Considerations for upgrading your Sitecore version

There has been much publicity around Sitecore’s latest releases, version 7.5 and version 8, which come with significant advancements in marketing and customer experience management. For many organizations, the decision to and justification for upgrading can be challenging, especially if their current build is stable and daily operations are running smoothly. This document will act as a guide for organizations so that they can understand the benefits, risks and associated costs of upgrading to Sitecore version 7.5 or version 8. 

Sitecore versions in brief 

The following table outlines the key differences and advancements in the most commonly deployed versions of Sitecore as of Q1 2015, with the timeframes of each major and minor release. Generally, Sitecore releases a minor update once or twice a quarter, and a major update twice a year, with the latest two, 7.5 and 8.0, released in quick succession.

For more detail on the enhancements in each version, see Appendix A.

Sitecore
major version

Distinguishing features

6.5 - 6.6
“second generation DMS” 
  •  Major upgrades to Page Editor and DMS functionality
7.0 - 7.2
“content scalability” 
  • Massive content scalability with buckets
  • New search provider model
  • Publishing performance improvements and published related items
 7.5
“analytics scalability”

  • Introduction of xDB as the new highly scalable analytics database on MongoDB
  • Experience Profile
8.0 – 8.1
“next generation experience management platform”
  • Next-generation DMS on top of xDB, with all-new analytics reporting, testing and customer experience management (rebranded “Sitecore XP”)
  • Interfaces redone 
Sitecore release timeline

Click to enlarge the image

Key upgrade opportunities

Depending on which version you’re currently using, and whichyou wish to upgrade to, there are many opportunities that come from moving to newer versions of the product. That said, with opportunity comes the need for investment, so we’ve attempted to divide these opportunities into efficiency improvements and functional enhancements.

Efficiency improvements

Fixing ongoing pain points

Each minor release of Sitecore contains multiple fixes for the most common pain points in the day-to-day operation of a Sitecore website:

  • Resolution of browser compatibility issues and bugs in Sitecore editing interfaces, particularly if your organization stipulates the use of a specific browser  
  • Efficiency improvements to the publication process – both smarter logic and faster performance 
  • Better support for multi-environment and remote deployments 

Increasing independence of the marketing team 

Historically, content management systems strived to enable content authors, while removing IT staff from day-to-day operations with the web presence. That change results in added ROI and allows those IT resources to focus on areas of the business where their expertise could add real value to the organization. 

With Sitecore’s increasingly sophisticated marketing features, this efficiency can extend to enabling marketers to configure and publish personalization rules, content tests and engagement plans without a developer’s support (assuming the build has been architected to support it). 

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Cloud deployment efficiencies 

The latest versions of Sitecore fully support deployment of both content management and xDB to the cloud, with Sitecore Azure and hosted xDB offerings. This change allows organizations to outsource the complexity of procuring, configuring and maintaining newer technologies such as MongoDB, especially in high-traffic scenarios. 

Keeping up with online channels

Newer versions of Sitecore offer faster and better integrated ways to test your website and campaigns against numerous mobile devices, email clients, spam checkers and more. 

Improvements to content search

With Sitecore version 7.0 and later, the new search API and search interfaces offer a vastly superior experience, with high-performing indices and facets for filtering results. This holds particular advantages for content authors sharing a library of assets, especially in a content repository scenario where a distributed group needs an efficient way to share digital media. 

Moving to a provider-based architecture

Newer versions of Sitecore support a more flexible provider-based architecture, abstracting the interface between Sitecore and search engine, e-commerce and media platforms to allow different platforms to be swapped in. If your organization has already invested in an existing such platform, this architecture would support a more streamlined integration with Sitecore. 

Keeping up with developer tools  

A Sitecore development team’s efficiency can be greatly improved with application lifecycle management, continuous integration tools and development frameworks which each have their own improvement roadmaps. Staying up-to-date with Sitecore means your developers can use the latest tools and access support and training that may no longer be available for older tools.  

