Setting a row colour in powershell | Format-Table

This is quite a quick post, but a useful tip. If you are setting up some data in powershell which you then fire at the console via | Format-Table it can be useful to highlight specific rows.

Imagine you have a hashtable with the key as a string, and the value as a number. When you send to the console you will see the names and values set in a table.

Now if you want to set John to be a certain colour then you can use the code below.
Note for static values this doesn’t add much value, we use it for a table that is getting printed dynamically e.g. based on a timer tick and dynamic version of the Name

This requires PowerShell 5.1 or later (check with $PSVersionTable.PSVersion) and doesn’t seem to play fair with the PowerShell ISE, however from a normal PowerShell window or VSCode it works a charm.

Happy colouring 🙂

Build yourself a JMeter load testing server

As you come close to launching your new web application, whether it be Sitecore, Node or plain ol’ HTML, it’s always good to validate how well it performs.

The cloud opens up lots of possibilities for how to approach this – including lots of online LTAAS (er, is load test as a service even a thing!?!? :))

Iteration 1 – LTAAS with Azure Devops

We are using Azure Devops within our current project, so thought it be good to give their load testing features a blast. This came with mixed success, and a mixed $$$ cost.

Pro’s

  • You don’t need to manage any of the kit
  • The sky’s the limit with the amount of concurrent machines to run (< 25)
  • It supports various methods for building a script

Con’s

  • The feedback loop can feel slow
  • You get limited support for JMeter scripts, and limited graph’s of your results. Note, this could be due to inexperience with the tool
  • It costs per minute of load test you run. We managed to un-wittingly rack up quite a substantial bill with a misconfigured script.

Iteration 2 – DIY

Another approach is that you actually setup the infrastructure yourself. For our capacity and requirements this ended up being a much more favourable option – once we’d managed to get the most out of our kit.

Pro’s

  • Assuming you use JMeter, you can quickly iterate through tests and get a wide spread of results as you go
  • If you need more grunt, you can always increase the box spec’s

Con’s

  • You need to tune the box to get the most out of it
  • Large boxes in e.g. AWS cost $$$

Configuring things yourself

Here are a few steps to follow if you really want to max out your load test box, as well as you web infrastructure:

  • Pick a box with plenty of RAM – we opted for and AWS
    r5.2xlarge – 8 core and 64GB RAM
  • Ensure JMeter can use all the RAM it can. Within JMeter.bat you can set the heap size available to the program – by default this is 512mb. If you add set HEAP=-Xms256m -Xmx60g then JMeter will sap up all 60GB of RAM it can
  • Ensure Windows can use as many TCPIP connections as possible. Again, by default this is quite low. You need to set 2 registry keys – see http://docs.testplant.com/epp/9.0.0/ePP/advovercoming_tcpip_connection_li.htm for more details.
    • Until we’d set these values, our tests would bomb out after a couple minutes as the box simply couldn’t connect to our website any more.

Other tips

JMeter has some really good plugins for modelling load, in particular around step’d load and realtime visualization of results.

I’d recommend checking out:

Some good additional reading

https://www.blazemeter.com/blog/9-easy-solutions-jmeter-load-test-%E2%80%9Cout-memory%E2%80%9D-failure

Happy testing! 🙂

Setting up JSS with Vue, Typescript and dependency injection

If JSS is a new term for you, I’d seriously recommend checking our the documentation that Sitecore have provided: https://jss.sitecore.com/ .

By the end of this post we’ll have run through how you can get JSS up and running locally, with dependencies all wired together using a DI container and any functional aspects written in TypeScript. For us this is a key set of requirements – we’ve worked with many projects that have grown over several years. By putting in some key rules and requirements up front should mean with good discipline that the codebase can scale over time.

Why JSS?

Imagine a standard Sitecore development team, typically based around C# developers and some front end devs. In the default approach to building a site you’d need everyone to contribute Razor files with the markup and associated styling and functionality. This is the approach you would probably have seen for several years until more recently with the demand for richer front end technologies. Think Vue, Angular, React and so on.

This is what JSS facilitates.

Is this right for everyone?

Just because technologies exist, it doesn’t always make them the right platform to jump on. E.g. if you have a very established Sitecore development team that doesn’t have the appetite for these front end technologies, then JSS might not be the thing for you.

Getting started

The quick start from the docs site provides 4 tasks to get you started:

Provided you have node installed, once you run ^ you should then see http://localhost:3000 fire up.

Why TypeScript?

I wouldn’t consider starting a new web project now without TypeScript as it provides so many useful features for a codebase. Refactoring is just like if you were using C#, variables have types, classes can implement other abstract classes or interfaces. If you’ve not used it before, I’d highly recommend it.

