and worth your consideration.
Efficiencies for Your Marketers
Redesigned with more intuitive drag-and-drop interfaces and enhanced functionality (conditional form logic is easier than ever), marketers can use these tools hand-in-hand to drive automated lead generation and nurturing as well as capture of valuable customer data and integrations with CRM. Also helpful: understanding/optimizing form performance with metrics such as Abandon Rate.
Efficiencies for Your Developers
A few goodies have been added to make development and DevOps tasks easier and faster, as well as broadening the types of solutions that can be designed. Some of these include:
- End-to-end security by default, enabling encryption for all data at rest and in transport throughout the application.
- Dynamic placeholders, long requested and now granted as part of the core product, allows developers to add much richer conditional logic into markup and allowing for complex nested page layouts.
- Sitecore Installation Framework which allows developers to build and automate a Powershell-driven installation/deployment based on preset configurations and their own best practices for DevOps and solution architecture.
The risks of not upgrading
Once you’ve established a stable implementation and a well-trained team who are comfortable with daily tasks, the prospect of upgrading may cause some hesitation.
What are the risks if I get too far behind the latest version?
With Sitecore, you are running software on a plethora of underlying support infrastructure, each with its own lifecycle and roadmap, such as Windows Server, SQL Server and the .NET Framework. If you get too far behind with either Sitecore or its underlying systems, you may find support for older versions decreasing.
NB: With Sitecore specifically, there is a Product Support Lifecycle that is important to take into consideration. For example, mainstream support for Sitecore 8.2 ends 31-Dec-2019.
- You may be tolerating issues that are resolved in later versions; most commonly, browser compatibility issues and publishing issues often find resolution with newer versions.
- The longer you wait to upgrade, the higher the probability that your build will require additional tweaks to adjust to updated Sitecore APIs and features. That said, if you’ve waited long enough, you may find your upgrade can be pitched with a broader redesign or rebuild that starts fresh with the latest version.
- Certain add-on modules such as Web Forms for Marketers or Email Experience Manager may not be compatible with your older version, as the innovation and development always trends toward the newest versions. Check this module version compatibility chart and keep an eye on Sitecore Marketplace updates for any modules you use from there
How can I mitigate these risks?
If possible, ensure you have a properly architected, forward-facing build. Sitecore is a highly flexible platform, which is a developer’s dream, but this also means there are numerous ways to design the underlying architecture for the same published result. The two most important principles are:
- Design clean abstractions, business layers and integration tiers so API calls and objects can be easily updated or swapped out in a minimal number of places. Following the Helix principles of Sitecore solution design will ensure you have a flexible, extensible and high-performing solution.
- Additionally, the Sitecore marketplace is now sufficiently mature that several Accelerator products are now available to further accelerate base Sitecore solution development. These accelerators typically provide a library of pre-built commonly used components and utilities that help focus investment on value-add features instead of solution plumbing. (NB: Ensure your Accelerator conforms to Helix design principles).
- Design an optimization-friendly, component-based architecture. Marketing features such as personalization and A/B testing are configured on individual sublayouts within placeholders, and rely on swapping out either the datasource or rendering. Ensure your pages are cleanly component-based with content and logic driven by datasource items as much as possible.
Other important recommendations include:
- Include a rhythm of upgrades in your budget forecasting. Generally, we recommend at least a yearly assessment of upgrade cost and benefit, and a major upgrade every 1-2 years.
- Invest some time in keeping up-to-date with Sitecore’s product roadmap and taking incremental training steps with your marketing team, so training on the new concepts is less of a jump.
- If you use a lot of Sitecore or Marketplace modules in your solution, keep an eye on their relative upgrade paths and support lifecycles.
Our recommended approach for major upgrades includes the following activities. Upgrading Sitecore generally involves a series of incremental upgrades, database schema updates and concurrent module upgrades.
- Assess whether new infrastructure and whether cloud or on-prem, must be procured for new version
- Upgrade dress rehearsal performed locally on a copy of the build
- Upgrade book written to guide the process in the client’s environment, outlining ordered steps per Sitecore and instructions on any obstacles, customizations and prerequisites as encountered in the dress rehearsal
- Assessment and implementation of necessary fixes to support the new version (if any). Examples may include:
- Adjustments for API changes and breaking changes with existing system integrations
- Impact on business process flows
- Quality assurance performed on local copy
- Assistance to client in scheduling necessary downtimes and content freezes
- Application of upgrade on client environment Sitecore instances
- Optional migration of previously collected xDB data
- Please note that Sitecore 9 supports SQL 2016 only for the xDB, meaning you’ll face a migration from Mongo to SQL if you choose to keep your existing data
Generally, this can be performed over a period of several weeks, depending on the complexity of the upgrade and number of client instances, and whether new infrastructure (for example in Azure) has been procured.
Other areas of investment to maximize ROI of the upgrade:
- Training for developers and marketers on the new version, its interfaces and any new modules that will be used
- An “accelerator” engagement supported by a partner to take first steps with the new marketing features
- Fostering an executive-supported culture of measurement and continuous improvement
The return on investment
The sections above have outlined key areas of “softer” return on investment, chiefly outlining benefits, costs and risks of upgrading your Sitecore deployment in support of making the case to necessary stakeholders. It is more difficult to quantify a hard ROI number on an upgrade, as each organization’s goals, processes and solutions will widely vary.
There are a few metrics that can be used to assemble a calculation, if necessary. Organizations should frame the upgrade ROI by focusing on solving a specific issue or process, such as improving content author efficiency or reducing cost per lead, and by tying efforts to top-line growth. The heavy lifting will come from establishing baselines of performance to forecast improvements.
To establish baselines and project improvements, organizations should look to embrace a culture of measurement and ongoing optimization in order to regularly track calculation metrics over a specific time period, such as Cost Per Lead, Publishing Time, Content Author Time-on-Task, Landing Page Publishing Time, Campaign Deployment Time, A|B Test Deployment Time.
To establish investment costs, organizations should consider the TCO of the upgrade over the same period of time. These costs will likely include:
- Upgrading the solution
- Implementing new features
- Training and culture shift
- Infrastructure upgrades, if necessary
Making the effort to begin consistent measurement can result in concrete financial gains. Tracking and acting upon engagement metrics, centralizing cross-channel performance data within the product, and using this information to optimize your site(s) will get you moving in the right direction.