Auto-Setting Alt Text For Existing & New Images in Sitecore with Cognitive Services

Alt text on images is important for accessibility but often content editors do not set it or are not sure what to set it to.

I recently had the scenario where a client had thousands of existing images (across a Multisite Solution) with no Alt text entered and was asked to find a solution to add these retrospectively and also to make this easier going forward.

The Robots Are Coming

After considering my options (and reading a bunch of Blog Posts on how others have solved this) I decided to use Sitecore Powershell to set the missing Alt tags. This was because I only needed to run this once and then I won’t need to do this again.

However what should I set the Alt text too? It would be possible to use the image name in Sitecore or other attributes on the image in Sitecore to intelligently name the image. However often images have pretty non-descriptive names and no other data associated with them. An Alt tag of ‘IMG_20170416_085835‘ isn’t a great deal of use to users or screen readers. Therefore I wanted to use a more intelligent way of adding Alt Text.

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I’d seen this awesome presentations by Mark Stiles and Rob Habraken & Bas Lijten at Sugcon this year about using Machine Learning to solve problems just like this, and decided this was the way to go.

Mark Stiles has blogged about an full integration that he’s implemented with Microsoft Cognitive Services here: https://www.markstiles.net/blog/2017/2/22/sitecore-cognitive-services/

However I didn’t need all this functionality and this hasn’t been wrapped up into a proper Sitecore Module yet so I decided to go for a simpler approach.

Setting Alt Text for Existing Images

I stumbled across this really useful Post: http://www.pveller.com/image-tagging-automation-with-computer-vision/ by Pavel Veller which is what formed the basis of my script. It goes through each image in the media library and uses Microsoft’s Vision API to look at each image and return some appropriate Alt Text.

However given the number of images I needed to handle and complexity of the Multi-Site solution I’m working on I needed quite a lot more functionality. Therefore my script does the following:

  • Ability to run in test mode to output what it would do if run for real
  • Progress output as the script runs so you know how far through it is
  • Only updating Alt text when there is none set already
  • A CSV report at the end with the info for all images and the Alt text set
  • A list of TemplateIds to Exclude
  • A list of FolderIds to Exclude
  • Full error handling for exceptions
  • Pause for 60 Seconds and continue when hitting the Free API Limit (thanks Pavel Veller for this idea).
  • Tracking of failures/errors
  • Summary at the end of updated text and errors (if any)

Example Output

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Example Summary

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Note that to run this you will need an API key for the Vision API, so go and grab one from here:

https://azure.microsoft.com/en-gb/try/cognitive-services/

Show Me The Script Already

I’ve put the script here on Github and embedded it below: https://gist.github.com/fluxdigital/2b6041c579770f891df1a0da43cdcd63

The outcome of running this was that we auto-set alt text for over 1,500 images and could send the client a csv report of all of the alt text for each image for review afterwards (should they wish to check them, the API is not infallible, especially for Gifs/Pngs and other graphical images). This saved a lot of time for the content editors.

What about new images?

So this is great for the existing images, but how do we make sure that alt text is set in the same way for new images?. After a bit of investigation I decided on this great Module by Tom Dudfield which auto-sets alt tags on save of the image using the same Vision API:

https://marketplace.sitecore.net/en/Modules/A/Alt_Tag_Generator.aspx

This Module even works with the multi-file upload so it’s really good if users upload a lot of images at once and forget to go back and add Alt Text.

I did find and issue with the module where is doesn’t work if you use one of the free API Keys (as the base API url needs to be different), but I’ve fixed that and submitted a pull request to resolve this issue. The Module config will now support setting the base Url (to: https://westcentralus.api.cognitive.microsoft.com/vision/v1.0). Tom has merged my update in and will hopefully release a new version Via NuGet and the Marketplace soon, but in the mean time if you need the update you can find it here:

https://github.com/fluxdigital/AutoAltTags

Once you’ve installed this and configured it with your API key you should be good to go, no more empty Alt text :-).

