Once upon a time in Portugal - SDL Web MVP Retreat 2015

This year I was lucky enough to be awarded SDL Web (Tridion) MVP along with Chris Morgan from Building Blocks US. The SDL MVP Award program is in its 6th year. The program recognises those who share their knowledge and expertise with the community in blogs, Tridion Stack Exchange, open source projects (as long as you blog about them), presentations and webinars. 

The reward for this effort is a retreat where SDL show the MVPs and Community Builders (MVPs who work for SDL) their appreciation for sharing by providing some very nice culture, food and drink. It's not all partying though, as we're shown the roadmap for the new version of the product and where it fits into SDL's overall offering and, my favourite, a bit of a hack day where the MVPs try to build something cool.

The retreat takes place in Portugal every year. This year, Carla - our amazing, tireless event coordinator, had arranged for the group to stay near to Mafra. Traditionally, there's a lot of late night guitar music playing at the MVP events and someone will get annoyed to be woken up. This year, it wasn't an issue, because we stayed in the remote, beautiful hotel/spa Quinta Dos Machados. We had the whole place to ourselves so there was no one to disturb.

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The hotel was an old farm and there were some interesting features, including a pool and a tunnel which seemed to go into the centre of the earth. 

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The staff were fantastic in looking after the MVPs and it was great to catch up with old and new faces.

Work

The day kicked off at 8:15am in the mornings - most of us thought Nuno was joking about this! Some people had only got to bed a few hours earlier. Nuno Linhares explained how and why the new version of SDL Tridion won't be called SDL Tridion 2015, but it will be called SDL Web 8. This goes back to the original version numbering which stopped with the release of 2009. Nuno did confirm that the product should still be released in 2015 though!

SDL Web 8 fits into the Digital Experience part of the SDL Customer Experience Cloud suite of tools. The Digital Experience aspect includes SmartTarget, SDL Web, FredHopper and the Digital Experience Accelerator (TRI STRI).

MVPs at work

Disclaimer: Since SDL Web 8 is still in pre-release, some of the features I discuss here might not make it into the final version.

Many of the changes SDL are planning in this release seem to be focusing on getting the product to function better on cloud platforms, such as Azure and Amazon Web Services. There will be support for remote databases, which means the Content Manager server should be able to be hosted on these platforms.

Topology management sounds interesting, but I'm not sure I fully grasp it yet. It allows publishing to a Content Delivery machine based on whether it has the correct capabilities and will enable a better decoupling of the Content Manager from the Content Delivery by allowing automatic discovery of environments.

In the UI there will be a new site wizard which should allow editors to quickly create new country sites quickly- I didn't see a demo of this yet though. The Audience Manager column designer looks like it will enable editors to add custom columns without having to get a database administrator involved.

There are some cool core changes planned as well. Publishing will be simplified with the removal of Publication Target Types and adding increased resilience for publishing failures. The big news though, is that you'll also be finally able to move things up and down the BluePrint using the Core Service!

We also saw some big changes coming for the Content Delivery architecture. Ben Middleton gave a great overview of this via a remote WebEx. Showing the aim to splitting out the Content Delivery service into a series of microservices and simplifying the mechanism with which they are consumed in the website - only 1 DLL and no JVM! It was interesting to see SDL potentially using the new .NET 5 framework here too. The RESTful model could also enable better scalability. The licencing seems to be moving towards this more cloud-friendly approach too, although nothing is confirmed here yet.

Bart gave a good overview of Digital Experience Accelerator modules and how to create them. The DXA is heading for a version 2.0 release, and modules will allow users to rapidly build out their websites on the new SDL Cloud platform. Bart is hoping to see much more community involvement for this. The most impressive part of his talk, was when he revealed that his slides were actually an Experience Manager enabled website, using Impress.

Alchemy

Stealing the show at this year's retreat was Alchemy 4 Tridion presented by Alex Klock of Content Bloom. The aim of Alchemy is to simplify the process for finding and installing GUI extensions with a webstore, to deliver extensions with a one-click install in a similar fashion to Wordpress. 

Currently the process for creating and installing GUI extensions into SDL Tridion is a bit painful to say the least. There have been attempts to make this better using Powershell, but it's still fiddly. The Alchemy API provides a lot of methods which remove the need to dive into the XML and provides easy ways to add external libraries.

The development part of the retreat focused on creating an Alchemy extension. I worked with Robert Curlette to create a simple extension which demonstrated the use of the message centre and creating a dashboard panel. It displays the user which last modified an item from the context menu. The code is available on GitHub.

There were some classic GUI Extensions ported to Alchemy and some new, interesting ones too. At the end of the second day, everyone presented their extensions (or lack of extensions in some cases). I think the general consensus was that Alchemy was a step in the right direction and with SDL's backing could inspire a resurgence of GUI extensions. The platform could expand to include Template Building Blocks and DXA modules too.

Play

Each evening we were treated to some great Portuguese cuisine, the traditional MVP ensemble from the musically talented MVPs and some late night drinks. The barman at the hotel made one of the best Gin and Tonics I've ever tasted.

There were sheep around the compound which could be heard bleating into the night. Some of the MVPs participated in the feeding of the little lamb - Rosita.

Rosita

Carla never fails to make sure the MVP's get a bit Portugal's culture, so on Wednesday we visited the Palace of Mafra. The palace was promised to the church by the King of Portugal in exchange for the blessing of a child. The child arrived and the King kept his promise and built the palace.

mafra palace

Designed by a German architect, the palace is a beautiful, impressive building, which apparently has 1200 rooms in its entirety. Today, it is mostly used as an army barracks and when we arrived, there was an award ceremony taking place outside. We went on a tour of the museum part of the palace. This included the King's and Queen's towers, the monks' chambers, a hospital and an amazing library where bats are allowed to live to eat insects which would otherwise damage the books.

library at mafra

Some of the MVPs where so worn out by all the information that they needed a little lie down.

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In the afternoon, Carla had arranged a surfing lesson but, unfortunately, the conditions were a bit risky for beginners. We didn't get much actual surfing done but it was great fun nonetheless, with everyone getting to try standing up on a board. The best part was watching a lot of the MVPs put on their wet suits back to front - the zip goes on the back!

Thanks

Thanks once again to SDL and, of course, Carla for another brilliant time in Portugal. 

I hope you've taken from this post that the retreat is a really good incentive, and a great reward for sharing your knowledge with the Tridion community... so get sharing!

Hopefully, I can be there again next year, but I really need to get some sharing done too!

Any questions?

If you need more information or have any questions just get in touch and we'd be happy to answer them for you.