How a 13 year old archived list serv helped me out with Sitecore Commerce

Sitecore Commerce is an interesting landscape — it’s never a dull moment.  After recently swapping the backing store from Azure SQL to SQL Server (due to an interesting Inventory gotcha with the Reference Storefront that I’ll maybe share at some other time), I’m finding nooks and crannies of configuration I never knew existed with the Commerce product until now.

After I migrated to Azure IaaS SQL Server VMs from Azure SQL, I thought I had everything tidied up.

  • Commerce Server Manager references?  ✔
  • Sitecore application connection strings?  ✔
  • Bootstrap configuration (I posted this gist on manipulating those files to make this easier)? 

I updated the Azure SQL database credentials to prove that I had no lingering connections to Azure SQL.  I encountered an exception at Sitecore start-up related to initialization of the profile service, however, and had to start digging.  CommerceProfileSystemException was the exception type and the stacktrace started as follows:

Exception type: CommerceProfileSystemException 
 Exception message: Failed to initialize profile service handle.
 at CommerceServer.Core.Runtime.Profiles.ProfileContext..ctor(String profileServiceConnectionString, String providerConnectionString, String bdaoConnectionString, DebugContext debugContext)
 at CommerceServer.Core.Runtime.CommerceContextFactory.CreateProfileContext()
 at CommerceServer.Core.Runtime.CommerceContextFactory.get_ProfileContextSingleton()
 at CommerceServer.Core.Runtime.Profiles.CommerceProfileModule.get_ModuleProfileContext()
 at CommerceServer.Core.Runtime.Profiles.CommerceProfileModule.get_ProfileContext()

The Commerce Server Manager encapsulates the connection strings, and I thought I had them all updated to the SQL Server VM equivalents, even going so far as to inspect MSCS_Admin in SQL Server with a query like this:

SELECT [i_ResourceID]
 ,[s_PropertyName]
 ,[s_Value]
 FROM [MSCS_Admin].[dbo].[ResourceProps]
 where f_IsConnStr=1
 ORDER BY 1

While interesting to find where this information is stored (may or may not be permanent, though — tough to tell with Commerce!), this output didn’t shed light on what might be going on, though:

Eventually I stumbled across some 13 year old documentation on Commerce Server discussing updating the ProfileService data source in some detail (http://microsoft.public.commerceserver.general.narkive.com/NPLMLusv/commerce-2002sp3-on-windows-2003-can-t-change-profiles-data-source).  It turns out, this 13 year old solution was completely applicable to my 2017 Sitecore Commerce predicament.

Succinctly, within Commerce Server manager you should do the following:

  1. Expand the Commerce Server “Global Resources” node, then “Profiles” node, then “Profile Catalog” node, then “Data Sources” node, and finally expand the “ProfileService_SQLSource” node
  2. Click on the Partitions node:
  3. In the right pane, there’s a SQLSource element you right-click and choose “Properties”
  4. Select the Partitions Tab, then “Edit” the connection string
  5. Make your connection string modifications here.  This is where my elusive reference to Azure SQL was hiding and causing Sitecore to fail to initialize.

The more work I do with Sitecore Commerce, the more I’m appreciating the value of the older documentation targeting previous editions of the product.  The catch is, it’s not 100% relevant to the modern experience with Sitecore Commerce . . . and knowing what is and isn’t applicable to the Sitecore Commerce 8.2.1 world is a challenge.  I think we’re getting there, a little bit at a time!

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A note on the Sitecore Commerce DCOM Config Permissions

I’ve been having lots of fun with multiple Sitecore Commerce projects and Azure SQL lately . . . here’s one quick note I can share that might save some hassle for others working in this space . . .

This Sitecore link mentions a DCOM permission to verify in the course of troubleshooting some Sitecore Commerce “Staging” issues.  My problem was that this guid, 7E95698D-CD3C-4C98-93C7-6510C31F7DDF, wasn’t visible in the Component Services treeview under “DCOM Config.”

Sitecore support informed me that they needed to update their documentation to mention that in the absence of that Guid, one should locate the “CSS Replication Server” object in the treeview and proceed from there.

My screen shot shows where the illusive Guid is stored as a property of the CSS Replication Server entry: DCOM

I expect Sitecore will update their documentation shortly, so this blog post may have a brief shelf-life in terms of relevancy . . . but if you’re like me and the Commerce platform, any notes are appreciated, so I’ll see if this helps anyone in the community.