Thanks to the Sitecore community for all the great posts on this that helped me with this, here are just some of them:

http://jockstothecore.com/optimizing-images-sitecore/

https://sitecorebasics.wordpress.com/2017/08/03/integrating-cognitive-services-to-set-alt-tag-during-image-upload/

https://tomdudfield.com/computer-vision-alt-tags-in-sitecore/

 

Auto-maintaining Sitecore Session State permissions in tempDB after SQL Server restarts

We use SQL Server to maintain our Sitecore sessions which mostly works fine. However as part of the performance boosts recommended by Sitecore the session-state is moved to store session in SQL Server tempDB.

The process is explained here: https://doc.sitecore.net/sitecore_experience_platform/setting_up_and_maintaining/session_state/session_state/walkthrough_configure_a_shared_session_state_database_using_the_sql_server_provider

However, every time that SQL Server is restarted, it recreates tempDB and resets the access rights for users and the session tables. This will result in your Sitecore site going down and an error such as:

System.Data.SqlClient.SqlException: The SELECT permission was denied on the object ‘SessionState’, database ‘tempdb’, schema ‘dbo’. The INSERT permission was denied on the object ‘SessionState’, database ‘tempdb’, schema ‘dbo’. The UPDATE permission was denied on the object ‘SessionState’, database ‘tempdb’, schema ‘dbo’.

And also an angry client and customers :-(.

How do I solve this?

You could re-run the script from the Performance boost download provided by Sitecore (Sessions db performance boost.sql ) but this could happen late at night when no one is monitoring your site and cause downtime.

The best way to solve this and still use tempDB for sessions is to offload this manual task into a stored procedure that runs on Start-up.

The following script will create a Stored Procedure in the Master database that will run each time SQL Server restarts and add your session tables and database user back to tempDB with the right permissions.

USE [master]
GO
IF EXISTS (SELECT * FROM sys.objects WHERE type = ‘P’
and name = ‘AddSitecoreSessionTempDBOwner’)
DROP PROC AddSitecoreSessionTempDBOwner
GO
CREATE PROC AddSitecoreSessionTempDBOwner
AS DECLARE @sql
VARCHAR(500)SELECT @sql = ‘EXEC [master].[dbo].[Sitecore_InitializeSessionState]’ + char(13) +’USE [tempdb]’ + char(13) +’IF NOT EXISTS(SELECT name FROM sys.database_principals WHERE name = ”Sitecore_Sessions”)’ + char(13) +’BEGIN’ + char(13) +’CREATE USER [Sitecore_Sessions] FOR LOGIN [Sitecore_Sessions]’ + char(13) +’ALTER ROLE [db_datareader] ADD MEMBER [Sitecore_Sessions]’ + char(13) +’ALTER ROLE [db_datawriter] ADD MEMBER [Sitecore_Sessions]’ + char(13) +’END’EXEC (@sql)
GO
EXEC sp_procoption ‘AddSitecoreSessionTempDBOwner’, ‘startup’, ‘true’
GO

Just remember to update ‘Sitecore_Sessions’ in the script above to the name of the user in your Sessions Database connection string, then run the script in SQL Server Manager to create the stored procedures that will run on start up.

How do I test this?

It is important to test this to ensure that on a restart of the SQL Server the script kicks in and works it’s magic. First check if the Stored Proceedure is set to run on Startup correctly by running this query:

SELECT name,create_date,modify_date
FROM sys.procedures
WHERE OBJECTPROPERTY(OBJECT_ID, ‘ExecIsStartup’) = 1

You should see the ‘AddSitecoreSessionTempDBOwner’ and ‘Sitecore_InitializeSessionState’ stored procedures listed. If you don’t try running the script above again as something went wrong.

Once these are listed correctly you should carry out a full test by scheduling in a time out of hours when you can reboot the SQL Server machine and check your script runs correctly.

Gotchas

One thing to ensure is running is the SQL Server Agent Service. This needs to be running in order for and startup stored procedures to be executed.

slq-agent

Check this is set to ‘Auto Run’ under startup type. This caught me out on my first test as my Stored Procedure didn’t run correctly on reboot of the SQL Server.

