Using Sitecore TDS with Azure Pipelines

Sitecore TDS allows developers to serialize Sitecore items into a file format which enables them to be stored in source control. These items can then be turned into a Sitecore update package to be deployed into a Sitecore solution.

With tools like Team City it was possible to install the TDS application on the server, and MSBuild would pick it up in the same way that Visual Studio would when you create a build locally. However, with build tools like Azure Piplelines that are a SAAS service you do not have any access to install components on a server.

If your solution contains a TDS project and you run an Azure Pipeline, you will probably see this error saying that the target ‘Build’ does not exist in the project.

Fortunately, TDS can be added to a project as a NuGet package. The documentation I found on Hedgehogs site for TDS says the package is unlisted on NuGet.org but can be installed in the normal way if you know what it’s called. When I tried this is didn’t work, but the NuGet package is also available in the TDS download so we can do it a different way.

Firstly download TDS from Hedgehogs website. https://www.teamdevelopmentforsitecore.com/Download/TDS-Classic

Next create a folder in the root of your drive called LocalNuGet and copy the nuget package from the download into this folder.

Within Visual Studio go to Tools > NuGet Package Manager > Package Manager Settings, and in the window that opens select Package Sources on the left.

Add a new package source and set it to your LocalNuGet folder.

From the package manager screen select your local nuget server as the package source and then add the TDS package to the relevant projects.

When you commit to source control make sure you add the hedgehog package in your projects packages folder. Normally this will be excluded as your build will try and restore the NuGet packages from a NuGet feed rather than containing them in the repo.

If you run your Azure Pipleine now you should get the following error:

This is a great first step as we can now see TDS is being used and we’re getting an error from it.

If you’re not getting this, then open the csproj file for your solution and check that there are no references to c:\program files (x86)\Hedgehog Development\ you should have something like this:

<Target Name="EnsureNuGetPackageBuildImports" BeforeTargets="PrepareForBuild">
    <PropertyGroup>
      <ErrorText>This project references NuGet package(s) that are missing on this computer. Use NuGet Package Restore to download them.  For more information, see http://go.microsoft.com/fwlink/?LinkID=322105. The missing file is {0}.</ErrorText>
    </PropertyGroup>
    <Error Condition="!Exists('..\packages\HedgehogDevelopment.TDS.6.0.0.10\build\HedgehogDevelopment.TDS.targets')" Text="$([System.String]::Format('$(ErrorText)', '..\packages\HedgehogDevelopment.TDS.6.0.0.10\build\HedgehogDevelopment.TDS.targets'))" />
  </Target>
  <Import Project="..\packages\HedgehogDevelopment.TDS.6.0.0.10\build\HedgehogDevelopment.TDS.targets" Condition="Exists('..\packages\HedgehogDevelopment.TDS.6.0.0.10\build\HedgehogDevelopment.TDS.targets')" />

To fix the product key error we need to add our license details.

Edit your pipeline and then click on the variables button in the top right. Add two new variables:

  • TDS_Key – Which should be set to your license key
  • TDS_Owner – Which should be set to the company name the key is linked to

Now run your pipleline again and the build should succeed

Moving the Media Cache folder in Sitecore

One of the cache’s that Sitecore has is the Media Cache. Whenever you use an image from Sitecore’s media library, Sitecore will retrieve the image from the database, scale it to the size you requested and then store it to disk in the media cache folder. On any subsequent request the image will now be retrieved from the media cache rather than the database.

By default each content management and content delivery server will locate the media cache in /App_Data/MediaCache

This is a relatively logical place to store a cache for images that wont cause you many issues. However, if you have automated deployments setup then you are likely wiping the whole of your website folder each time you do a deploy to ensure that your deploy remains the same on all environments. As the App_Data folder is in the website, your Media Cache will be deleted too.

Depending on your site then deleting the media cache potentially isn’t much of an issue. After all it’s a cache so all that will happen is the images will get cached the next time they are requested. But depending how many images get retrieved at the same time this could slow down performance, particularly if your content editors decided to put every image they ever uploaded into the same folder. Opening the that folder in the admin will create a nice amount of load on your server, particularly if you also have some extra image optimization logic installed.

Like most things in Sitecore though, you can change the location through a config setting.