Functional enhancements

These are upgrade benefits that introduce significant new capabilities to your marketing team’s toolkit, but require some investment in training, planning and deployment. That said, the impact on hard metrics such as Cost per Lead, when using Sitecore, may demonstrate a higher ROI on the (relatively) low cost of upgrading. 

New arsenal of marketing capabilities 

This is arguably one of the biggest benefits to upgrading Sitecore. If you’ve laid the groundwork of a well-designed, responsive website, you can now use that website as a strategic marketing tool – reaching multiple channels and audiences, understanding visitor behavior and truly embracing a culture of continuous optimization. See further details in Appendix A.

Advantages for lead nurturing and customer service scenarios

The Experience Profile is particularly powerful in scenarios where an individual-level view of a customer or prospect can be leveraged, such as in a lead nurturing scenario by a CRM or where public sources could greatly streamline a salesperson’s  process. Alternatively, it could be used in a customer service scenario, where aggregating the visitor’s website behavior with other datasets allows for personalization and could potentially influence the prospect. 

Newly supported modules 

With Sitecore 7+, organizations can leverage an increasingly broad and sophisticated set of modules and add-ons to support solution requirements and marketing activities, with the existing modules showing the improvement incrementally in tandem. A few examples include:
Coveo for Sitecore has released a Free Edition of its search engine for Sitecore 7+

Federated Experience Manager allows organizations to track and personalize non-Sitecore powered websites, using the Sitecore Experience Platform, for Sitecore 7.2+
Sitecore Commerce is available for Sitecore 7.2+

Opportunity for redesign, rebuild and/or infrastructure upgrade 

The question of upgrading brings with it an opportunity to assess the state and versions of underlying infrastructure and add-ons. Many organizations take the opportunity to modernize infrastructure and rebuild their solution with refreshed branding; if the solution is a few years old it may need to be re-architected to fully support new Sitecore features. 

Improved flexibility for multi-lingual websites

If you serve localized and/or multi-lingual content, the newest version of Sitecore gives you more flexibility to display a different presentation for different versions of the same item. Previously, if you had a content item with an English version and a French version, the presentation layout was shared between them. Now, you can specify a different layout for each, allowing a more customized user experience for each language and/or localized brand. 

The risks of not upgrading

Once you’ve established a stable implementation and a well-trained team who are comfortable with daily tasks, the prospect of upgrading may cause some hesitation. 

What are the risks if I get too far behind the latest version? 

  • With Sitecore, you are running software on a plethora of underlying support infrastructure, each with its own lifecycle and roadmap, such as Windows Server, SQL Server and the .NET Framework. If you get too far behind with either Sitecore or its underlying systems, you may find support for older versions decreasing. 
    • NB: With Sitecore specifically, there is a Product Support Lifecycle that is important to take into consideration. For example, Mainstream Support for Version 6.6 ends December 31, 2015. 
  • You may be tolerating issues that are resolved in later versions; most commonly, browser compatibility issues and publishing issues often find resolution with newer versions. 
  • The longer you wait to upgrade, the higher the probability that your build will require additional tweaks to adjust to updated Sitecore APIs and features. That said, if you’ve waited long enough, you may find your upgrade can be pitched with a broader redesign or rebuild that starts fresh with the latest version. 
  • Certain add-on modules such as Web Forms for Marketers or Email Campaign Manager (from Sitecore and from third parties) may not be compatible with your older version, as the innovation and development always trends toward the newest versions. Check this module version compatibility chart and keep an eye on Sitecore Marketplace updates for any modules you use from there  

How can I mitigate these risks?