Lastly check your session state tables are collecting session data correctly using a query such as:

select count (*) from [tempdb].[dbo].[SessionState]

That should be it, no more problems with tempDB when SQL Server restarts.

 

Sitecore Stack Exchange Site Needs Your Help!

A while ago Mark Cassidy  started a Stack Exchange Site for Sitecore – our own Sitecore Specific Stack Overflow essentially .  Great idea right?

The Sitecore Stack Exchange Site Needs Your Help!
Calling All Sitecore Developers!

Myself and other Sitecore Community members have been trying to get the site (currently in Beta) to launch.

Due to Sitecore Symposium causing a downturn in activity for over a week we were initially told the site wasn’t going to make it out of Beta :-(.

However the good news yesterday was that Stack Exchange kindly relented and extended the Beta for another two weeks! until the 18/10:

http://meta.sitecore.stackexchange.com/questions/60/extending-the-private-beta-to-10-18

However if this is going to succeed we need more Sitecore developers / users to get involved. There are many of you out there but not enough on the Stack Exchange site.

If you have already signed up for Area51 then please use the site and start contributing.  Go to: https://area51.stackexchange.com/proposals/101710/sitecore and then use the “Visit” link under the “20 days in Beta” box, Or use this link: https://area51.stackexchange.com/proposals/101710/sitecore/visit and log in with the same details you used for Area51

If you haven’t already signed up, then ask for an invite in the #stackexchange channel on slack or tweet me @billyjava and someone will send you an invite.

I’m sure you will agree that our own Stack Exchange site for Sitecore would be a great asset to the Sitecore community and an really useful platform to share knowledge and documentation but if we don’t quickly get more support it won’t make it.

So please do what you can to help and support by asking and answering questions on the Beta site.

 

Sitecore Symposium 2016 – Day 1

Sitecore Symposium is an 2 day Conference for Sitecore Users, Developers, Partners, MVPs and just about anyone else who works with Sitecore.

This year it was in New Orleans and I was lucky enough to be able to come out for a few extra days to Explore NOLA and I can highly recommend it, a great city with some insanely good food, interesting history and friendly people.

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Day 1

On day One I was to learn a lot about the improvements and new features in Sitecore 8.2 including SXA, Sitecore Azure, Path Analyser and much more.

Opening Sessions

The opening session was kicked off in New Orleans style with an big Jazz band which certainly woke me up after the early start.

Interesting it was comedian Jake Johannsen who opened up and got us all in the mood before handing over to Micheal to kick off the first keynote.

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Micheal talked about empowering Physical and Digital experiences for customers and bought various users of Sitecore onstage to discuss how they are using Sitecore. Danone discussed the personalisation that they have done on their Baby early life platform for mothers and how they have used Sitecore to power this. It was really cool to see someone leveraging all the personalisation, profiling and automation features. Danone have seen an 800% uplift in sales from this. Their tips were: Build data first, start now and don’t wait for the tech to all be there to do it.

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One of the most interesting things shown was Sitecore Experience Accelerator (SXA) which allows you to create a new site in Sitecore, Wireframe it, Add Content, Export the wire frame and import a theme for it. It is Responsive out of the box and could be a really quick way to stand-up a Sitecore site quickly. I would learn more on this later.

Micheal announced that Sitecore has now built commerce in out of the box and it is fully integrated and supports personalisation. This is great news for those with Commerce aspects to their Sitecore sites.

Next up was Jason Silva who is a Technologist & Futurist. He was very engaging and had some interesting ideas about the future of Nueroscience and Nano Technology, ‘Hacking Life Itself’ and how Tech evolves exponentially. He made me re-think the barriers between tech and science and ‘Playing God’ stating that ‘There is no duality between nature and technology, they are 1 of the same’.

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Developer Keynote

Lars Nielsen took to the stage to share some information on Sitecores product strategy. He talked about xConnect and oData which are coming soon and will provide much better APIs for working with data in Sitecore. He then discussed Express Migration Tool which allows you to go from Sitecore 7.2 to Sitecore 8.2 in an automated manner.

