Sitecore 9: All The New Features & Changes You Should Know About

The Return Of Sitecore

Believe it or not, I get pretty excited when I talk about Sitecore. It's a great platform full of potential and opportunity

If you can imagine someone who just had a double-scoop of pre-workout, an extra large Starbucks and had just finished an American Ninja Warrior obstacle course in record time - that's me talking about Sitecore 9.

Here's an overview of what's new in Sitecore 9. It's not a technical deep dive, but a high level overview. I'm hoping to add more images and links over the coming weeks as I get time to dive in deeper myself. To start, I'll break the changes down into big ideas vs new features.

Big Ideas Overview:

New Features Overview

Sitecore 9: Big Ideas

xDB Freedom of Choice - SQL Server Support

In Sitecore versions 7.5 to 8.2, MongoDB was required to fully to use the "XP" version of the Sitecore Experience Platform as it was part of the xDB architecture. In short, I would describe it as giving Sitecore access to a persistent, connected view of your customers.

Many organization faced teenage-level awkward moments around supporting MongoDB. Although it's a great technology, it's outside the typical skillsets and tools of many organizations that use Sitecore.

Thankfully, Sitecore has listened to their customers and with the initial release of Sitecore 9 there is now support for:

  • SQL Server 2016
  • SQL Azure

And in future update releases of Sitecore 9 we'll find support for:

  • Azure Cosmos DB / Document DB
  • MongoDB

xConnect - Customer Experience Data Integration

When describing xConnect in Sitecore 9 from a marketing perspective, it sounds very similar to Sitecore 8. The terminology of xConnect even existed in Sitecore 8 but it has been completely overhauled in an incredible way.

xConnect has been re-imagined as a separate service that manages all customer & experience data. This allows customer data to be connected directly to applications outside of Sitecore.

Essentially - xConnect becomes an enterprise customer data hub, accessed via REST-based services, that operates autonomously without Sitecore.

It provides an API to collect customer data across all devices.

xConnect allows ERP, CRM, mobile apps, business intelligence tools and beacon technology to directly participate in creating and sharing a view of the customer.

Previous to version 9, Sitecore was the middleman. With no direct API access to the customer data, everything to do with the customer profile had to go through the Sitecore web application. Now, every system can access customer data directly.

Sitecore 9 also includes connectors for Salesforce and Microsoft Dynamics 365 to help jump start your xConnected customer.

Sitecore Experience Commerce

Sitecore 9 features an all new commerce experience re-written from the ground up. It's now uses .NET Core and employs a microservice architecture. This allows for commerce solutions to be extremely bespoke and include only the features necessary. For example, you could remove the shipping service from your commerce solution if it's not needed. Expect a modular, scalable approach to commerce.

Sitecore Cortex - Machine Learning In Sitecore

Sitecore Cortex is not included in the initial release but will be included in the 9.x series.

The potential possibility and power of machine learning in Sitecore cannot be overstated. It's a definitely transformative technology for the platform.

Remember how xConnect now is autonomous and allows you to easily integrate data across all of our devices? Well Sitecore Cortex will run across all of the information stored behind xConnect. And since the information in stored in xConnect is customer centric, Cortex can reveal insights about your customers across all platforms.

At the Sitecore Symposium, it was suggested that Cortex could be integrated with MLS (real estate data) to deliver a tailored experience for new home buyers. Cortex could make the connection between users changing addresses in xDB and the products those users have ordered who have lived in similar houses or neighbourhoods.

Cortex could conceivably identify a market segment of customers who are new home owners, in warm climates with pools to maintain.

This type of autonomous machine-learning, powered segmentation, and personalization is key to delivering personalized experiences at a scale that human-marketers cannot explicitly do.

Sitecore 9: New Features

Secure Out Of The Box

Sitecore 9 is now configured to run as a secure application by default. Encryption can be enabled for all data at rest and in transport. Not only does this include SSL for services like Solr, but the connection between Sitecore and xConnect are even secured using client certificates.

Sitecore JavaScript Services - Headless Development

Sitecore is taking major steps to embrace headless development. In this context, headless development means incorporating client-side in-browser development.

You were always able to configure Sitecore to return JSON and build client-side applications on top of it, but you weren't able to leverage the Experience Editor in sites built this way.

