Symposium 2014: Rise of the Machines

September 13, 2014

Viva Las Vegas!

I'm now watching mountains drift beneath the wing of my plane (sunglasses on). I'm leaving Las Vegas richer not poorer. You could say, I've just had quite an amazing Sitecore Experience (wink). 

leaving las vegas

The symposium held a palpable tension as the collective agreement was that we were participating in something much greater than what we could have expected. Each talk contributed to increasing awareness that Sitecore is no longer just visionary but enablers of everyone else's visions. 

Sitecore 8

experience branding

Sitecore is now about experience management not just content management. They've expended a lot of resources engineering new ways to support the growing needs of business with insights and communication but with Sitecore 8, you now see the bigger picture. The UI has been redesigned entirely and what they've done with SPEAK will leave you speechless. For a taste of what I'm talking about, here's the new login page, application manager and content editor (pictures taken from slides and Sean Holmesby's rig. Thanks btw) :

login screen

app home page

content editor

The most immediate difference you'll notice is that there's only one way to login. After that it's using the app paradigm which you're likely very familiar with. Apps are now built using SPEAK so that even how you create apps has changed. And when you want to start building them, I was told several times and completely agree that Martina Welander has written great articles on SPEAK to get up and running. The most important thing to understand is that you work through Sitecore Rocks entirely. The structure is stored in Sitecore automatically for you and there's a lot of source binding functionality built in. Most of what you'll end up writing is javascript to manage the interaction. Oh and there is a pipeline to tap into... yes from javascript. Just let that sink in.

One of the details that isn't entirely obvious is that the underlying system is going to be getting a lot better in terms of modularity. The features that, in the past, have been most challenging to integrate should be getting a lot easier to tie into. There's a general rule that there should be generic connection points for all features so that they can be swapped out with competing technologies. It's more of a platform with an ecosystem of tools than an isolated ecosphere.  


I didn't catch Stephen Pope's presentation but it was talked about so much I feel like I did. Like the Borg, reaching out across space to assimilate all in it's path, you can use Sitecore to "Federate" your external (not in Sitecore) sites by applying analytics and personalization. As perplexing of a task as it may seem, the solution they developed, adding javascript to access the page, makes it seem absolutely easy. A testament to the amount of effort obviously invested.

xDB and Mongo

Because of the scale of information generated when tracking contact/customer/user data, as Dan Solovay (a friend and fellow writer) demonstrated, Mongo DB can be used to cope with the task of excessive growth. At its core, since it's NoSQL, there's a configurable search index to complement the data. Mongo is much better at providing quick access to tons of data than making complex queries so the index is used to provide that end. The bulk of that kind of processing is fed through a series of other report analysis systems. I'm not sure exactly what the implications are for managing these systems in-house but it should be a relief to know that Sitecore will be offering a cloud service that does this for you. Here's a slide from an earlier presentation that explained the xDB architecture:

xdb structure

Alex Sheeeeeebaaaaaaaa showed off a pretty flashy (SVG not flash) analysis tool. It visualizes content from the xDB and allows you to walk a tree made up of user interactions. Each node is a page and it's weight (size) is indicated by it's value along the path to goals. It makes it easier to see how your site is being used and help you identify what's working (or I suppose what's not). He's been busy building all sorts of graphing utilities as well and demonstrated how we could create our own reports with the new personalization app:

analytics viewing

Power Tools

Sean "Sherlock" Holmesby and Mike "_I_ See Interfaces" Reynolds gave one of, if not THE most memorable moment. I won't ruin the surprise for #symeu but needless to say I laughed so hard I almost fell off my chair. 

Jokes aside, most of the presentation touched on a host of powerful tools. From SIM to Powershell to RAZL and more, don't underestimate how much time you could be saving yourself. Knowing what tools are even available is just as important as knowing how to work with what you've got. Technology moves pretty fast, if you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.

Commerce Server 

The purchase of an eCommerce system was a smart move but making it use a generic connection so that other systems can replace it, is wise. I don't do any eCommerce so I spent most of my time attending other sessions but I can tell you what I learned tangentially; being able to integrate whatever platform you want shows that Sitecore is playing chess not checkers. I'm sure a good swathe of customers are selling products online and would love to be able to improve their customer experiences with personalization and derive insight from the analytic and path tracking data.  

Coveo Search

In a jaw dropping moment of clarity, Coveo is now offering a free edition of their search appliance. The concept is brilliant. For basic use, you're going to get an awesome search tool and when you want advanced features or support, you upgrade. I was skeptical at first but after seeing how easy they made the integration I'm sold. The feature set is extensive and I expect the number of people getting hooked on using it will be high. Here's a breakdown of the difference between the free and enterprise versions shown from their slides:

coveo free highlights

coveo free versus enterprise

coveo facet search

If you're like me and you're working with Lucene, here's a few reasons you may want to consider switching:

  • no index lock issues
  • simple as switching search providers
  • sublayout components with configurable properties like page and result count
  • results filter through sitecore security
  • multi-lang support
  • developer support available
  • suggested results
  • facets

Project Skynet

Jim Ward a.k.a. @jerrong a.k.a. Miles Dyson a.k.a. bucket boy (deal with it) a.k.a. the wiz a.k.a. Tim gave the talk that I was most intrigued with. Since my summer was spent thinking about how to integrate machine learning into Sitecore, what I saw affirmed that it was time well spent. True to form he presented deftly and with wit. For sure I'm several steps behind him at the moment. There's the concept of training models (supervised learning), integration with goals and patterns in xDB (db formerly known as DMS, OMS etc) and a different train of thought along how I was using machine learning. 

Until I get my hands on the Sitecore 8 release I can only explain what I saw but my interpretation is to have users create content and set the algorithm to a/b test it. Over time the algorithm can provide insight into what content could be used in other areas to improve engagement. My gut reaction is that it should go one step further and just let the algorithm automatically test all new content. Allow it to take the individual analytics for a user and match/compare with successful group statistics to make decisions. Ignore what doesn't work and use what does then provide a report to the user. People can then pick out patterns in the reports and modify their creation strategies accordingly. But again, I could very well be saying what they're already doing. 

Final Thought

Sitecore has begun turning itself into a hub of technological business solutions; all hot-swappable. The new UI will lead to ubiquitous device support and expect custom application development times to drop. Designing an amazing experience is now the new normal.