In Sitecore.config you will find a property called Media.CacheFolder. Change this to somewhere outside of your website folder and Sitecore will now start storing the Media Cache in this location and it will be safe your all your deploys.

    <!--  MEDIA - CACHE FOLDER
            The folder under which media files are cached by the system.
            Default value: /App_Data/MediaCache
      -->
    <setting name="Media.CacheFolder" value="/App_Data/MediaCache"/>

Do I need a Headless CMS?

What is a Headless CMS?

Headless CMS’s have become the hot topic in recent years along with preferences to move to microservices over monolithic architectures and to decouple parts of applications where possible. So, you may be wondering do I need one?

Let’s start with what a Headless CMS actually is. A typical CMS does two jobs;

Firstly, it provides a place for marketers to login and create pages of content that appear on the website. Some allow very basic content editing, other provide the capabilities to construct entire pages from pre-built components, preview what it looks like, apply personalisation rules, split testing and a whole host of other features.

Secondly, they allow developers to create templates of skins to render the pages to visitors. They also provide authentication, form data collection, track visits, browsing habits etc.

Essentially the functionality splits into what the marketer sees and what the visitor sees.

A Headless CMS on the other hand, chops of the second part and in its place leaves an API so that another application can pull content out of the CMS for it to display. The CMS then becomes a place solely responsible for managing content rather than managing a website.

Decoupling in this way offers a few advantages:

  1. The technology/platform is no longer determined by the CMS. You could have a .net based CMS and write the website in JavaScript, php, or any other language.
  2. The content can be provided to more than just a website. In the same way that digital asset management platforms specialise in serving digital assets to other systems. E.g. mobile app, web, print etc. A headless CMS can provide content to multiple other systems too.
  3. It’s much easier for a headless CMS to become a SASS offering. Most custom development when you install a CMS is to tailor the visitor website experience, rather than the admin experience. Once the visitor website is removed there leaves little reason for it to be a product you install and maintain making it much easier for vendors to supply as SASS.

So, should I have one?

With all these advantages the answer should be yes, right? Well its not quite that simple, there are also some disadvantages, so let’s answer some more questions to see if it’s really suited for your situation;

Do you want to use a different website language?

One of the advantages of going headless was that you could pick the language you write the head in, but which language do you want to write it in? Most articles will talk about writing the head in JavaScript frameworks such as React, Vuejs or Angular. The reason for this is simple, if you want to write your application in one of these then you’re a bit stuck for CMS choices as no viable CMSs exist written in React, Vuejs or Angular so using a headless CMS is the only option other than writing an entire bespoke admin.

But what if you want to write the head in .Net or PHP? A headless CMS won’t restrict you doing this in any way, in-fact Umbraco Heartcore even provides a .Net client library to help. The only thing you must question is if it’s going to give you more advantages than disadvantages. By cutting off the head you now have to create it, so are you creating something different to what Umbraco’s Head originally did or are you just recreating the same thing?

Is there a specific pre-built head you want to use?

An alternative to writing your own head is to buy one that is premade. The biggest downside I see to headless is that you have to build and support the head, so using one that is pre-built and compatible with your CMS is a big advantage.

However, this does also mean that you may end up paying a higher price in license fees. Unless your CMS costs decrease enough to cover the additional costs of the head, your ultimately now licensing two products which could add up to more than one.

How many heads are you going to have?

If the answer is one and it’s a website, then it’s highly likely that you don’t need a headless CMS as you’ll effectively end up writing an inferior head to the one, you’re replacing.

CMSs like WordPress have almost 2 decades of work gone into advancing them at this point getting them to a place where they are feature rich, reliable and most importantly secure. Creating your own head will require you to do they work they have already done.

Are you building a website?

If the answer to this is no, then a headless website makes a great option to provide an admin experience for your content to become editable. They are pre-built, integrate with the popular enterprise authentication systems and offer great features around workflow and user permissions.

However, if the answer is yes, then you need to think carefully. Going truly headless has some quite major disadvantages for a website:

  1. You need to write and maintain the head, and if that head is doing the same thing the CMS one did than you’re just reinventing the wheel.
  2. As the CMS is now only providing content to another application less will be possible through the admin interface. E.g. No ability to preview pages, no drag and drop page creation.
  3. Creating things like campaign landing pages or any new page layout creation may no longer be possible without involving the IT team. Because the CMS is now only providing the content rather than the layout, unless the head provides an admin to manage this you could end up with very fixed page templates.