In terms of designing your application, another key factor to consider is the coupling between the different layers. Core functionality being one layer, your UI framework being another. If you structure things so that e.g. you can peel out Vue without too much trouble, moving up through different technologies or versions will be a breeze.

Changes to the default app

Here we’ll add things like some demo services, some DI registrations and a few other bits we’ll need.

1.First up lets include some extra dependencies:

2. In src/AppRoot.vue, before the export default line add import "reflect-metadata"

3. Add a tsconfig.json file to the root folder (a level above src):

4. Update the webpack config, in the Vue world this is done in vue.config.js

5. Now add a vue-shim.d.ts (in the src folder)

6. Next, some dummy TypeScript dependencies:

7. And the DI container and keys:

8. Now a TypeScript enabled Vue component: /src/components/Hello.vue

9. And to finally get it showing on a page, edit layout.vue to include your component:

After all that, you should see the homepage load up and “ServiceA” getting logged to the console. Not the most impressive output but shows the full flow of dependencies getting configured and resolved, with all the code written in TypeScript 🙂

If you are using SSR Renderings, you’ll also need to add |ts into the list of rules that get ‘unshift’ed in /server/server.vue.config.js

Deploying custom code to xConnect and the Marketing Automation Engine

Over the last few years the deployment footprint of a fully functional Sitecore application has shifted hugely. It’s no longer as simple as one database server and a couple web nodes – now you need to consider all kinds of different infrastructure.

What are the different parts of Sitecore 9?

  • xConnect – a separate web application to your main site
  • AutomationEngine – this runs as a windows service
  • IndexWorker – this also runs as a windows service
  • Website – much like the good ol’ days 🙂

Adding your own customizations

It’s pretty simple to setup your own custom facets. However what’s slightly harder is how do you deploy these to all of the different functions above? If the dll’s and configs don’t match between e.g. the website and xConnect you will get errors in the logs – luckily these do a good job of explaining the mismatch.

Sharing the love

In its simplest form the process of deploying your custom facet relies on 2 things – the dll that contains the facet and a json representation of the facets. To generate the JSON try this.

Automate the boring stuff

No one likes doing the same thing again and again, especially if you consider deploying something like this to multiple servers in the cloud. 

For a recent demo I built a process that worked both locally and remotely. This was great as the octopus deploy step only had to run one exe and the whole deployment glued together as expected.

Just show me the codez!

Just before we do I’ll quickly explain the steps involved:

  1. Build the code (no shit sherlock)
  2. Write the json schema
  3. Deploy the model config (see the sitecore post earlier about this format)
  4. Deploy the dlls
  5. Deploy the patch configs
  6. Deploy the agent configs. Note these assume you are using Slow Cheetah to transform accordingly for each environment

Before you run it you need to:

  1. Correct the references to things like xConnect etc
  2. Correct the references to the dlls you want to include and set their names in the DeployDlls method (var dllsToCopy)
  3. Set the deploymentFolder

All the source code is available online here

One file of note is sc.MarketingAutomation.ActivityTypes.xml – this allows you to patch in things like custom MA Actions, setup dependency injection within the MAEngine and a whole raft more.

Debugging Sitecore Marketing Automation UI

The previous post detailed how you can debug the server side aspects of the Marketing Automation agent. If you start experimenting with richer functionality, I’m sure you’ll soon want to create your own custom activities and UI’s.

Sitecore provide a good description of doing this in their documentation.

Adding custom fields to the UI

In my demo activity, I needed to include a MessageKey that would be passed through to the backend engine. Getting the field to show was relatively easy if you follow the example. I’d also recommend checking out this repo.

The problem I hit was getting the MessageKey value to render correctly in the UI when I opened a plan for the second time – rather than seeing the Key displayed as expected, you’d see an empty block.

Missing key value
Showing the key value

Why was this?

Well, it turns out the MessageKey != messageKey . For some reason, when you write your custom typescript activity, you need to reference ‘this.editorParams.messageKey’, not ‘this.editorParams.MessageKey’. Note the capital, or lack of, M.

Missing bits of Sitecore

One thing the docs doesn’t mention is when you create your custom parameter within the Sitecore tree, you need to set a couple additional fields (Editor ID, Editor Parameters). Have a look at some existing ones for more details.

Debugging the UI

How did I spot the issue with the M? Once you’ve built your plugin js (npm run dev) you get a minified js file to deploy. Alongside this you will also get a sourcemap file:

If you copy this to the same folder as your deployed plugin, you can then do some clever things in chrome:

In order for this to work you need to:

  • Deploy the sourcemap file as per above
  • Add the folder where the original TS files live into chrome
    • In the diagram above => Filesystem => Add folder to workspace 

Happy debugging 🙂

Debugging Sitecore Marketing automation

Here are a few tips and tricks that should help if you want to start developing custom activities within the new Sitecore Marketing automation engine.

