With the releases of Sitecore 7.5 and 8, Sitecore owners have a decision to make on how best to plan their upgrade road map. We look at what questions need to be answered before making those decisions.

Updated: Sitecore 8 was officially released in December 2014. Our advice on upgrading below still holds, but we’ve added a few additional thoughts on the Sitecore 8 release below.   

Updated: Sitecore has released a knowledge base article on the Product Support Lifecycle, outlining the expected support coverage for each active version. If you are on Version 6.x, Mainstream Support is scheduled to end in 2015, so it's important to consider this in your upgrade plans. 

Sitecore 8 – Thoughts on the upgrade 

Sitecore 7.5 and 8 were released in quick succession in Q4 2014. Below, we share some additional thoughts on the new release. 


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Version 8 basics

Sitecore 8 was released in December 2014. With the new release, software and documentation documents have moved. We’ve got a list of the essentials here:

  • Download the Sitecore 8 software at http://dev.sitecore.net
  • Find the Sitecore 8 documentation at http://doc.sitecore.net 
  • Please note: Sitecore 7.5 documentation, particularly related to the xDB, is still highly relevant and can be found here, until Sitecore converts and migrates it fully to the new location

Check your infrastructure 

If you’re still on Sitecore 6.x, you’ll want to double check that your current infrastructure can support the upgrade, as some prerequisites have changed. For the core product, you’ll need a minimum of:

  • IIS 7.0
  • .NET Framework 4.5
  • Windows Server 2008+ or Windows Vista+
  • Visual Studio 2012
  • MongoDB: The xDB deployed on Mongo and associated configurations for session management and aggregation are not covered in this post.
Full specifications can be found in this document

Upgrade in-place or into new infrastructure?

The default approach is to perform the incremental upgrades in place per Sitecore’s directives. Upgrading from 6.6 to 8, for example, will require a series of intermediate steps of installing packages, updating configuration files and running update scripts on the databases. This approach also provides the opportunity to check against documented major changes at each step to better troubleshoot any issues encountered. We advise taking the approach of a local dress rehearsal that generates an Upgrade Book documenting all necessary steps and tweaks. 

However, if you do need to upgrade or migrate your infrastructure, you may choose to do a base install of Sitecore 8 on a new instance and import your existing solution and content tree. This is a good opportunity to upgrade to latest versions of Windows, SQL Server, etc. Be aware that you will still need to generate a Sitecore export package that is compatible with version 8, and at least an equivalent amount of effort will be needed to do so and perform the necessary testing. 

As with any new major release, expect patches and updates

Sitecore 8 introduces an entirely new set of functionality, APIs and a brand-new SPEAK-based interface across the product. In the Known Issues for Sitecore 8, there are a few minor “gotchas” that we expect will be resolved in upcoming updates. These are good to have on the radar if you are considering an immediate upgrade. A couple of examples: 

  • If you’re using Web Forms for Marketers, you can’t yet add a Form from the new Experience Editor interface
  • If you’re using IE10 or IE11 for administration, there are some limitations still be to addressed with the interface
  • The Sitecore Analytics assembly contains some ToDo and NotImplementedExceptions that will be implemented in a later update

A note on modules

If you are using any Sitecore modules such as Email Campaign Manager, Web Forms for Marketers, or the CRM connector, be aware that each module has its own upgrade path and compatibility timeline. 

The core Sitecore version may upgrade faster than the modules you are using. Use this handy chart published by Sitecore to check which modules are compatible with which version, and whether you'll have to upgrade modules as well or wait for a new module version to be released (if it is critical to your business functions). Also useful is this article which indicates how modules are covered under Sitecore's support model. 

Check your Sitecore license

All Sitecore customers should check with their Sitecore sales rep to ensure that an upgrade to version 7.5 or 8 is fully supported by their current Sitecore license.

Sitecore 8 goodies 

And finally a refresher on some of the most exciting features awaiting us in Sitecore 8:

  • A shared session across devices and channels that can be linked with a unique identifier: If a user browses from their phone, and then their laptop, we can associate both visits with that user to help build a complete picture of their activity. Nice!
  • A “helping hand” for marketers: Among other things, Sitecore will suggest which content tests should be run, and the Path Analyzer will suggest areas to investigate and optimize.
  • A brand-new sophisticated analytics interface: 50+ out-of-the-box reports, including segmentation by behavioural patterns.
  • The power of the xDB and Customer Card as an aggregation engine: allows us to pull in not just analytics data but also to supplement with external data from CRMs, other databases and even public data sources.
  • Content testing built into the content authoring interface and workflow: targeted to both beginners and optimization experts, who can now tweak things like traffic allocation and confidence level. 
  • Content testing results: measured by engagement value or conversions, and Sitecore will calculate how long the test should run for statistical significance. 

A full list of all the new features is outlined in the release notes.