Now with Sitecore 9, the Experience Editor functionality is available on client-side applications. Additionally, NodeJS based scaffolding can be used so that JavaScript developers can access aspects of the CMS such as templates in Sitecore as well.

ReactJS and Angular 2 based client-side applications are currently supported.

Federated Authentication

Federated authentication is the ability to authenticate with a central authority that grants permissions to an application.

Previous to Sitecore 9, permissions would essentially be synced into a Sitecore membership database and be managed locally by Sitecore. Do you have 12,000 users in your organization? Congratulations, you have 12,000 users and passwords in your Sitecore database.

But now with Sitecore 9 external providers can be used to validate credentials.

I know it ships with support for ADFS and Azure Active Directory using OWIN middleware.

Look for the Sitecore.Owin.Authentication.Enabler.config.example file to see where to start.

SXA Is Now Built-In

The Sitecore Experience Accelerator or SXA is now included with the Sitecore 9 platform. Previously, it was packaged as an add-on to the platform.

SXA represents Sitecore's own accelerator framework, meant to increase development speed with over 100 out-of-the-box components.

SXA Commerce

While Sitecore Commerce 9 is not available on initial release, Sitecore will be releasing a Commerce specific version of the Experience Accelerator. Excitingly, this will help unify traditional Sitecore and Sitecore Commerce development

Drag & Drop Marketing Automation

I don't like to get emotional but this one is just beautiful. Sitecore 9 introduces a very marketer-friendly, drag and drop interface for marketing automation.

So marketers can now segment users into lists, send an email follow-up, send a push notification over an app, update CRM contacts, trigger campaigns, and configure sophisticated customer journeys quite easily.

This new system is based on xConnect and runs independently of Sitecore. Now it's even possible to configure & coordinate marketing automations between your IoT fridge, app & website.

Sitecore Forms

Sitecore 9 introduces completely overhauled form creation and management. Native, customizable, integrated - why thank you. I would be kind in saying that the previous Web Forms for Marketers module presented challenges with many implementers creating custom solutions to solve the problem.

This presents an incredible opportunity to once again empower marketers and keep everything in-ecosystem.

Enhanced Personal Privacy Controls

When dealing with contacts in Sitecore 9, we are are now given the tools to be GDPR and PII complaint. Any fields that contain sensitive or personal information can be marked as such with a simple checkbox and be restricted appropriately when accessed through Sitecore & xConnect.

Dynamic Placeholders Out Of The Box

The to the initiated Sitecore developer, you'll know all about dynamic placeholders and be thankful for the Sitecore communities' contributions to the matter. With Sitecore 9 they've taken dynamic placeholders out of the communities hands and delivered them as part of the product. Thanks everyone.

Sitecore Experience Cloud On Azure - Cloud First

With this latest release of Sitecore there is a stated commitment to be cloud-first. This means that when adopting the Sitecore Experience Cloud, particularly when running as platform-as-a-service on Azure, they're promising feature parity with on-premise solutions.

It's great to hear about Sitecore's focus on the future and their strong alignment with future-facing, forward thinking deployments.

Sitecore Installation Framework

With the release of Sitecore 9 the traditional exe or zip based installation packages are being replaced by a scripted Powershell fueled installer.

This gives us a more modular approach to installing Sitecore and xConnect. Being modular and Powershell based allows the installation to be customized & enhanced by developers while still maintaining repeatability. For example, at Fishtank we would include the tools needed for our automated deployments with the installs.

SIF also embraces different Sitecore topologies to accommodate installs that are single and multi-server.

That's All Folks

It goes without saying, there are a lot of great new features, concepts and capabilities in Sitecore 9. As someone who spends all of his time focused on Sitecore, I am excited to get my hands on all the new toys and see how we can make them sing. Not to pick favorites, but the new xConnect architecture, the new marketing automation engine and the new Sitecore Installation Framework are very high on my list. As stated above, I plan to add more links and screenshots to this post over the coming weeks. Thanks for reading.

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Meet Dan Cruickshank


Dan is the founder of Fishtank. He's a multi-time Sitecore MVP and Coveo MVP award winner. Outside of technology, he is widely considered to be a top 3 father (routinely receiving "Father of the Year" accolades from his family) and past his prime on the basketball court.

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