The docs

There is a pretty extensive guide on the Sitecore docs site: https://doc.sitecore.net/developers/xp/marketing-automation/activities/activity-types/create-an-activity-type.html

Alternatively have a look at these really useful 4 blog posts: https://www.brimit.com/blog/sitecore-9-custom-marketing-automation-action

Debugging your code

There are a few ways to run the engine – by default it gets installed as a windows service however if you navigate to:

{xconnectdeployment}\App_data\jobs\continuous\AutomationEngine there is an exe (maengine.exe) you can run instead. Your code deployment will involve copying dll’s from your solution into that same folder.

To debug, run the console app and then attach to the maengine process within visual studio. When the plans run, and your activity is triggered, you should see breakpoints kick in. 

If you want to make attaching to the engine simpler, in Visual Studio ‘Add existing project‘ => Select the maengine.exe on disk => Right click ‘Debug => Start new instance

Some developer tips

If you are getting started and can’t seem to get your code to run, try setting up a very simple plan with a loose trigger. An example trigger, where the month is October

Also, check the custom config is in place to link your custom code with the GUID of the new activity within Sitecore. This needs to live in 
{xconnectdeployment}\App_data\jobs\continuous \AutomationEngine\App_Data\Config\sitecore\PatchFolder  – you can call the PatchFolder what you need.

And finally, if you want to see what Sitecore is storing under the hood when you save a plan, they live in /sitecore/system/Marketing Control Panel/Automation Plans. You can always un-bucket the folder to see each plan.

Sitecore Symposium 2018 – Welcome to Sitecore 9.1

As the dust settles after this years annual Sitecore Symposium, I thought it would be good to share a few highlights – in particular what 9.1 has in store. 

Sitecore 9.1

The big news this year was around the imminent release of Sitecore 9.1 and all the neat new features it offers.

  • JSS – Javascript services – The layout service and GraphQL integration
  • Cortex – A machine learning integration built into the xDB & personalization layers
  • Universal tracker – A way of sending data into xDB from any source
  • Sitecore Host – The new underlying frameworks for things like Sitecore Identity
  • Sitecore Identity – An integration with Identity Server to provide Single Sign On througout many apps. Eventually providing the ability to remove reliance on the Membership tables
  • Simplified and streamlined deployment packages for XM deploys – one goal here, to really help with startup times in the cloud

1. JSS

If you managed to miss any information on JSS which sessions did you attend?!?! From the keynote to many breakout sessions, JSS and the headless revolution was one of the hot topics this year! It was announced that as of 9.1 it will no longer be in Technical Preview. All developers should now have many new API’s to call on if needed, including a GraphQL endpoint over the Sitecore DB’s. This opens up really interesting possibilities for the reach of personalized Sitecore content – you can easily consume any page or content within non-sitecore web sites, mobile apps, console apps – you name it.

One highlight, Alex Shyba took everyone through the whole workflow of designing a page in react studio => deployable connected app, all in 40 mins!

2. The Universal tracker

If you look at the way Sitecore are approaching the move to things like dotnet core, it’s very much around splicing out functional areas of the application. Some examples are things like xConnect, the publishing service & marketing automation.

The universal tracker is another example – a new scalable micro service that allows analytic data from any source to be sent into xDB. You can add multiple databases to buffer data before it gets crunched and sent to xDB. There are pipelines that run during this process so if you need to enrich any events or interactions it can be done.

From your external app/system you simply need to concoct some rest calls into the new service. ATM this only allows pushing data into xDB, there is no concept of GET’s yet.

3. Sitecore Host

Underpinning a lot of the new apps that Sitecore are developing is the Sitecore Host layer, a new dotnet core framework. The goal is to provide common features such as logging, messaging, config management, dependency injection and a raft more that can be shared throughout other consumers.

A working example of this is the new Sitecore Identity layer which allows Single Sign On built off Identity Server.

What’s really nice about this approach is your apps & features can cherry pick the required functionality they want. Then, if a specific feature doesn’t exist you can include custom plugins to build out your own implementations.

What does the future hold?

The new framework is all based around dotnet core which opens up very interesting possibilities around containerization, hosting and how you choose to run your application. Who knows, in the future we may no longer need to run your Sitecore stack on the same hosting, cloud provider or operating system!

Inspiring your customer – a new look for Inspire Me

We’ve recently finished the first phase of a redesign project for easyJet to rebuild their inspireme section of the site. An example of the new feature can be seen at https://www.easyjet.com/en/inspireme.

The aim of this post is to describe a few of the ways we’ve achieved this.