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He touched on the NuGet feed that is now available for Sitecore, I think this is the thing most developers have been waiting a long time for (I saw a whole lot of Tweets about it when it was released a few weeks ago). The Official Sitecore Nuget can be found here: https://sitecore.myget.org/gallery/sc-packages.

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Lars introduced Antony Hook who talked about how Sitecore manages new feature requests using ProdPad and the ways in which these requests get to the Sitecore product team. Great to hear they are opening up user voice to non MVPs https://sitecore.uservoice.com/ and about the new Stack Exchange http://sitecore.stackexchange.com that is nearly out of Beta.

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One things for sure Sitecore’s Community is huge and growing every day, just look at the stats above!

We also heard about Helix (the new name for the the design principles that underpin Habitat) http://helix.sitecore.net/. More on this later.

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We also saw a quick overview of Sitecore Path Analyser which looks great, I watched a demo of this by the Sitecore Product team in the Partner Pavilion and was impressed by the UI and functionality it provides.

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Azure Sessions

It was the time to attend the first of the developer sessions and I chose two on Azure since this is something I’ve been looking at recently.

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The first was Sitecore in The Cloud: Architecting in AWS vs Azure where Peter Petley shared some info on his recommendations for deploying Sitecore to the Cloud. He talked about the performance of AWS vs Azure and I was surprised to learn that Azure performs better in general.

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He also talked about some of the new features for Azure that will be supported in Sitecore 8.2.1, more on this later.

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One of the key takeaways here was the Paas doesn’t really work properly (there are reliability issues with some modules etc) so Iaas is still the way to go. Redis Cache was also recommended due to it’s great performance.

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The above slides are a nice little summary of which platform wins out.

Next up was Ciaran McAuliffe’s session: Better Together: Sitecore on Azure. He dove into the Sitecore 8.2.1 Azure dashboard and showed us the power of App insights with things like Sitecore Logs, APV Map, Server Responses and Rules.

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Ciaran explained how Azure search is used instead of Lucene and that for cost and performance reasons you should only setup the indexes you need and use (not all Sitecore indexes in the configs).

Sitecore 8.2.1 comes with Data Packs out of the box that will pre-configure Azure for you, there is no need to use the Sitecore Azure Module anymore – it is being phased out. There will be Data Packs for CD and CA servers and everything will be setup for using the web deploy engine. The automation scripts are JSON based and ARM Templates will be provided xDB, XP etc to build out environments and the resources required as a base level for each.

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There are parameters files that go along with the ARM Templates that define the various variables, essentially 2 JSON files and an Powershell script is all that is needed to deploy Sitecore to Azure.

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We were shown the different plans that can be used for the various services required to run Sitecore on Azure he also discussed how Sitecore are also working on GeoLocation in Azure and using Slots to allow for environments to be replicated easily (e.g Staging and Production).

This all seems like a vast improvement to the current Sitecore Azure offering and should greatly simplify the process. It should be available from January 2017 so well worth waiting for if your looking to move to Azure soon by the looks of things.

SXA – Sitecore Experience Excellerator

After a spot of (excellent New Orleans style) Lunch I went to see Kerns talk on SXA – Sitecores new offering to get you a Sitecore site up and running very quickly. I’d heard a lot about this and it sounded very interesting so was keen to find out more. It is installed as a separate package in Sitecore . It is installed as a separate additional package in Sitecore with an associated costs a percentage of the Sitecore license.

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SXA allows you to create a new Site from within the Sitecore Content Editor Interface (nice). Sites need to be created within a tenant – a business unit with different visitors but which exists within the Same Sitecore instance. Tenants are created first (again within the CE).

Once you’ve created a site you will see it has created a folder structure that follows the Helix principles (from Habitat) so you will see familiar folders here such as foundation and feature.

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Kern then showed us how pages can be quickly put together using page designs and partial designs and 70+ pre-built components.Standard values are no relied on that much, instead XML is layered to create the pages and dynamic placeholders are available out of the box. The pages built will not have a design, they will look like wireframes, this is intentional.

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Kern then showed us how the wireframe layout can be easily exported using a button in the SXA toobar, then the zip generated can be provided to an front-end team or 3rd party to style before it is imported back in. Kern demonstrated this by quickly importing a pre-made theme and it automatically styled all of the pages and components. Impressive stuff.