A CMS that can work both head on and headless may be a better option. For instance, Sitecore can be set up like a traditional CMS where the custom rendering logic is added to the main application. However, it can also be set up as a decoupled CMS where the page rendering is achieved using Angular, Vue or React, but note this is decoupled and not headless. The visitor site can be hosted separate from the CMS like with headless, but a lot of the logic is still provided by Sitecore so things like personalisation, admin previews, page construction, Sitecore forms etc are all still possible. It also can work in a truly headless way by using the same API that powers the decoupled head to power a bespoke non-Sitecore head, like a mobile app.

Is your content reusable?

A news corporation writing articles that appear in newspapers, websites or mobile apps are obviously creating a lot of reusable content that can stay the same on each destination.

Alternatively, a typical brochure site (done well) are created with a journey in mind where the whole page has been designed to achieve an outcome. Some content may just be a 3 words combined with an image to evoke an emotional response. Other content may be specifically written to fit a certain gap so that it appears the same size as 2 other pieces of content next to it. None of which may actually translate into mobile.

If this is the case what you may end up actually doing is rather than creating a content repository that can be reused. Is creating a repository where 90% can’t be reused and the other 10% is lost amongst it.

Managing Redirects in Sitecore

One of the most important aspects if not the most important aspect to managing a website is SEO. It doesn’t matter how good your website is, it doesn’t really matter if nobody can find it. Creating good SEO is a lot about having pages match what users are searching for, which then results in a high ranking for those pages. However, a second part to this formula is what happens with a page when it no longer exists. For instance, one day this blog post may no longer be relevant to have on our site, but up until that point search engines will have crawled it, people will have posted links to it and all of this adds to its value which we would to lose should it be removed. An even simpler scenario could be that we rename the blog section to something else and the page still exists under a different URL, but links to it no longer work.

Fortunately, the internet has a way of dealing with this and it’s in the form of a 301 redirect. 301 redirect are an instruction to anyone visiting the URL that the page has permanently moved to a different URL. When you set up a 301 redirect it achieves two things. Firstly, users following a link to your site end up on a relevant page rather a generic page not found message. Secondly search engines recrawling your site update their index with the new page and transfer all the associated value. So, to avoid losing any value associated with a page, whenever you move, rename or remove a page you should also set up a redirect.

Sitecore

Given how important redirects are it’s then surprising that an enterprise CMS platform like Sitecore doesn’t come with a universal way to set redirects up out of the box.

Typically, when we’ve taken over a site one of the support requests we will eventually receive is a question surrounding setting up a redirect from a marketer who’s ended up on Sitecore’s documentation site and is confused why they can’t find any of the things in this article https://doc.sitecore.com/users/sxa/17/sitecore-experience-accelerator/en/map-a-url-redirect.html.

The article appears to suggest that creating redirects is a feature that is supported, however it’s only available to sites built using Sitecore Experience Accelerator rather than the traditional approach.

More often that not, the developers who created the site will have added 301 redirect functionalities but will have done it using the IIS Redirect module, which while serves the purpose of creating redirects does not provide a Sitecore interface for doing so.

301 Redirect Module

Fortunately, there are some open source modules available which add the missing feature to Sitecore. The one we typically work with is neatly named 301 Redirect Module.

Once installed the module can be found in the System > Modules folder. Clicking on the Redirects folder will give you the option to either create another Redirect Folder to help group your redirect into more manageable folders, Redirect URL, Redirect Pattern or Redirect Rule.

Redirect URL

This is by far the most common redirect to be set up. You specify an exact URL that is to be redirected and set the destination as either another exact URL or a Sitecore item. There’s even an option to choose if it should be a permanent or temporary redirect.

Redirect Pattern

Redirect patterns are slightly more complex and require some knowledge of being able to write regular expressions. However, these are most useful if you ever want to move an entire section of your site. Rather than creating rules for each of the pages under a particular page, one rule can redirect all of them. Not only does this save time when creating the redirects, but it also makes your list of redirects far more manageable.

Auto Generated Rules

One of my favourite features of the 301 Redirect Module is that it can auto generate rules for any pages you move. For instance, if you decide a sub-page should become a top-level page moving it will result in a rule automatically being generated without you having to do a thing.