Upgrading to Sitecore 7.5

Last week Sitecore released the latest version of the Customer Experience Platform, version 7.5, amidst all the recent fanfare surrounding Sitecore 8. The release marks the next stepping stone for users and comes with a series of upgrading questions. We'll take a look at what you need know before making the decision to upgrade to 7.5, but first, here is a quick refresher on the most significant enhancements for each recent release:

  • Version 6.5 and 6.6 – Major upgrades to Page Editor and DMS functionality
  • Version 7.0 and 7.2 – Massive content scalability with the addition of buckets, developer goodies and publication efficiency improvements
  • Version 7.5 (just released) – Massive analytics and customer experience scalability with the new analytics collection database (xDB) moving from SQL Server to MongoDB 
  • Version 8 (expected 2015 Q1) – Next-generation DMS with all-new analytics, reporting, testing and “one view of the customer” full experience management. This version clearly marks Sitecore’s huge leap from a tactical solution to an online publisher and finally to a strategic solution to marketing needs in a connected world.

Sitecore 7.5 – What do I need to know?

The biggest feature of version 7.5 is that it introduces the Experience Database and Profile, which is an important puzzle piece that will support and set the stage for the vision of Sitecore 8. 

Along with the new release comes a new list of terms to understand: 

  • The Experience Database (xDB) is the new massively scalable version of Sitecore’s analytics database that collects all customer interactions to present a unified view of an individual customer. This database is built on MongoDB instead of SQL Server and is available as an on-premise or cloud-based solution. 
  • The Experience Profile (xFile) gives marketers complete visibility into every customer interaction and can pull in interactions from all channels and all points of interaction. This unified information gives marketers the power to create a deep understanding of what visitors want and how to react to opportunities in real-time.

Once upgraded to Sitecore 7.5, you don’t need to start using the Experience Database immediately, but it is advantageous to begin to understand both its infrastructure implications and marketing potential as Sitecore 8 approaches. 

Preparing for the Experience Database

The new xDB uses MongoDB for collection and SQL Server for reporting. Your most important decision will hinge on whether you want to host MongoDB within your on-premise infrastructure or take advantage of Sitecore’s xDB cloud offering. Due to the sheer volume of data the Experience Database collects, many organizations welcome the opportunity for cloud storage; however, some organizations may have policies that require on-premise deployments. 

Either way, the introduction of MongoDB is a significant infrastructure consideration and the proper preparation should be done well in advance of planned usage. 

For more information, you can refer to our more detailed blog post on using xDB on-premises vs. in the cloud, as well as Sitecore’s documentation on xDB architecture, xDB configuration and xDB cloud deployment

Migrating your current DMS analytics database

If you are already using the current DMS analytics database to collect and report on visitor behavior, you may want to consider preserving the data you’ve collected thus far for historical insight. If so, Sitecore does provide a Sitecore Analytics Conversion Tool to migrate your analytics data into the new xDB and you’ll want to consider this as part of the upgrade effort. 

Upgrade now, or wait for Sitecore 8? 

If you’re currently on version 6.x – 7.2, we strongly recommend upgrading now.

Why?

Gain immediate momentum

If you’re eager to start leveraging the marketing power of Sitecore 8 and the Experience Profile, upgrading to Sitecore 7.5 now will allow your team to start getting familiar with the new platform. You can invest now in infrastructure readiness, solution readiness and team/training readiness to pave a smooth road towards fully leveraging Sitecore 8 and a better sense of your digital roadmap. 

It’s important to note that Sitecore 8 does represent a significant leap to an incredibly powerful strategic marketing platform. It is best not to underestimate the runway you’ll want to prepare your team and your organization to fully leverage its features. 

Don’t fall too far behind on the upgrade path

Postponing upgrades means more costs later when you have to perform a significant upgrade between major releases and especially when your solution is optimized to an older version. Keeping as current as possible means you’ll both be saving on overall upgrade costs and also ensuring your team has a chance to leverage the latest features as soon as possible.

Sitecore has also just released an official support schedule for all active versions, outlining the timeframes of support phases for each version. If you are on version 6.x, be aware that Mainstream Support will end in the 2015 calendar year. Read more details here

Take advantage of 7.x goodies

If you’re currently on version 6.5 or lower, you’re missing out on a few great modules and add-ons that are compatible with newer versions. Even if you’re not quite ready to use the Experience Profile, with version 7 a whole new world opens up. Here are a few examples: 

The counter argument

As always, there are certain cases where it may make more sense to postpone your upgrade. It may make sense to consider waiting if:

  • You are already on version 7.1 or 7.2 and do not have the capacity to immediately leverage the Experience Profile or to train your team more than once on new DMS functionality
  • Your budget is extremely limited and you can only fit in one upgrade deployment with regression testing and quality assurance (that said, laying the groundwork with a 7.5 upgrade should minimize the upgrade efforts to 8)
  • You are risk-averse and prefer to upgrade to a major release when it has been battle-tested in the market for a decent amount of time

With Sitecore’s rapid release cycle, we’re always supporting our clients in assessing the right time and right approach to upgrading. Whatever your upgrade roadmap, we’re happy to help. 


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