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We were then shown a bit more detail on how these themes are created. Essentially it uses the 960 grid system so supports mobile out of the box, Bootstrap and Foundation are not currently supported. The themes are made up of individual CSS files, Images and JavaScript but optomised versions of these are served from the Site. Developers can add addtiional classes to the HTML when theming but can not change the structure of the HTML.

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Kern mentioned a few restrictions around using SXA, all data sources must use Items to us the standard components provided with SXA. However it is possible to build a standard component and use it within a SXA site. It does need to inherit from special SXA specific rendering classes to work.

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Deployment of a SXA site (assuming no customisations) is just a simple case of publishing the Site. All all this seems a great way to standup a Sitecore site quickly and with limited investment in development. It is perhaps though limited to Sites without the need for medium to high customisation. It will be interesting to see how SXA improves over time as it is something Sitecore are going to continue investing in.

It was now time for me to go and enjoy the beer in the Partner Pavilion and meet a few new people. I was already looking forward to Day 2.

My thoughts on SUGCON 2016 – Day 2

badgeThere was an early start for Day 2 (especially after a late-ish night involving a few strong Danish Beers), but I knew there were some intriguing talks today so didn’t want to miss anything.

You can read about Day 1 here if you missed it.

The first session that caught my interest was Nick Wesselmans talk on how Active Commerce use SIM, Powershell, Octopus Deploy and Azure to automate product builds.

Using SIM, Powershell, Octopus Deploy and Azure to automate product builds.

Nick gave an overview of how they created a PowerShell wrapper for SIM to automate Sitecore instances for product builds for their Active Commerce product.

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He also talked about how they use Sitecore Power Shell Extensions (SPE) to do things like automate publishing, rebuild the links database and initialise Sitecore Zip package builds. I’ve experimented with SPE but I’ve not used it in anger and this has given me ideas for how I might use it more on current or future projects.

IMG_5764

Finally, he talked about their use of Octopus for deployment of packages and invoking PowerShell scripts and Azure IaaS and Azure Blob Storage and AzCopy which is used for quickly spinning up VMs for hosting the product build and test environments. I liked the idea of these being scripted to only run during business hours.

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The Active Commerce team also use Bamboo for their build server (but are thinking of moving to Team City). Nick showed us that their build pipeline looks like this:

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It was nice to see some familiar approaches here, albeit with different tools in some instances and some new ideas too.

You Me and Sitecore MVC

After a short break Kern Herskind delivered and entertaining (and Circus themed) presentation on Sitecore MVC. He even rode a unicycle at the end!

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Kern gave a general overview on MVC for those not familiar with the concepts and then how Sitecore MVC works and whats available out of the box. Not much of this was new to me but it was good get a refresher anyway.

Then Kern talked through some of the downfalls of Sitecore MVC and how he has gone about solving them. Things like renderings not being able to alter any HTML that is rendered prior to them being rendered and multiple form posting issues.

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We then go a sneaky peak of what coming up for Sitecore MVC, such as abstract base classes and better ServiceLocator and DI support:

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Kern finished by talking about the future of Sitecore MVC and expectations for the future.

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Good to see better documentation and closing feature gaps on the list of improvements.

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The key message here being that Sitecore MVC is going to continue to be the preferred UI Framework.

Hedgehog then did a quick talk on their TDS product and helped to answer the question a lot of developers might have, “why should I pay for TDS instead of using Unicorn”.  The answer is probably in these two slides, maybe go and show them to your Boss :-).

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Essentially it does a lot more besides just syncing items between sitecore instances:

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I haven’t used it but I’ve head good things about it from other Sitecore Developers.

After lunch (which was excellent by the way) I opted to attend two talks on Sitecore Habitat. One by Ruud Van Falier called Introducing Sitecore Habitat and the 2nd by Anders Laub on Practical Habitat: Embrace the Architecture.

