SDL Web MVP retreat

Some SDL Web MVPs discussing things in a cloister in PortugalA couple of weeks ago, it was my privilege to attend the annual retreat of the SDL Web MVPs. SDL Web is a well-known suite of web content management software that is used by many large organisations to manage their web sites worldwide. It’s a fully-featured system that comes with everything you need to run that kind of operation. As with any such software, there’s a community of specialists who encourage each other, share knowledge and information, and generally try to help make each other’s lives easier when dealing with the complexities and challenges of ensuring that implementations are done correctly and go smoothly. Each year the people who are most active in this community are recognised with the MVP award, and the annual retreat is SDL’s way of saying thanks.

The format of the retreat is always fairly similar. Each year we go to a surprise location in Portugal, and for four days we’re treated to top class hospitality while we get to hang out with each other. The atmosphere is always a bit special, as we get to revisit old friendships, meet the new guys, and spend some time enjoying ourselves but also making sure we do something useful. I always love the way that conversation can turn in a moment from social chit-chat to intense technical discussions and then back again. And we like to make music.

This year we were literally cloistered in an ancient monastery: the Convento de São Paulo near Redondo. Our bedrooms were the cells of the old monks, and our work room during the day was the old chapel. (When I say cells, I’m underselling it a bit. They put me in a suite that I think must have been the old abbot’s apartment. Not shabby at all!)

Usually at an MVP retreat, we split into groups and try to build some software. Anything goes. It can be a proof of concept for a new idea, or the beginnings of an open source project that will help us all in our work. Over the years, all sorts of interesting things have come out of the retreat, but this year, unusually, I don’t think we wrote a line of code. So why was that? You may well ask!

In the early days of Tridion (as SDL Web was then known) the standard way of producing a content-managed web application was to create templates that ran on the content management server, and which would produce the code of the web application when the site was published. This was a great approach, especially if you think that the very early sites were often plain HTML, or had very rudimentary application functionality. Over the years, the applications have become more and more sophisticated, and the techniques and architectures have moved along with the times. Along with this shift, more and more of the interesting parts of an implementation have moved from the content management server, to the content delivery systems. The first big shift in this direction was the move to publishing content out to the delivery-side data store (still commonly referred to as the broker). Pretty much any modern enterprise web site needs dynamic content served on the basis of a database query, and this has been the case for some years already.

A more recent shift in architecture has been the move of the templating into the web application. So not only the content itself, but all the metadata allowing you to compose pages, etc., is all published to the database, and we use MVC-based architectures for our web applications. SDL have kept up with many of these developments in the core product, for example these days offering a content service as part of a highly sophisticated content delivery architecture.

The frameworks which support the creation of MVC applications, however, are not part of the core product. The frameworks I’m talking about are “Dynamic Delivery for Tridion” (DD4T) and the “Digital Experience Accelerator” (DXA). DD4T is somewhat older (although still very much under active development), and provides the basic support for building an MVC application. DXA makes use of DD4T and is more focussed on giving implementors a ready-made starter kit with a lot of useful web application features already built. This isn’t surprising, as the history of DXA goes back to the original SDL Tridion Reference Implementation.

The two frameworks have quite some areas in common, and there have been discussions about a merger for some time. This merger was agreed on and was formally announced at the last Tridion Developer Summit. It’s not just about the two frameworks having similar functionality. The existence of two frameworks means that anyone undertaking an implementation has to spend time weighing the pros and cons and then choosing one or the other. It will be much better to simply have one clear road to follow.

So that’s what we worked on at the MVP retreat, and maybe you can understand  why we didn’t write any code. We managed to spend our time very usefully on analysing what would be needed to make the merger a reality. Early in the merger process, an architectural steering committee had been formed, and they had already laid out the big picture, but to put it all into practice, a lot of detailed analyis still remained to be done. The people present at the retreat included key contributors to both frameworks as well as several, like myself, who haven’t been closely involved with either but with a keen interest in ensuring the right framework emerges at the end.

I worked in a group that was looking at the build process, continuous delivery, testing and related questions. Various other groups each looked at specific areas and eventually we all reported back and combined our views. That won’t be the end of it, of course. Most of us are carrying on with further analysis, and there’ll be plenty of work needed to make it a reality. More than anything else, I was impressed by the way everyone was committed to making a success of it. It’s not just a technical thing. The two teams are very different in character, and merging the projects will be a culture shift for everyone. Imagine if the Navy and the Pirates had agreed to merge. Not a landlubber among them, they can all sail and fight and even swashbuckle but getting them to sail under one flag will still take some doing. But seriously, that’s what I saw; people with strong opinions and an emotional investment in the things they’ve built… giving way to each other, and finding a way to
meet in the middle.

All of which is very important. SDL Web is one of the best web content management systems on the market and you can definitely use it to build enterprise-level managed web applications using either DD4T or DXA. As it stands, though, the existence of two similar frameworks makes it all seem a little harder than it probably is. Having one framework and a clear direction will help us all, and will definitely be a factor in the continued success of SDL Web.

It was a great retreat, and I was very pleased to be there. As ever, many thanks to SDL for inviting me, and particularly to the team running things in Portugal. Thanks are also due to Indivirtual for making it possible for me to go. Now all I’ve got to do is make enough contributions to get there again next year!