  • If possible, ensure you have a properly architected, forward-facing build. Sitecore is a highly flexible platform, which is a developer’s dream, but this also means there are numerous ways to design the underlying architecture for the same published result. The two most important principles are:
  1. Design clean abstractions, business layers and integration tiers so API calls and objects can be easily updated or swapped out in a minimal number of places 
  2. Design a DMS-friendly, component-based architecture. Marketing features such as personalization and A/B testing are configured on individual sublayouts within placeholders, and rely on swapping out either the datasource or rendering. Ensure your pages are cleanly component-based with content and logic driven by datasource items as much as possible.
  • Include a rhythm of upgrades in your budget forecasting. Generally, we recommend at least a yearly assessment of upgrade cost and benefit, and a major upgrade every 1-2 years.   
  • Invest some time in keeping up-to-date with Sitecore’s product roadmap and taking incremental training steps with your marketing team, so training on the new concepts is less of a jump.
  • If you use a lot of Sitecore or Marketplace modules in your solution, keep an eye on their relative upgrade paths and support lifecycles. 

Upgrade timeline 

Our recommended approach for major upgrades includes the following activities. Upgrading Sitecore generally involves a series of incremental upgrades, database schema updates and concurrent module upgrades. 

  1. Upgrade dress rehearsal performed locally on a copy of the build 
  2. Upgrade book written to guide the process in the client’s environment, outlining ordered steps per Sitecore and instructions on any obstacles, customizations and prerequisites as encountered in the dress rehearsal
  3. Assessment and implementation of necessary fixes to support the new version (if any). Examples may include:
    a. Adjustments for API changes and breaking changes
    b. Impact on business process flows
  4. Quality assurance performed on local copy
  5. Assistance to client in scheduling necessary downtimes and content freezes 
  6. Application of upgrade on client environment Sitecore instances 
  7. Guidance on required new infrastructure configuration to support the xDB

Generally, this can be performed over a period of 2-4 weeks, depending on the complexity of the upgrade and number of client instances.

Other areas of investment to maximize ROI of the upgrade:

  • Training for developers and marketers on the new version, its interfaces and any new modules that will be used
  • An “accelerator” engagement supported by a partner to take first steps with the new marketing features
  • Fostering an executive-supported culture of measurement and continuous improvement 

The return on investment 

The sections above have outlined key areas of “softer” return on investment, chiefly outlining benefits, costs and risks of upgrading your Sitecore deployment in support of making the case to necessary stakeholders. It is more difficult to quantify a hard ROI number on an upgrade, as each organization’s goals, processes and solutions will widely vary.

There are a few metrics that can be used to assemble a calculation, if necessary. Organizations should frame the upgrade ROI by focusing on solving a specific issue or process, such as improving content author efficiency or reducing cost per lead, and by tying efforts to top-line growth. The heavy lifting will come from establishing baselines of performance to forecast improvements.

To establish baselines and project improvements, organizations should look to embrace a culture of measurement and ongoing optimization in order to regularly track calculation metrics over a specific time period, such as Cost Per Lead, Publishing Time, or Content Author Time-on-Task. Sitecore’s whitepaper Five Ways to Demonstrate Clear ROI outlines five strategies for exploiting Sitecore’s capabilities as such. 

To establish investment costs, organizations should consider the TCO of the upgrade over the same period of time. These costs will likely include: 

  • Upgrading the solution
  • Implementing new features 
  • Training and culture shift
  • Infrastructure upgrades, if necessary

Making the effort to begin consistent measurement can result in concrete financial gains. Tracking and acting upon engagement metrics, centralizing cross-channel performance data within the product, and using this information to optimize your site(s) really works, as explored in Sitecore’s whitepaper, Marketing Gold: Connecting Integrated Multichannel Marketing with Business Growth.

Multichannel integrated marketing graph

For a more in-depth review of overall Sitecore ROI, also see The Total Economic Impact Of Sitecore CMS, a Forrester ROI study commissioned by Sitecore, evaluating the total economic impact and potential return on investment that enterprises may realize by deploying Sitecore CMS.

Other resources

Here is a collection of articles and blog posts that provide further information on Sitecore 7.5 and Sitecore 8, the xDB and considerations when upgrading or implementing. 