Summary

A marketer’s ability to manage 301 Redirect is as important as them being able to edit the content on the site and while traditional Sitecore sites may be missing this functionality it can easily be added using 3rd party modules, best of all they’re free!

User Authentication across sub domains in Sitecore

The Scenario

In some scenarios you may have sub domains set up on your site, this may be to have an api configured as a separate site, or you may have a microsite set up on a sub domain. Depending on the scenario you may also want a user who it logged in on one of the sites to be logged in on the other.

When providing a login section to a site, after the visitor logs in their authentication is tracked using cookies. Cookies are linked to a domain and as your sites only differ by sub-domain you may be thinking great it should just work, no need for a single sign on solution. But you would be wrong.

The Solution

By default, cookies will be set on a specific domain including the sub-domain unless you tell it otherwise. Fortunately, this is quite easy to do.

In the web.config file, find the section for forms authentication and add an attribute domain set to the top-level domain. Your authentication should now always be set on the top level domain and work across all subdomains.

<system.web>
  <authentication mode="None">
    <forms name=".ASPXAUTH" cookieless="UseCookies" domain="mydomain.com" timeout="30"/>
  </authentication>
<system.web>

Connecting Sitecore to Salesforce

When it comes to creating CMS websites the most common integration requirement is one to a CRM system. In this article I’m going to explain the different methods of integrating Sitecore and Salesforce along with the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Salesforce Web to Lead

The first option isn’t Sitecore specific at all and is functionality provided and supported by Salesforce. Web to Lead allows you to create a HTML form from within Salesforce that when submitted will create a Lead item in Salesforce. To add it to your Sitecore instance can be as simple as copy and pasting the generated HTML and setting up a confirmation page for Salesforce to redirect to once the form has been submitted.

The process for the form submission is then as follows:

With some extra technical input, as the HTML for the form is hosted on your site rather than through an iFrame, it is also possible to customise it with your own CSS and validation to fit in with the rest of your site.

Advantages

  • Very simple to set up
  • Very low in terms of complexity
  • Easy to maintain
  • No duplication of data in Sitecore (simpler for GDPR)
  • Potential for form to be CMS managed by pasting in HTML from Salesforce

Disadvantages

  • Vulnerable to spam
  • No data is fed back into Sitecore analytics
  • Limited to form submissions
  • Limited functionality

For more information on web to lead see: https://www.salesforce.com/products/guide/lead-gen/web-to-lead/

Salesforce Web to Lead plus some custom code

What’s good about web to lead is it provides a simple platform that can be built upon to fix some of its disadvantages.

With some custom code on the Sitecore side, we can change the process from the visitor submitting a form directly to Salesforce, to a form submitting to Sitecore which in turn does an HTTP Post to Salesforce. This gives us the ability to also add in some protection against spam using something like re-captcha and the ability to record some analytics information in Sitecore analytics.

The process for the form submission is as follows:

Advantages

  • Low complexity
  • Easy to maintain
  • No duplication of data in Sitecore (simpler for GDPR)
  • Protected against spam
  • Built on top of Salesforces web to lead functionality

Disadvantages

  • To make fully CMS-able requires a larger bespoke implementation
  • Limited to form submissions

Sitecore Connect for Salesforce CRM

If you’re after something greater than simple lead creation from a form on the site, then another option is the Sitecore Connect for Salesforce CRM module from Sitecore. This is built on top of Sitecore’s data exchange framework and works by syncing data between the two platforms.

Out of the box it is set up with some default mappings for contact information, but this can be expanded to included additional facets of information against a contact.

Using this type of integration as new contacts are created on the site, they will be created in salesforce too. Or a contact being in a salesforce campaign could be synced to the Sitecore instance to customise the users experience there.

For more information on Sitecore Connect for Salesforce CRM see: https://doc.sitecore.com/developers/salesforce-connect/20/sitecore-connect-for-salesforce-crm/en/sitecore-connect-for-salesforce-crm-configuration-guide.html

Advantages

  • Built and supported by Sitecore
  • Ability to build a more complex integration on a framework

Disadvantages

  • Much higher complexity
  • No quick wins for common scenarios such as creating a lead

Fuse IT S4S Connector

Since 2009 Fuse IT have been building a Sitecore to Salesforce connector targeting the biggest use cases for connecting the two platforms.