Encrypting Sitecore connection strings for Sitecore Commerce, Azure SQL, and beyond

There’s been a lot of Sitecore Commerce on my plate this Summer, and sadly one limitation of using that product for some customers is the requirement for SQL Server authentication instead of Active Directory and Windows Auth; I won’t get into why they need SQL auth at this point, but trust that in many use-cases this is a necessity.

In an effort to always deliver a secured platform for customers, at Rackspace we encrypt the App_Config/connectionStrings.config file to avoid having plaintext usernames and passwords on disk.    This is a link to our Rackspace GitHub “gist” performing such encryption with the ASP.Net tool aspnet_regiis.exe.  The logic is also there to un-encrypt, in case that’s necessary.

Encryption success
You can update the $configLocation variable at the top of the script to point to where your Sitecore installation is located; you then run this script using PowerShell, and you’ll get an output like this.

Once you’ve run the script, your connectionStrings.config file will resemble this:

Before you get too excited, for Sitecore Commerce in the current incarnation, there are several other plaintext passwords on disk in the \CommerceAuthoring\wwwroot\data\Environments and related .json files for both SQL and Sitecore.  The PowerShell I’ve shared doesn’t address those areas.  The Sitecore Commerce documentation does a good job of cataloging where to find these references, at least, but this still leaves a lot to be desired in terms of security.

I’m not going to go too far down this path, since I mostly wanted to post the PowerShell we use to automate SQL Server connection string encryption.  This technique can be useful for a variety of projects, not just for Sitecore Commerce — although this is the use case we’re repeatedly seeing right now.  If I have time, I’ll share some other Sitecore Commerce tips around Azure SQL friendly deployments (Sitecore’s documentation is a decent start, but lacking in some respects).

Here’s the script to encrypt/decrypt those Sitecore connectionStrings.config file:

A few Solr thoughts

Solr has never been more pervasive through the Sitecore projects I’m seeing these days.  Deciding which version of Solr for a greenfield Sitecore project, however, is not clear-cut.

Easy answer: use Solr 5.1

Sitecore’s KB article on compatibility with Solr serves as our official reference when it comes to selecting a Solr version to standardize on.  At face-value, if you’re using Sitecore version 8.2, you’re steered to Solr version 5.1:

SolrCompat

The diagram has a note [3], however, that is worth noting:

WARN  Unable to connect to Solr: [http://{hostname}:{port}/solr], the [SolrNet.Exceptions.SolrConnectionException] was caught.
Exception: SolrNet.Exceptions.SolrConnectionException
Message: Error handling 'status' action
org.apache.solr.common.SolrException: Error handling 'status' action
  • “To resolve issue, upgrade Solr to 5.5.1 or later version.”

Easy answer: use Solr 5.5.1

I asked Sitecore support about this, and in fact the guidance I received from Sitecore Support was to build on Solr version 5.5.1 instead of what the KB article states.  There are no plans to alter the guidance in that KB article, however, since Sitecore 8.2 as a whole platform was thoroughly tested with Solr 5.1.  Apparently, Solr 5.5.1 was not available at the time of that testing.

Anecdotally, Sitecore has found fewer errors when using Solr 5.5.1 instead of Solr 5.1 — when pressed for specifics, it was shared that these two Solr issues have caused problems for other Sitecore implementations:

  1. https://issues.apache.org/jira/browse/SOLR-8793
    • FileNotFoundException or NoSuchFileException with Solr — see comment from Sitecore KB article that it can cause “Unable to connect to Solr” exceptions in some cases
  2. https://issues.apache.org/jira/browse/LUCENE-7188
    • NRTCachingDirectory error where an IllegalStateException exception is thrown

Easy answer: there are no easy answers

I’ve worked with a number of Solr 5.1 projects with Sitecore, and some using other Solr versions prior to Solr 5.5.1, but haven’t encountered the above errors as major impediments.

It’s tempting to use Solr 5.5.1, but if a project is using EXM or WFFM or Sitecore Commerce or some other combination of technology edge case, it’s at least theoretically possible that Sitecore support could fall back on the officially published “Solr 5.1 ✓ ‘officially tested, recommended'” guidance from their KB article.  That’s enough for us to approach new Sitecore projects depending on Solr to go with Solr version 5.1 and keep an eye out for those particular gotchas that may cause us to upgrade to Solr 5.5.1.

