Did you miss Sitecore Symposium? We got you.

VP, Technology
Simon Jones

September 27, 2016

Thousands of web and experience management experts were in New Orleans but just in case you weren’t one of them...

Sitecore broke from its tradition this year holding their biannual Symposium in New Orleans– instead of Vegas. Fear not though Vegas lovers, as Sitecore announced that they will return to Sin City in October 2017 switching to an annual schedule.

This year’s Symposium kicked off with a New Orleans marching band that set the tone for things to come over the next two days. Events like these are often trumpet-blowing affairs but Sitecore had much to sing about with the recent unveiling of Sitecore 8.2, the launch of the Experience Accelerator (SXA) and glimpses of upcoming product releases. Michael Seifert promised fun in his keynote– and I defy any attendee to say it was anything other than that. Jason Silva’s fast paced keynote was mind blowing and thoroughly inspirational, though by the end of it I was quote-fatigued (Jason loves a good quote) and ready for some real action.

The Sitecore Experience Accelerator or SXA featured prominently on the two-day agenda with a total of 3 sessions covering this new product. SXA is aimed at speeding up the creation of a Sitecore website using a set of highly customizable components and layouts. There are upwards of 80 components currently available out-of-the-box with more to come in future releases. SXA follows Sitecore’s new set of design principles called Sitecore Helix which provide recommendations for building websites on Sitecore by following best practices and architecture conventions. Accelerators are nothing new and many companies, including Valtech, already have their own. However, SXA could be a turning point for these 3rd party accelerators as it has the obvious advantage of a tighter integration to the core platform– making it a more viable and feature-rich alternative. Of particular interest to me is the notion of wire framing your Sitecore website before any design work has commenced. This enables design and development to occur in parallel with the eventual designs imported into SXA via a zip file containing CSS and JavaScript. It remains to be seen if these parallelized work streams are a pipe dream, but the obvious timesaving advantages of such an approach are tremendously attractive. Valtech is already putting SXA through its paces with a few client POCs underway. I’ll report back on our findings and opinion at a later date.

The Express Migration Tool, which was released at the same time as Sitecore 8.2, was introduced by Lars Nielsen, Sitecore’s Chief Development Officer and eminent co-founder, during the Developer keynote. This tool eases the task of upgrading Sitecore to a newer version without being required to follow a long set of instructions that transition from one minor version to the next. Any Sitecore developer or architect who has worked with the platform for any length of time will agree that this is long overdue and is a very welcome addition to Sitecore.

Another unveiling was xConnect, Sitecore’s new API layer for exchanging data with the Sitecore Experience Database (xDB). Separate sessions by Todd Mitchell at Sitecore and Jason Wilkerson at RBA highlighted the power of this new framework to “collect and act on any information about any individual from any channel at any time” – Todd Mitchell. xConnect opens up the Experience Database to the physical world enabling companies to combine online and offline interactions, producing seamless personalized experiences for their customers. Analytical tools, such as Power BI, can now be used to interrogate the xDB data producing compelling visualizations, which can reveal valuable insights into the behavior of customers. In Jason Wilkerson’s session he demoed a POC taking telemetry data from a fitness-tracking device to xDB via an Azure IoT service. The Azure IoT service used the xConnect Client API to push the telemetry data to xDB associating the information with the correct profile matched on a device ID. Profiles in xDB now support multiple unique identifiers enabling, for example, a profile to be retrieved by a user’s Facebook ID or their email address. xConnect is still under wraps and won’t be released until version 8.3, but when it’s eventually out in the open it’ll be the new way to exchange data between Sitecore and any 3rd party systems through the use of the OData format. This is an exciting advance in the Sitecore integrations strategy and will be one to watch out for in upcoming releases.

Another highlight of the Symposium was a deep dive into the new Publishing Service. Included in Sitecore 8.2 and built entirely on .NET Core, publishing has always been the bane of any Sitecore content editor’s life and I’m sure many have wasted hours staring blankly at a confusing dialog wondering what the difference is between a smart publish and a republish. From 8.2 onwards, publishing will no longer be the frustrating experience that it has been, with a brand new UX and ground-up redevelopment of the underlying architecture explained, in his inimitable style, by Stephen Pope. The new Publishing Service is a standalone service running under IIS that can sit anywhere– though is recommended to be installed as close to the Sitecore content databases as possible. It was demonstrated to be lightning fast at publishing 1,000s of items in a matter of seconds and the new publishing dashboard will give users full transparency into the publishing process.

In today’s omni-channel world, no technology gathering is complete without talking about mobility. The marriage of Sitecore with the mobile application development framework Xamarin was established in early 2015 with the release of the first Mobile Software Developer (SDK) kit for Sitecore. With Xamarin, now part of Microsoft, the framework will probably become the de facto standard for cross platform application development for Sitecore customers not wanting to develop native apps for each device. Morten Ljungberg and Jannik Devantier presented the pros and cons for each approach including responsive web, adaptive mobile web, platform specific native apps and cross platform native apps. There’s a compelling case to build Sitecore apps on Xamarin and with the forthcoming release of xConnect. Omni-channel experiences leveraging xDB will be much easier to develop.

The Symposium closed with a tantalizing glimpse into the future of the platform by Lars Nielsen. He demonstrated (in a cleverly executed and occasionally funny approach) the future by introducing a fictitious retailer called XGadget. The demo showcased a possibly mocked-up version of a new tool in Sitecore to ease the burden of creating campaigns involving steps that would currently need to be carried out in multiple places within the platform. The tool enabled a marketer to quickly create a landing page with a form to capture customer details, a segment targeting the desired users, an email message for the target audience and an automation plan to retarget users who hadn’t clicked through to the campaign landing page. Whilst this may be a long way off, it demonstrated Sitecore’s commitment to advance the platform as a marketing automation hub.

Thanks to Sitecore for hosting an incredibly informative Symposium in New Orleans. See you in Vegas!