The connector is installed as packages into both Sitecore and Salesforce and provide out the box functionality such as:

  • Sitecore Forms and Web Forms for Marketers field mapping wizard to create leads in Salesforce. Which gives marketers complete freedom to add a form to a site that creates a lead in Salesforce
  • Sitecore analytics integration to sync behavioural data to salesforce leads and contacts
  • Sitecore personalisation for a contact from Salesforce

The package also includes sample code to enable expanding the solutions with bespoke development.

For more information on S4S see: https://www.fuseit.com/products/sitecore-salesforce-connector/

Advantages

  • Out the box functionality that takes advantages of Sitecore’s features
  • Ability to build a more complex integration on a framework

Disadvantages

  • Additional license fee
  • Creates a dependency that may affect upgrades in the future

Fully Bespoke

Often when you suggest a fully bespoke solution people can take an instant reaction to fear it will be costly, hard to maintain or will break. Writing traditional code often can get viewed as being bad or hard, but the reality is most alternative implementations still involve writing code but just have a nice interface at the start. Depending on the kind of integration your trying to achieve going fully bespoke might be the easiest solution. After all code is essentially an easy tool to achieve a complex scenario and it is generally the scenario which leads to the problem being hard, rather than a developer’s ability to write code in any given language.

A bespoke solution could be something as simple as a webservice being provided by a Salesforce developer that Sitecore will post to, much in the same way as web to lead, but capable of achieving some additional functionality on top.

Or it could be a middleware API layer that is used to connect multiple systems together. E.g. If your site needed to talk to Salesforce and a stock level system at the same time. Or it could be used to completely abstract the CRM system in order to facilitate Salesforce being swapped out with something else in the future.

Advantages

  • Anything’s possible

Disadvantages

  • Could be to complex for simple scenarios
  • Everything must be built

Sitecore strange language switching

The other day we started experiencing a strange issue on one of our test sites. Pages were starting to error and looking at the logs the errors were happening in view’s which hadn’t been updated in a long time. Some of these seemed like the code wasn’t robust enough to handle when a datasource hadn’t been set (the classic object not set to an instance of an object error), but fixing these just resulted in an error in another. It also didn’t explain why this suddenly started happening, not to mention the components in question should have all had data.

Then we noticed that on the first view of any page of the site with a new session the site would display fine even though these were server errors happening. Navigating to any other page or refreshing though caused the server error to return.

This led us to look at the differences between the request headers and we had our answer. On all subsequent requests the language context had been changed to some random thing which there is no content for. The site itself is not a multilanguage site and only has content for en. Adding the language code into the URL would force the context language back and the page would work again.

How language works in Sitecore

To understand what is happening it’s good to know how languages in Sitecore work.

Sitecore is built as a platform which can server content in multiple languages. By default you start with one language in the editor (en) but are able to add more. You can read my blog post from a few years ago on how to do this here (https://himynameistim.com/2015/06/30/sitecore-adding-languages-for-a-multilingual-site/).

Sitecore will recognise which language should be displayed based on a language code in a URL. e.g. himynameistim.com/en-gb/ for English – Great Britian. This is done through the strip language pipeline which picks up these languages and sets the context language.

Config for the link manager then controls if links are generated with these language codes in the URL or not. On a single language site you would have this set to never resulting in URL’s without a language code and the default language will be used.

The flaw in all of this though is the strip language pipeline always runs, even when your pages only have one lauange. The pipeline also doesn’t check if the language it finds in the url is set up as a language on the site, so quite a lot of two letter combinations will work and change the language context. When this is changed, it is changed for the users session meaning it is possible for a url to inadvertedly cause the language context to change for a user on the site when the site only has one language.

Disabling Strip Language

As the site in question only has one language the fix is quite simple. For multilingual sites the solution is a bit harder.

For a single language site you can simply turn off the strip language functionality. You can do this using a patch config file as follows:

<configuration xmlns:patch="http://www.sitecore.net/xmlconfig/">
 <sitecore>
   <settings>
    <setting name="Languages.AlwaysStripLanguage">
       <patch:attribute name="value">false</patch:attribute>
    </setting>
   </settings>
 </sitecore>
</configuration>

Removing port 443 from urls generated by Sitecore

For as long as I’ve been working on Sitecore there has been this really annoying issue where setting the link manager to include server url and running under https will cause urls to be generated with the port number included. e.g. https://www.himynameistim.com:443/ which naturally you don’t actually want.