The catch is, if you’re upgrading Solr and stopping at Solr 5.5.1 — is there a strong rationale not to upgrade beyond  5.5.1?  At this point, http://archive.apache.org/dist/lucene/solr/ has a wealth of newer Solr versions that are bound to have more patches and fixes that 5.5.1.  This is what you call a slippery slope:

solrslippery.JPG

I have to be careful here as I walk the line of a non-discolosure agreement, but there are still more variables to consider: in the near future, a Sitecore release is likely to involve thorough Solr support for a very recent version of Solr.  Expect a Solr version newer than 5.5.1 (which was released May of 2016 ☺).

So…

I believe I’ve sold myself on the wisdom of Solr 5.1 for now — so long as the sacred Sitecore Support ✓ is present on the official compatibility table.  It’s key to continue learning with Solr, though, and in the months to come we may be talking about SolrCloud and managed Solr schemas . . . cool new aspects to improve Sitecore implementations.

Sitecore Session Persistence Notes

I’ve neglected this blog of late, being focused on a number of “not easily blogged about” scenarios across several Sitecore projects.  It’s too bad, because the work is very interesting, but it doesn’t lend itself to a page or two write-up with a digestible take-away for the general Sitecore community out there.

I do want to keep in the habit of blogging, though, so I’m going to mention this ongoing discussion I’ve been a part of about session management with regards to Sitecore.  There are a few options for managing HTTP session state with Sitecore covered in https://doc.sitecore.net/sitecore_experience_platform/setting_up_and_maintaining/xdb/session_state/session_state: SQL Server, MongoDB, and Redis.  Those three technologies are really just the tip of the mountain, as implementation details for each can get quite detailed.  For the discerning Sitecore implementation, it can be useful to understand the nuances of each session state provider.  While not an exhaustive look at any one of these solutions, I wanted to post some notes on each one given the current state of Sitecore architecture (June 2017):

SQL Server

This is often the default session provider we gravitate to.  The SQL Server “Boost” script from Sitecore is something we’ve used on implementations (see “Optimize SQL Server performance” on that link), but it is not without it’s rough edges (see our Rackspace write-up on how to alter permissions so TempDB is reliably available across service restarts).

You’ll notice the approach for improving SQL Server performance with session state is all about getting session state “in-memory” to the furthest extent possible.  Remember this when we examine the other two providers below . . .

I will say that, generally speaking, SQL Server is easy to administer as it’s a well-known technology and updating it, scaling it, managing fail-overs, etc is simple compared with the alternatives.  SQL Server has been part of the Windows dev stack for ages, now, so it’s often the default session provider one gravitates to.

MongoDB

With MongoDB serving as the persistence layer for Sitecore’s xDB, it became a fully supported and viable option for HTTP session state with Sitecore at the same time.  The comparative performance between MongoDB and SQL Server is up for debate (Redis too, for that matter!), and it usually comes down to testing based on how the specific implementation is using session with Sitecore etc; I’m not going to hazard any generalizations on relative perf, as that’s not really the point of this post.

Instead, I’d like to point out how MongoDB does not come in just a single flavor.  The two most common flavors, or “storage engines,” are MMAP and WiredTiger, but there are still others designed to serve specific use cases.  Take, for example, the Percona Server for MongoDB hosted by ObjectRocket that has a posted option for the RocksDB storage engine.  RocksDB with MongoDB may not be a great fit for Sitecore session state (RocksDB is tuned for write-heavy work loads — and, in some cases, if you’re making extensive use of TTL indexes for Sitecore then RocksDB fits those scenarios in certain appealing ways), but it does open the door to MongoDB being more than just a one-size-fits-all data repository (read more about RocksDB and it’s Facebook pedigree here).  One MongoDB storage engine option that is easily overlooked is for WiredTiger “in-memory” that will force data to be stored in RAM . . . and this is perfect for HTTP Session State for most Sitecore builds.