Introducing Sitecore Habitat

For those who don’t know what Habit is, it is an Architecture approach for Sitecore development and is designed to give best practice guidance on how to structure your Sitecore projects. I have taken a look at it a few times but not really used it and the feedback from other Sitecore developers I’d spoken to was that it was quite complicated, so I was interested in finding out more about it.

Ruud was presenting to a packed room with quite a few developers stood up at the back, obviously as keen as me to know more. He started with the basic concepts of Habitat, explaining how all modules are self-contained and that there should be no communication that goes upwards between modules.

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He also explained the the 3 layers of Habitat: Foundation, Features, Projects.

layers

Ruud then discussed examples of elements that might live in these layers and how the dependencies flows downwards.

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He then showed the technology stack, which are probably familiar tools to most of you. Sitecore 8.2,  MVC,  Dynamic Placeholders, Unicorn, Bootstrap, JQuery, Sass and Gulp.

A run-through of the Habitat solution structure then followed and an explanation of the different build tasks used.

build

There was then a more in-depth explanation regarding Modules:

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And then more detail on layers:

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Finally, a pros and cons slide and questions:
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Ruud was honest about the fact that Habitat is in the early stages and is changing every day, he also said it’s not meant to be taken as a ‘Boiler Plate’ for Sitecore solutions – more a guideline. However, I left the session will a lot of things to investigate further and will definitely be taking a closer look at Habitat and how some of It’s concepts can be applied to the projects I am working on.

Practical Habitat: Embrace the Architecture

With my appetite now whetted for Habitat I went straight to the next session on embracing the architecture.

Anders talk started with a general discussion around Architecture and then moved to Habitat and why Pentia use it as an architecture for their solution:

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He then dived into a demo of their solution and explained how it differs to the default Habitat setup. I have a video of this somewhere which I’ll try and add here when I get a minute.

He then discussed a few foundation modules they have created and how it really works well for them as an approach.

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Anders took some tough questions from the crowd well (such as the number of projects in Habitat – which is many) and I think by the end of the session most of the room will be taking another look at Habitat.

Ladies and gentlemen start your testing.

Testing in Sitecore can be notoriously difficult and for some Sitecore developers this means that unit and integration tests that involve the Sitecore context or items are sometimes skipped.  I was interested to see if Alastair had some other ways to implement testing and I wasn’t disappointed :-).

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Alastair Deneys ran us through 4 ways in which to Unit test with Sitecore. The first was an interesting one and was to essentially install Sitecore in your application and then run the tests from an asp.net web page test runner.

The 2nd and 3rd were to add a minimal or full Sitecore config files and the Sitecore dlls you need to your nunit test project and run It. This worked pretty well but as Alastair said, isn’t proper unit testing as it’s using real data.

The 4th was to use FakeDb to mock the Sitecore items you need to run your tests. I’d heard about FakeDb before but not used it so it was nice to see an example of how this is done.

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Alastair also showed us how Sitecore.LiveTesting can be used to spin up an instance of Sitecore in a container in the background to test against.

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It was a bit slow but seemed really cool and definitely something I’m going to experiment with.

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The key message here was, whatever you do make sure you create tests and don’t get hung up on if they are real unit tests or actually integration tests.

Sadly it was now time to head to get our flight home so I missed out on the last talk of the day by Martina Welander on refactoring doc.sitecore.net, hopefully I can find it on Google Hangout.

SUGCON was a great experience and It has given me a whole lot of ideas and things to look into for current and future Sitecore projects. Thanks to the Sitecore Community and the sponsors for putting on the event.

My only regret is not having chance to chat to any of the MVPs who have been so helpful on Slack and on their blogs, but I’ll definitely be back next year so I’ll buy you a beer or two then instead.

Till next time.

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My thoughts on SUGCON 2016 – Day 1

SUGCON Venue

I was lucky enough to arrive at my very first SUGCON a day early and see at bit of the Copenhagen. It’s beautiful, everyone is very friendly and the food and beer is impeccable, if you get chance to go then you definitely should.

 

Opening Keynote

Day 1 of SUGCON kicked off on Monday afternoon with an opening Keynote from Lars Nielsen (Sitecore Co-Founder & Chief Development Officer). This was to prove one of the most intriguing presentations of the conference as Lars revealed a number of new features coming in Sitecore 8.2.