Aside: This issue was finally fixed in Sitecore 9.1

To overcome this there are a few methods you can take.

Method 1 – Set the Scheme and Port on you site defenition

This is possibly the smallest change you can make as it’s just 2 settings in a config file.

Setting the external port on site node to 80 (yes 80) tricks the link manager code into not appending the port number as it does it for everything other than port 80.

<configuration xmlns:patch="http://www.sitecore.net/xmlconfig/" xmlns:xdt="http://schemas.microsoft.com/XML-Document-Transform">
  <sitecore>
    <sites xdt:Transform="Insert">
      <site name="website">
        <patch:attribute name="hostName">www.MySite.com</patch:attribute>
        <patch:attribute name="rootPath">/sitecore/content/MySite</patch:attribute>
        <patch:attribute name="scheme">https</patch:attribute>
        <patch:attribute name="externalPort">80</patch:attribute>
      </site>     
    </sites>
  </sitecore>
</configuration>

What I don’t like about this method though, is your setting something to be wrong to get something else to come out right. It’s all a bit wrong.

Method 2 – Write your own link provider

The second method which I have generally done is to write your own provider which strips the port number off the generated URL.

For this you will need:

1. A patch file to add the provider:

<configuration xmlns:patch="http://www.sitecore.net/xmlconfig/">
  <sitecore>
    <linkManager defaultProvider="sitecore">
      <patch:attribute
          name="defaultProvider"
          value="CustomLinkProvider" />
      <providers>
        <add name="CustomLinkProvider"
             type="MySite.Services.CustomLinkProvider, 
                         MySite"
                       languageEmbedding="never"
                       lowercaseUrls="true"
                       useDisplayName="true"
                       alwaysIncludeServerUrl="true"
          />
      </providers>
    </linkManager>
    <mediaLibrary>
      <mediaProvider>
        <patch:attribute name="type">
          MySite.Services.NoSslPortMediaProvider, MySite
        </patch:attribute>
      </mediaProvider>
    </mediaLibrary>
  </sitecore>
</configuration>

2. A helper method that removes the ssl port

namespace MySite
{
    /// <summary> 
    /// Link Helper is used to remove SSL Port 
    /// </summary> 
    public static class LinkHelper
    {
        /// <summary> 
        /// This method removes the 443 port number from url 
        /// </summary> 
        /// <param name="url">The url string being evaluated</param> 
        /// <returns>An updated URL minus 443 port number</returns> 
        public static string RemoveSslPort(string url)
        {
            if (string.IsNullOrWhiteSpace(url))
            {
                return url;
            }

            if (url.Contains(":443"))
            {
                url = url.Replace(":443", string.Empty);
            }

            return url;
        }
    }
}

3. The custom link provider which first gets the item url the regular way and then strips the ssl port

using Sitecore.Data.Items;
using Sitecore.Links;

namespace MySite
{
    /// <summary>Provide links for resources.</summary> 
    public class CustomLinkProvider : LinkProvider
    {
        public override string GetItemUrl(Item item, UrlOptions options)
        {
            // Some code which manipulates and exams the item...

            return LinkHelper.RemoveSslPort(base.GetItemUrl(item, options));
        }
    }
}

4. The same provider for media

using Sitecore.Data.Items;
using Sitecore.Resources.Media;

namespace MySite
{
    /// <summary> 
    /// This method removes SSL port number from Media Item URLs 
    /// </summary> 
    public class NoSslPortMediaProvider : MediaProvider
    {
        /// <summary> 
        /// Overrides Url mechanism for Media Items 
        /// </summary> 
        /// <param name="item">Sitecore Media Item</param> 
        /// <param name="options">Sitecore Media Url Options object</param> 
        /// <returns>Updated Media Item URL minus 443 port</returns> 

        public override string GetMediaUrl(MediaItem item, MediaUrlOptions options)
        {
            var mediaUrl = base.GetMediaUrl(item, options);
            return LinkHelper.RemoveSslPort(mediaUrl);
        }
    }
}

What I don’t like about this method is it’s messy in the opposite way. The port number is still being added, and we’re just adding code to try and fix it after.