All the content for this section is being pulled from Sitecore via some custom WebApi endpoints. This allows us to pull together content and media from Sitecore and enrich with almost realtime pricing data from an import routine we run in the background.

The grid

This was one of the biggest changes. Not only from a technical and UI perspective, but also from a content perspective.

The content challenge

easyJet serve content in over 15 languages so curating content for 150+ destinations takes a lot of time.

We had a few options for where content was updated – in the end we decided to install the templates for the new fields into their production CMS so content could be uploaded. One downside, we had to sync the prod database into our test environments regularly to ensure they could check the content worked as expected.

The grid layout

Depending on the width of the viewport we needed to vary the number of tiles per row. This was because the max image size we could access was 550px. It uses a masonry grid with some customizations around the pattern of tiles we ask it to render.

This gives us the ability to generate a ‘random’ layout but within some pre-defined boundaries. Within the code there are some pre-canned row configurations that allow us to render combinations of large and small cells depending on the screen width.

The tile transitions

These are all achieved with a combination of CSS transitions and a very light smattering of jQuery. I won’t try to explain all the transitions but recommend researching things like

if you want to start dabbling.

Lazy image loading

In order to prevent your browser downloading hundreds of images when you first load the page, the site makes use of a technique mentioned here.
You can see the delay in the images loading in the timeline section on the right of the following image.

With the polyfill it even works in older internet explorer!

Cell loading

The grid cells appear to become visible in order:

This is achieved by delaying the visibility of each cell. As we push cells into the masonry plugin, they are set to be visibility:hidden;opacity:0;.
Depending on their cell index, we then offset how soon until we transition the opacity to 1. Simples 🙂

Feeding content into Angular

A lot of the UI throughout easyJet is built in Angular. There are many options for how you send Sitecore content to your UI. To avoid any lag or delay from ajax calls, we build up the content into JSON which is them embedded into the page markup – hence reducing the need for any additional requests.

Summary

If you plan to take on a rich UI project, in particular one that builds on a lot of javascript then Typescript is your friend! The way you approach your code will be much more similar to C#, plus you can actually com(trans)pile the whole thing.

Hope you like the new look and feel of inspireme. It was very interesting to work on something with such a UI focus that still needs to integrate with Sitecore.

Getting personal with Alexa

It’s only a couple weeks now until Sugcon Europe – a definite highlight for any budding Sitecore developers. There are two days of amazing sessions lined up from a mixture of Sitecore employees and community members.

This year I’ve put together a talk all about integrating different channels with Sitecore – in this case Alexa. What better way to demonstrate the concept than to build a skill.

If you want to find out about the sessions, speakers and so on, you can download the skill for free at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B07C35NBYF/ref=sr_1_1

My particular favourite intent: play the speaker lottery.

It highlights some interesting challenges around creating chat interfaces, each of which will be covered in my talk at Sugcon. To hear the full talk swing by the Main Stage around 13:45 on Tuesday 🙂

A couple teasers:

  • Context is king and why does yes matter so much?
  • Why personalizing the content can have such positive, or negative results

All the source code is available at https://bitbucket.org/boro2g/sugconalexa including a crude scraper to gather the info it needs from the Sugcon site.

Serving personalized content as JSON from Sitecore

As with many tools and approaches to solving technical issues, you can often find many ways to achieve the same output. The challenge I was up against was how to serve personalized content as JSON when being served from Sitecore.

The solution below is one way you can achieve this, undoubtedly there are many more!

The over-arching setup

Think of your JSON feed like a Sitecore page. You will need to break a rule of REST as Sitecore personalization requires session, and therefore isn’t stateless. This will need to be reflected in your consuming app, if you don’t provide an identifier every request it will need to understand and persist cookies between requests.

First up you need to select a device, a layout and some renderings. None of this differs to normal Sitecore development. I’ve found for debugging purposes using a new device works better as you can view the content as a web page as well as JSON.

The layout

Assuming you’ve decided on a device, you will need to setup a layout:

The renderings
Again, much like you would for a page, you can create e.g. Controller Renderings which output the content as you need. One thing to note, these will want to render as JSON e.g.:

These components can have datasources setup as normal, and hence personalization is available into your JSON feed.

Via a browser you would then load the url as normal, remembering to specify the device you’ve selected and you should see content based off rules, user information and behaviours and more.

Taking it to the next level
The simpler approach assumes you have one component per page. Complexity comes in when you need to generate valid JSON based off multiple controls – this can be achieved but requires you to either configure things via rendering parameters or at the point the page is rendered, interrogate the counterpart presentation components and work out whether you have sibling controls.

If you find you have sibling components to render you’d need to add commas after your controls to ensure valid JSON.