If you use Sitecore CMS, at some point you will need to think about upgrading. Every year or so, Sitecore will release a new version. If you are running a website powered by an older version of Sitecore, you will need to decide if and when you should upgrade. Any developer who has worked with Sitecore for long enough will usually have a horror story about an upgrade; the upgrade might have been promised to take a few hours but ended up taking months. In general, I think there's a big misunderstanding about upgrades. Just because something is new, will it make the business more money? Is it worth focusing the development team's attention on upgrading compared to implementing some new feature?
After a website has been delivered, website maintenance can easily be overlooked. This is a common trend in many organizations. It's a lot more fun to focus on the next shiny thing, rather than think about maintaining your current investment. A good analogy of the importance of website neglect can be compared to owning a car. Anyone who owns a car will be aware of how important it is to keep your oil and water topped up, your tyres inflated and every year sending it to the garage for an MOT. To ensure your car runs optimally, time and money are set aside every year to ensure it keeps working safely and efficiently. Good car maintenance is similar to good website maintenance. Every year, time needs to be invested in order to keep the website running in a healthy state. Good car maintenance is a legal requirement, things are not the same with website maintenance. If the website runs, who cares about maintaining it?
Upgrades are one way to keep your website updated and healthy, however, due to the time and the unexpected issues they can cause, the upgrade process can be frustrating for both developers and marketers. When an upgrade that you think should have taken one week to complete, takes longer it ends up making the business folk frustrated. I have had people question if the developers on my team knew their stuff because an upgrade took a lot longer than planned. An upgrade feels like it should be easy and quick to implement. As upgrades can be painful, you might think, why bother? You may be tempted to simply leave your website on its current version. Is this really a better option? Just because upgrades can be painful this does not mean you should never upgrade. Sticking with your current version of Sitecore might seem like the quickest and easiest option, however, running your website on an out of date version has significant risks.
The decision to upgrade a Sitecore instance is a non-trivial one. In today's guide, I'm going to cover the risks and the benefits of upgrading Sitecore CMS. I have worked on projects that have cost over a million pounds to build. In some instances, after these projects have been built and delivered, practically no time gets allocated to maintaining the sites. Within two years, the company then spends another million to re-write the site from scratch as it's become out of date. How much cheaper and how much less development time would need to be wasted if a maintenance plan was agreed upon and followed? In this guide, I'm going to cover a few points you should consider the next time you start to write your company's roadmap, with the hope that some maintenance time gets added into this mix!
Most CMS vendors will only offer support for the last x number of versions of their product. At the time of writing, Sitecore for instance no longer supports version 6 and below. If you ignore the upgrade issue for too long, you'll face the very real possibility that when something goes wrong, you'll be out of warranty and no one can help you. This is probably the biggest risk to not upgrading. Being out of support with a broken business-critical website will be unacceptable to most businesses.
On the flip side, just because the latest upgrade is out, does not mean you have to upgrade straight away. Being one of the first companies to upgrade after a new version is released will mean you are testing the process for everyone else. If your upgrade fails, you will need to contact Sitecore support. If your upgrade issue is the result of a bug, support may create a hotfix. This will take time. The next time a customer has the same issue, support will be able to fix it a lot quicker. Waiting can mean your development time will spend less time upgrading. For this reason, I recommend that you upgrade but always wait a good 6-12 months. Waiting will increase your odds for a pain-free upgrade, you avoid being the canary 🐦
If you aren't using the latest update to Sitecore your website simply isn't as secure as it could be. Since money was invented, people have tried to illegally get wealthy from other people's efforts and the digital age is no different. It is estimated, the UK alone now loses over four million a year to online crime. Criminals are constantly trying to find new and inventive ways to hack your website and steal your data. Keeping your CMS up to date with the latest version significantly reduces the vulnerability of your site.
An outdated CMS system will have known vulnerabilities and opens your site up to attackers. If someone can find out which version of the CMS you are using and then went through the security updates to see which ones it doesn't cover, they can easily find vulnerabilities in your system. Technical issues and bugs that are discovered with previous versions of a CMS are often resolved through updates. Upgrades address common weaknesses, by combining hotfixes and patches into a stable release.
While security is important, I have never encountered a really bad Sitecore website CMS hack. Due to Sitecore's architecture, if you never make the CMS public-facing the chances of bad things happening due to a CMS bug are massively reduced. By promoting content into the master instance and only exposing that in your connection string, hackers will not be able to get into your CMS. Instead, the main security issues that you will need to worry about are weaknesses in components that post data back to your website as well as infrastructure issues. Due to Sitecore's architecture, upgrading is a key security concern, however, it is less of a concern compared to something like WordPress.
New CMS Features
Getting some new cool features in the CMS is one of the main reasons companies decide to upgrade and it's probably the most exciting. As CMS systems evolve over time, new functionality is also introduced. Upgrading your CMS will often get you a number of useful functionality that can save you countless hours in content editing and improve your business workflows and system.
As time moves on, the Sitecore team will get countless feedback about what their customers want. From this feedback, Sitecore will focus on the ideas that people scream the most about, which in turn means every new release will have something that you will probably want. If you're sad like me, you'll read literature as the annual Abode web trend reports. Each year a number of key things that will help your business to grow are highlighted in this report. Current trends include topics like personalization, video, and omnichannel content promotion. If you want these things, upgrading can get you to your goal.
On average, a major upgrade of a CMS is released every few years. Each release will help you make the most of the latest trends. The important thing about upgrading is that you get functionality that you won't need to write, test or maintenance. This is why you use a CMS after all. Let Sitecore worry about what the future of a good CMS looks like.
Avoid Big Bang Upgrades
The more frequently you apply the patches in a little and often approach, in theory, the less painful it will be. My point about not being the first point to apply a patch or upgrade is still valid. This does not mean you should only apply patches once a year though. People often leave upgrading as long as possible because it's perceived as an expensive and lengthy process. If, on the other hand, you put aside some time every month for upgrading, and apply patches incrementally, say 6 months after they are released, things should be less painful. A general rule of thumb, the more updates and patches that you batch together the higher the chance something will go wrong. Ask most developers and they will unanimously tell you that jumping from a very early version to the latest and greatest is dangerous. In some cases, it might involve a complete rewrite of your website. Keeping on top of it will definitely help minimize these risks.
A CMS upgrade can be a lengthy and complicated process, however, like your car, frequently assigning some time to keep your CMS upgraded will not only give you new features to play with, it will make your site more secure and will save you money in the long run. In those terms, it seems silly not to! If you want to upgrade, my recommendation is to work with experienced web developers who have had experience upgrading and know the ins and outs. If you want to upgrade but you are unsure how to go about it, then feel free to ask me from the contact page, as it's likely I can point you in the right direction. Otherwise, good luck! Happy Coding 🤘