Credit to Sabo413 for the code in this example

Method 3 – Official Sitecore Patch

Given that it’s Sitecore’s bug, it does actually make sense that they fix it. After all people are paying a license fee for support! This simplifies your solution down to 1 extra patch file and a dll. What’s better is as it’s Sitecores code they have the responsibility of fixing it, if it ever breaks something, and you have less custom code in your repo.

You can get the fix here for Sitecore version 8.1 – 9.0.

So this may leave you wondering how did Sitecore fix it? Well having a look inside the dll reveals they wen’t for method 2.

Sitecore: Returning a 404 response on the page requested rather than redirecting to a 404 page

Previously I’ve blogged about:

but while looking through the posts today, I realised I had never written about how you stop Sitecore from issuing 302 redirects to your 404 page and instead return a 404 on the URL requested with the contents of the 404 page.

While search engines will recognise a 302 response to a 404 as a 404 (in fact they’re intelligent enough to work out that a 404 page without a correct response status code is a 404) it’s considered SEO best practice for the URL to stay the same and to issue the correct status code.

Creating a NotFoundResolver class

When Sitecore processes a request it will run the httpRequestBegin pipeline, and within that pipeline is a Item Resolver processor that will attempt to find the requested item. If after this the context item is still null then the logic to redirect to the ItemNotFoundUrl will kick in. To stop this happening we can simply add our own process to the pipeline after ItemResolver and set the item.

Our class looks like this:

using Sitecore;
using Sitecore.Configuration;
using Sitecore.Data;
using Sitecore.Diagnostics;
using Sitecore.Pipelines.HttpRequest;

namespace Pipelines.HttpRequest
{
    public class NotFoundResolver : HttpRequestProcessor
    {
        private static readonly string PageNotFoundID = Settings.GetSetting("PageNotFound");

        public override void Process(HttpRequestArgs args)
        {
            Assert.ArgumentNotNull(args, nameof(args));

            if ((Context.Item != null) || (Context.Database == null))
                return;

            if (args.Url.FilePath.StartsWith("/~/"))
                return;

            var notFoundPage = Context.Database.GetItem(new ID(PageNotFoundID));
            if (notFoundPage == null)
                return;

            args.ProcessorItem = notFoundPage;
            Context.Item = notFoundPage;
        }
    }
}

To add our process to the pipeline we can use a patch file like this:

<configuration xmlns:patch="http://www.sitecore.net/xmlconfig/">
  <sitecore>
    <pipelines>
      <httpRequestBegin>
        <processor
          patch:after="processor[@type='Sitecore.Pipelines.HttpRequest.ItemResolver, Sitecore.Kernel']"
          type="LabSitecore.Core.Pipelines.NotFoundResolver, LabSitecore.Core"  />
      </httpRequestBegin>
    </pipelines>
    <settings>
      <!-- Page Not Found Item Id -->
      <setting name="PageNotFound" value="ID OF YOUR 404 PAGE" />
    </settings>
  </sitecore>
</configuration>

Notice the setting for the ID of your 404 page to be loaded as the content.

Remember if you do do this make sure you also follow one of the methods to return a 404 status code, otherwise you will have just made every URL a valid 200 response on your site.

What I learnt at Sugcon 2019

This year Sugcon came to London which given that’s where I’m based is awesome for me. In total it was a 3 day conference starting with Sitecore Experience aimed more at marketers than developers. As a developer I only went to the 2 developer days, so for your benefit here’s a summary of everything I saw.

Day 1

Day 1 started with a keynote, sadly life got in the way and I missed the first few hours. I’m told it was good though.

After that the day was split into a mix of sessions in the big room for all and smaller break out sessions where you could pick 1 of 4 to attend.

JSS Immersion – Lessons learned and looking ahead with Anastasiya Flynn

To kick things off I went to a talk on JSS, mostly because JSS is a subject I know very little about. This was something that became even more apparent as the talk went on! At the end of it I came away with an appreciation that I need to invest some time in learning a lot more, but my other take away was a few links on things that will help me out if I ever try some React stuff.

https://www.styled-components.com

https://www.react-spring.io

PAAS It on: Learning’s from a year on Sitecore with Criss Titschinger

Criss works as a dev opps person and over the last year went on the journey of having a Sitecore 8.2 install upgraded to 9 using a fully cloud architecture in Azure.