In fact, if you consider the SQL Server “boost” approach that uses TempDB to store session state for Sitecore . . . WiredTiger “in-memory” is attacking the problem from the same direction.  Store everything in RAM!  This is why one must be cautious with general comparisons between SQL Server and MongoDB, the devil is always in the details: a far better comparison would be “boosted” SQL Server for Sitecore using TempDB vs MongoDB WiredTiger “in-memory” storage engine.  And note the network latency . . . and the size of the session objects . . . and you’re getting the point, I trust.  To really answer the SQL Server vs MongoDB question for Sitecore sessions, one has to develop a matrix of performance evaluations and level assumptions across the board.  “It depends” is the only honest answer that doesn’t come with a list of caveats.

If you’re curious on this MongoDB topic for your project, go to http://objectrocket.com/docs/mongodb_plans.html and spin up a WT 3.2 storage engine plan for 5 GB of storage (this allows 1.5 GB for RAM).  1.5 GB for RAM is going to be overkill for most small/medium Sitecore implementations — but again, you’ll want to test with your specific session data set to see!  Furthermore, network latency of 10 ms or less is going to help make the most of an ObjectRocket hosted MongoDB service like this — otherwise, the network latency may not make it worth the money.  Let me know if you pursue this with ObjectRocket, as there are some benchmarking measures we want to do but we haven’t had a real implementation to try it out on.  So if you feel like being a guinea pig, please let me know at grant.killian [at] rackspace.com.  It would be great to have real world metrics to prove this all out.

Redis

If the way to get the best session management perf out of SQL Server and MongoDB is to find in-memory solutions, Redis looks like the slam dunk since it’s just an in-memory storage solution.  We find most clients aren’t interested in managing Redis infrastructure, so again a hosted option such as ObjectRocket has appeal.

Sitecore relies on the StackExchange.Redis assembly, which doesn’t support Redis Sentinel — it’s a bit of a saga at https://github.com/StackExchange/StackExchange.Redis/pull/406;  therefore there’s not a great high availability story with the self-hosted Redis and Sitecore right now.  How concerned one should be with HA of fairly transient HTTP Session State for Sitecore, however, is an open question.  I usually wouldn’t worry about it too much.  Honestly, Redis is a technology that we’re just now starting to get really serious about at Rackspace so our sophistication in this space will improve dramatically in the months to come.  Between Azure Redis and all the Sitecore PaaS movement we’re seeing, it’s become a key player in a lot of Sitecore architectures.

Azure Search compared to Solr for Sitecore PaaS (Chapter 2: Querying)

I carried forward my Azure PaaS benchmarking work from earlier this month (see this post on the indexing side of the equation for the start of the story).

For a quick refresher, I’ve used an ARM template based deployment of Sitecore to get a system resembling the following:

ARM Templates Arch

The element I’m exercising in the benchmarks is how Sitecore’s web servers work with the “Search” icon in the diagram above.  I tackled the document ingestion side (how data gets into the search indexes) in my earlier post.  This post addresses the querying side of things (how data gets out of the search indexes).

By default, Azure PaaS search with Sitecore is configured to use Azure Search.  Solr is another viable option.

Here’s where I’ll interject that Coveo also has an excellent search technology for Sitecore.  There are specific use-cases where Coveo is a strong fit, however, and in my indexing the sitecore_core_index evaluations in the earlier post Coveo would not be considered a good fit.  This changes, however, for the set of benchmarks I’ve run in this post.  I am in the process of testing the Coveo approach in Azure PaaS for Sitecore . . . it’s hot off the presses, so there are still rough edges to work around . . . but Coveo is not part of this write-up for the time being.  I will post an update here once I’ve completed the analysis involving Coveo.

In considering Azure Search vs Solr, I used a methodology with JMeter laid out in a great KB article from Sitecore at https://kb.sitecore.net/articles/398589.  I have a LaunchSitecore site running and I use JMeter to automate visits to the site, simulating simple user behaviour.  I don’t go too crazy with this, because I’m more interested in exercising a basic Sitecore work load than doing a deep-dive in xDB traffic simulation.

My first post showed a clear advantage to Solr for the indexing side of search, but for the querying side I can say there is very little variance between Azure Search and Solr.  Sitecore does a good job of protecting data repositories with layers of data and html caches, but even with those those features disabled (we’re talking cacheHtml=”false”on the site definition, <cacheSizes> configuration all set to a heretical zero (“0”), etc) there isn’t a significant difference between the two technologies.