8.2

One bug-bear for a lot of Sitecore clients is the upgrade process, Lars assured us that in 8.2 (using the Express Migration Tool) this is going to be much easier and won’t involve upgrading in multiple steps (as is currently the case) and that is should be possible to move from 6.5 > 8.2 in one automated step. This is great news for those running 6.5 and 7 solutions as it should make the process a whole lot easier and quicker.

Lars then followed this with an overview of 8.3 features (sorry It’s blury):

8.3

The most interesting for me (and clients I work with) was the Webforms for Marketers is going to be removed in 8.3 and replaced by an out of the box module, which will look something like this:

forms

This looks a whole lot better than WFFM which as most Sitecore developers know can be a pain to customise and is pretty clunky to use.

This was reflected by the attendees as there was a round of applause from the room when this was announced. It will work in the experience editor allowing in-place editing – just like other Sitecore components, so content editors should find the experience simpler and more intuitive. There will be integrations with automation plans too:

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In summary these are the Roadmap themes:

roadmap

This was a great start with lots of useful info about the future releases coming up!.

 

Serialise all the things with Unicorn

Next up was Kam Figy, an MVP at Connective DX and the lead developer of Unicorn – a tool for serializing your Sitecore Items to disk so you can check them in to source control alongside your code.

unicorn

Kam ran through a demo of Unicorn 3 which I’ve already used, but it was nice to see a full demo and find out more information about other options the we could potentially make use of.

He then showed us a project he’d done for the Sitecore hack-a-thon, which allows unicorn to sync Roles and Users as well as Items. This could be useful for future projects and is now available in Unicorn 3.2 (https://www.nuget.org/packages/Unicorn).

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Kam’s talk was entertaining and he managed to handle the slightly awkward Hedgehog vs Unicorn questions afterwards pretty well too :-).

 

After a short break the talks split off into different tracks for the rest of the afternoon and I went with these 3:
Atomic Design Talk by Tim Braga, Design Patterns by Mike Reynolds and then Building Large Scale Sitecore solutions by Mike Edwards.

Atom Design to the MAX

Tim talked through the different approaches to building Sitecore Sites and then explained why instead of just going down to component level (as most Sitecore developers do) his team now breaking every element of a component down further into Atoms and making these separate renderings.

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This allows for more control over functionality, layout and personalisation/testing on a more granular level – e.g. A/B testing on just a single button. Below is an example of this for the Hero that Collette created:

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There were however some performance issues found though with Experience Editor and it does add time for development, testing and content entry. Tim went over the pros and cons and what they have carried out to try and work-around some of them:

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I like some of the concepts but I’m not yet convinced this is the way to go for most Sitecore builds, unless there really is call for this level of control.

 

Design Patterns

I wasn’t sure what to expect with this talk but I was a bit surprised to see it was less Sitecore focused and more around Design patterns and their usage in programming in general.

design patterns

Still it was good to see examples of their usage with Sitecore from Mike and the pros and cons of each approach.

pattern

 

Building Large Sitecore Solutions

This talk by Mike Edwards was really good. Mike gave and overview of the infrastructure and architecture of Sitecore solutions as they grow and require more CD servers and xDB provisioning.

scale

He talked about blue/green deployments and the importance of trying to have zero downtime for client sites during deployments. He also discussed load balancing strategies and the pros and cons of the different approaches.

blue-green

I’ve had first-hand experience of doing this for a few clients and it’s good to see some of the ideas we’ve used re-enforced by Mike, such as having two web databases in place so that one can be used for deployment whilst the other is live.

The architecture with xDB included looks pretty crazy but this demonstrates the number of servers and considerations involved with xDB:

xDB

After this (and a short talk by Coveo regarding their Search product) it was time to drink beer, eat food :-) and chat to some other Sitecore people.

There were also awards given out for the Sitecore MVPs (well done guys) and a Sitecore quiz with beer to be won.

All in all a great first day and some really informative sessions. I was really looking forward to Day 2.