Overall his experience sounded positive but he did have a few warnings from pain he experienced:

  • Beware of cold start up times with web apps. These can be a real performance hit, especially when Azure decides its going to move your web app instance
  • Web app slots share processing usage so when your warming one up, your live one is taking a hit. If you run on the edge of capacity, this will be an issue
  • Azure search is easy to install but it has a field limitation of 1000 to watch out for
  • Data migration in an upgrade takes a long time the second time. It took 9 days to migrate a years data from mongo! Only do it once.
  • Run your upgrade on clean instances and do the code in visual studio.
  • Web apps need to be on the premium service plan. The others are to weak
  • Use elastic pools for your database to save money. The microservice architecture introduces a LOT of new dbs which are going to cost money in azure resources. Most of the time they also don’t do that much so put them in a pool to share resources
  • Moving to 9 is going to increase hosting charges. Be honest with clients about it.

Day 2

On Day 2 I got to attend from the start so it was a much fuller day for me.

10x your Sitecore development with Mark Cassidy

The day started with a talk on questioning how long it should take to build a Sitecore site. It was a question that never really got answered but the main thing Mark really raised was, do we over engineer what we do and would simpler actually be enough? He went on to show a time lapse video of himself implementing a bootstrap template in Sitecore which took 15 hours.

To build this site he didn’t install any modules (no glass) and used just the standard Sitecore api. As he pointed out, it was all stuff that could be done by a dev with only the basic Sitecore training, which as there’s a short supply of devs in the world, we can potentially make better use of who does what.

Extending and implementing cloud architectures with Rob Habraken

After one talk on cloud the day before I almost gave this one a miss, but I’m glad I didn’t.

Rob gave us some of his learning’s and things to look out for. As the the previous session the theme of Sitecore 9 becoming far more complex came up and he had some interesting takes on it:

  • Use what you need, disable roles that you don’t. I see plenty of Sitecore customers not making use of all the features, and when your in a microservice architecture it does raise the question of why even have this stuff turned on. If you don’t use marketing automation then you don’t need the role running. It’s just costing money to do nothing.
  • Scale down when your not using resource. Unlike a VM web apps can not be turned off so they always cost money. You can delete and recreate, but that’s a pain. Instead set up a pipeline to scale them to the lowest resource setting when not being used.
  • He went on to discuss and show how we can use azure functions and logic apps to implement our code rather than building into the main Sitecore project. However you should be careful overdoing it as it can become complex quickly and it’s easy to end up with a massive unorganised list of individual azure functions.

Automated personalisation with Chris Nash and Niels Kuhnel

Chris and Niels pointed out the flaw in Sitecores reporting on personalised content. How do we know the rate each converts to a goal at? There’s the A/B Test report’s but that’s not quite the same thing.

They went on to show how they had started measuring the display impressions and click through on personalised content. Then linking the results collected in the reporting db up to a Power BI dashboard.

Sitecore identity: A new Sitecore authentication mechanism with Himadri Chakrabarti

Himadri gave us a look at the new Identity Server framework in Sitecore 9.1:

  • Identity server 4 framework
  • Still uses old asp net membership provider underneath
  • Can work with sub providers like Azure

Measure if you want to go faster with Jeremy Davis

Jeremy was in the situation where a site they were developing would have TV adverts during one of the most watch programs on British TV. Naturally he got scared and went looking for tools to help with performance. He told us about two of them:

  • Sitecore debug tool in experience editor showing the time it takes for components to load.
  • Using Visual Studio debugger to monitor processor usage and memory usage.

Both of these tools are very good at pointing you in the direction of smelly code and the best part is you already have them.

Unfortunately it’s the kind of demo that really doesn’t convert to text to write here.

We released JSS, you’ll never guess what happened next with Adam Weber & Kam Figy

Adam and Kam showed us JSS working with SXA and Sitecore Forms. As mentioned before I don’t know much about JSS but after this talk I’m convinced I definitely need to.

Right now it doesn’t sound like I would make a site using it, but it could definitely be the future of how we build sites.

The stand out thing is being able to keep your Sitecore install unmodified which would essentially lead us to a real SAAS solution where a Sitecore instance could be spun up from the marketplace and then all other functionality added through server-less functions and a headless front end.