  • Sitecore 8 release – Sitecore’s newly launched Developer Portal where the software and documentation for Sitecore 8 can be accessed. 
  • Upgrading to Sitecore 7.5 / 8 – A Nonlinear blog post that provides further detail on upgrading.
  • Sitecore 8 as a leap to strategic marketing – Nonlinear thoughts on Sitecore 8’s progress towards a full customer experience management platform.

Appendix A - Detailed progressive enhancements

The following table outlines more detail on the most helpful and impactful enhancements for each version starting at v6.5. Please see SDN for full Release Notes on each version:

  • Version 6 Changelog
  • Version 7 Changelog
  • Version 8 Changelog 

Please note that multiple issues are resolved with each new release, particularly around browser compatibility, interface bugs, performance issues and security vulnerabilities. 

Version  Key enhancements

 

6.5

 DMS 2.0 released

  • In-page personalization and testing configuration 
  • Ability to configure separate connection strings for data collection and reporting
  • Completely re-written Analytics reports and Executive Insight Dashboard
  • Sitecore App Center added
  • Support for using Analytics with SqlServer, StateServer, and other out-of-process session-state modes

Page Editor improvements

  • The Page Editor has been more compatible with various JavaScript libraries and code developed by website authors
  • The Page Editor has been made more compatible with many different types of visual designs, especially with designs that use floats, absolute positioning, and various other CSS aspects
  • The Page Editor now takes workflows into account, while still allowing editors to edit items and versions which are not in a final workflow step
 

6.6

New supporting applications

  • Device simulator to preview pages across multiple mobile devices
  • Page Preview service in Sitecore App Center

Developer goodies

  • Native MVC support
  • Sitecore inow using Lucene.NET 2.9.4
  • A large number of multibrowser issues have been resolved
 

7.0

Content Scalability

  • Support for storage of large numbers of content items in item buckets
  • Content tagging and content faceting

Search improvements

  • A new Sitecore.ContentSearch namespace that contains new indexing and search APIs
  • Search provider architecture allowing different search engines to be swapped in to support both published site and internal CMS search
  • New search screens for content authors in the Content Editor, Page Editor, and in many dialog boxes – much better optimized for a content     repository function
 

7.1

Developer goodies

  • SPEAK UI framework is introduced to accelerate custom application development
  • The Sitecore Item Web API (previously available as a separate download) is now distributed as part of the CMS
  • Sitecore MVC now supports Microsoft ASP.NET MVC 4, along with other fixes and improvements
 

7.2

Publishing improvements

  • Performance improvements and related item publishing (a big win for component-driven site architecture)

Developer goodies

  • Sitecore MVC now supports Microsoft ASP.NET MVC 5.1
  • Multivariate testing is now configured per language
 

7.5

 Introduction of Sitecore Experience Database (xDB)

  • Designed for hyperscalability 
  • Central data repository that collects and connects all customer interactions in a single view
  • Collection, processing and reporting that supports enterprise-level installations
  • Extensible aggregation engine that can pull in additional customer data from external sources

Developer goodies

  • The new Sitecore.Services.Client service layer provides a configurable and extendable framework for creating consistent client-server communication for your applications, using the ASP.NET Web API as the foundation
  • The Sitecore Tag Management client library (previously available as a separate download) is now distributed as part of the platform

 

8.0

 Introduction of next-generation Experience Platform 

  • Redesigned cross-platform SPEAK-based Sitecore client interfaces
  • Redesigned Launchpad offering access to all platform applications
  • A new way of centrally managing marketing taxonomies and classifying marketing definitions
  • A fully integrated Federated Experience Manager (FXM)
  • List Management as an integrated part of the platform
  • Enhanced Experience Analytics
  • Enhanced Experience Profile features
  • Automatic content testing and optimization reporting
  • A new Path Analyzer component
  • Versioned layouts – a different presentation set on different versions of different languages for the same item

Ready to start upgrading Sitecore? Take a look at our newest Sitecore upgrade offering.


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