I’m not going to put up a graph of it, because the throughput as measured by JMeter for tests of 20, 50, 100, 200, or  more visitors performed almost the same.

I could develop a more search heavy set of benchmarks, performing a random dictionary of searches against a large custom index that Sitecore responds to but must bypass all caches etc, but that feels like overkill for what I’m looking to achieve.  Maybe that’s appropriate once I bring Coveo into the benchmarking fun.

For this, I wanted to get a sense for the relative performance between Azure Search and Solr as it relates to Sitecore PaaS and I think I’ve done that.  Succinctly:

  1. Solr is considerably faster at search indexing (courtesy of the search provider implementation in Sitecore)
  2. both Azure Search and Solr perform about the same when it comes to querying a basic Sitecore site like LaunchSitecore (again, courtesy of the search provider implementation in Sitecore)

This isn’t the definitive take on the topic.  It’s more like the beginning.  Azure Search is native to Azure, so there are significant advantages there.  There is a lot of momentum around Azure and Sitecore in general, so that story will continue to evolve.

There are Solr as a service options out there that make Solr for Sitecore much easier (such as www.measuredsearch.com which I’ll blog about in the next few days), but Solr can be a lot for corporate IT departments to take on, so it isn’t a simple choice for everyone.

 

 

Auto-suggest with Solr Facets in Sitecore

Sitecore’s auto-suggest feature for search in the Content Authoring environment is pretty slick, but there is some confusing documentation from Sitecore about how to set it up properly with Solr.  As of today, Sitecore’s documentation on integrating with Solr indicates…

“When you implement Solr with Sitecore you need to enable term support in the Solr search handler.  The term functionality is built into Solr but is disabled by default. To power the dropdowns in the UI you must enable the terms component.

That above documentation will be updated at some point by Sitecore, since it’s no longer the case for the latest version of Sitecore — 8.2 rev. 161221 (Update-2).

In earlier versions of Sitecore, search in the Sitecore Content Editor could make use of the Solr “terms” component to populate suggestions.  This is why this guidance has previously been part of the Solr integration documentation from Sitecore.  Read more about Solr’s use of this auto-suggest through terms at https://cwiki.apache.org/confluence/display/solr/The+Terms+Component.

Sitecore’s strategy of making use of the “terms” component has changed with recently, however.  Sitecore now uses faceting with Solr instead of terms.

To prove this out, I’m going to turn to the Solr logs after I try some queries for content in the Sitecore client.  Refer to this documentation from Sitecore if you’re looking for more context on how to use the search facility — there are a lot of features that are very under-utilized, in my experience.  I’ll specify a clause by typing Updatedby: and then “siteco” to engage the auto-suggest feature:searbhby

Very nice, right?

Under the covers, the Solr logs will reveal something like this . . .

2017-02-17 19:33:07.546 INFO  (qtp33171127-11) [   x:trial_core] o.a.s.c.S.Request [trial_core]  webapp=/solr path=/select params={q=*:*&facet.field=parsedupdatedby_s&facet.prefix=siteco&rows=0&facet=true&version=2.2&facet.sort=true} hits=24626 status=0 QTime=2

. .  . and that can be further debugged by turning it into the URL request powering that auto-suggest response . . .

http://server:port/solr/sitecore_master_index/select?q=*:*&facet.field=parsedupdatedby_s&facet.prefix=siteco&rows=0&facet=true&version=2.2&facet.sort=true

. . . and that would return results like the following:

solrresponse

If instead we tried an author: search in Sitecore, for example, the facet.field would be parsedcreatedby_s instead of parsedupdatedby_s.

I don’t want to go too far down this rabbit hole.  I really just wanted to share that despite what the documentation shows, it’s not necessary to enable the Solr term component on the /select requestHandler in Solr if you’re using the most recent version of Sitecore.  I’ve confirmed with official Sitecore support that this change was tagged as change #444661 and that’s it was incorporated into the product since Sitecore 8.1 update-1 (rev. 151207); the release notes for 8.1 update-1 are vague, but here it is:

Autocomplete for known fields such as language did not work in the Content Editor Search tab using the SOLR provider. The problem was related to the SOLR server configuration. This has been fixed so that Sitecore no longer depends on this configuration. (444661)

Happy faceting to all!