Back in February, an invite for the first Sitecore Technical User Groups of 2015 dropped into my inbox. Although the Bristol and London locations were pretty far from the Building Blocks office here in Manchester, as soon as I spotted 'Sitecore on Azure: A real life example' on the agenda, I booked my train!
A great turnout...
It seems I wasn't the only one who was interested in finding out more about Sitecore 8 and seeing it in action on Azure; I arrived in London yesterday to a packed room of at least 300 Sitecore Techies. The Sitecore Team was there in force too; even a number of members of the product team had come along. After grabbing myself a few mini burgers and a complementary beer (thanks, Sitecore), I took up one of the few available seats as Andrew Thompson from Sitecore kicked things off.
Andrew gave us a quick update on the latest development at Sitecore HQ. He told us about the recent release of 8.0 update 2 which can be downloaded now, PXM 8, and AD Module 1.2 releases. We were also informed that all .NET Developer training for Sitecore is now given in SXP 8. Finally, Andrew told us about the new portals for Sitecore: Developer Portal, Documentation and Knowledge Base. These all look a lot easier to use than previous portals, and contain everything for 8.0 onward.
Sitecore on Azure: A real life example
Vicent started with the basics around what Azure is - in his words, “it's really just a bunch of Servers”. He took us through a common setup of Sitecore on Azure for Production and Staging environments, and how the command line interface for the API works.
It was clear that it is important to consider what services you need to use when using Azure, and we were shown the Azure Compatibility Table, which gives an overview of which Sitecore Modules are compatible with Azure 1+.
Can we see a demo?
Vicent then jumped into a demo of the Sitecore Azure Management section, showing us how easy it was to spin up new instances of Sitecore with a few clicks - very impressive. It's also possible to manage all of the instances and configure their settings.
Anthony Hook chipped in at this point to remind everyone there are licensing considerations here for any new instances that are added.
It can't be that easy surely?
We were then shown more about how to go about deploying Sitecore to Azure and the configuration and setup of their 'Real World' example. Sitecore's article, 'How to deploy Sitecore 7.2 solution to Microsoft Azure using Visual Studio' has further information.
Vicent also had some tips and tricks for us, such as cleaning your media cache and temp folders before restarting, and that deployments can take an hour or so to complete. Azure will also reject any package larger than 600MB. The advice given was:
- Expect failures
- it's easier to replace the deployment than to fix issues
- Everything should be stored in storage - not on local disk.
- Get familiar with Azure design patterns
When deploying, it's not possible to use files such as xxx.config.qa, so specific settings must be applied per environment via transformation. If you need to modify VM configuration, this can be achieved using service definition plugins - Starup.cmd and Custom webrole.dll.
Would you recommend it?
His answer was 'yes', with the caveat that:
- You allow plenty of time for configuration and setup and have an administrator in place to manage the server
- Are using Site Azure 3+
- Have the need for a Farm and Scalability.
- Do not have a complex application or module
Federated Experience Manager
'Federated Experience Manager' is a method for pulling in user interaction data from other non-Sitecore sites to give a single view of your customers across all websites and applications.
Ting Ting took us through the fully revamped FxM using an example of a Java site running on Tomcat to demo the features.
The most impressive thing, was when Ting Ting visited the non Sitecore site and was able to use the Page Editor (now called Experience Editor in 8) to add placeholders and components to the page! We were also shown how it even supports all the Personalisation rules in Sitecore.
Federated Experience Manager is a great approach for clients who can't (or don't want to) move all their existing websites to a new Sitecore platform, yet want a unified view of the customer and more centralised control over the sites.
Sounds good, how does it work though?
For the Techies in the room, Ting Ting took us through some information on the concept of 'Beacons' that inject the Sitecore content and the available APIs.
Anthony Hook explained how the page HTML is not actually modified by the Beacon, which prevents any issues with breaking existing layouts.
After another quick break, Andrew gave us an overview of the new features of Sitecore 8, such as Experience Profile, Improved Analytics & Testing, Path Analyser and Segmentation.
He also talked about the decision to use Mongo DB to store the Experience Profile data, the upgrade path from 7.2, and the possibility of Azure table support in future.