Here at Verndale, we're proud to be a Premier Platinum Partner with Optimizely. That's not just a fancy way to say "we have a ton of experience" - it means we've seen a wide variety of needs and solutions for companies of different sizes and industries. One of the most common situations is launching a site using Optimizely's DXP Cloud Services. We've noticed that there's often a bit of confusion on exactly what you get with DXP Cloud Services (Hint: it's more than it might seem at first). This article will help you understand not just the hosting but all the other "extras" and the process for using DXP Cloud Services to launch a website.
What are DXP Cloud Services?
DXP Cloud Services is Optimizely's PAAS cloud-based hosting option for their CMS and Commerce (B2C) products...but it's more than just hosting. If you're using CMS or Commerce, you may not need DXP Cloud Services. You can also self-host these products on-premise. Many other Optimizely products are SAAS cloud-based, such as Optimizely Web Experimentation, Optimizely Data Platform, and Content Recommendations. You can (and should) use these products in conjunction with your PAAS CMS/Commerce sites.
Why would you want the PAAS option? True, you can set up your web server and database server and run your site yourself. You'll buy your hardware, hope that it's fast enough, maybe pay for some redundant hardware, bandwidth, and staff to maintain OS patches and network infrastructure, and then pay for it all again for additional development and staging environments. DXP Cloud Services wraps all that up and ties it with a bow.
What Comes with DXP?
This is one of the areas where we see the most misunderstandings. Many companies sign on to Optimizely and see this as simply "hosting + extras." Let's dig into what those "extras" are.
More accurately, with Optimizely DXP Cloud Services, you get the software, software/web services, infrastructure, and managed services.
Software + Services
The principal software is the Optimizely CMS or Commerce platform, which includes Optimizely's powerful search index called Search & Navigation. Its advanced search features help ensure visitors don't abandon your website when they can't find what they're looking for. These critical features include synonyms, featured results, search statistics, and even personalization rules when used with Optimizely Commerce. The software can also come with one of Optimizely’s marketing automation connectors such as the Marketo or Eloqua connectors. It also includes SendGrid services for transactional emails from your site. Finally, there are custom software tools that Optimizely has developed to support deployments, logging, and data backup to and from the cloud hosting.
Exploring the ins and outs of the technology provided would fill an entire article by itself. While I won’t go to that level of detail here, it's vital to understand the key components, which include the CDN, Azure Application Services (with auto-scaling) to host the CMS/Commerce servers, Azure Blob Storage, and Azure SQL databases. Your on-site data centers can have a VPN connection if you need custom service integrations.
In most cases, DXP Cloud Services has three distinct environments – Integration, Preproduction, and Production. Development teams will deploy code to Integration, then the Optimizely Management Portal will promote code from Integration to Preproduction and finally to Production. Blue/Green deployment slots are used during these operations.
Optimizely support engineers will set up application logging and monitoring, provide uptime support according to the SLA purchased, and assist with deployments as needed. Managed Services engineers are also available during the initial onboarding and pre-launch project phases for consulting on the platform or helping with implementation details. Finally, you'll receive a monthly “Implementation Quality Index” report in the post-launch phase.
While it’s not often listed as part of DXP Cloud Services, there's an onboarding and enablement track. You'll be assigned a Customer Success Manager, get access to technical training about the platform, and receive launch preparation assistance.
Taking advantage of these services is one area that often goes underutilized – project teams often get caught up in the day-to-day tasks of building the site. We have you covered in the next section with reminders on how and when to use these technical training and launch prep services, plus the overall development and launch process.
Getting from Step 1 to Done
Now that we’ve explained DXP Cloud Services, let’s explore how best to use them and get a website up and running.
You’ll also need to know who's working on the website implementation. Optimizely will set up and manage the platform for you, but page layouts, site architecture, designs, and custom code will need to be created. In this case, an experienced implementation partner by your side can help you navigate the entire process, ensure a smooth launch day, and plan for the future.
Key Milestones for the Process
Step 1: Kick-off call with implementation Partner & Customer Success Manager
Step 2: Access to technical review courses
Step 3: Provision environments, set up hostnames
Step 4: Development
Step 5: Deployments to cloud environments
Step 6: Content load
Step 7: Performance testing
Step 8: Go-live preparation
Step 8: Schedule launch date
Step 10: LAUNCH!
When you boil it down to those 10 steps, it seems so easy, right? However, there is a list of decisions to make along the way and plenty of time between kickoff and launch. Make a plan early so you don't forget the steps at the end.
Here's a list of questions and considerations at each step of the way:
- Kick-Off Call With the Implementation Partner & Customer Success Manager
- If possible, include your implementation partner in the kickoff call with Optimizely. Your CSM will appreciate knowing who's working on the project, and your partner will appreciate knowing who to reach out to for environment setup and launch preparations.
- Schedule the Launch Date
- Yes, this is in a different order than the list above. If you wait until the end to think about your go-live date, you'll likely miss it.
- Work with your implementation Partner & Project Manager to set a project timeline. Inform your Optimizely CSM of your target date. They'll be able to warn you of potential conflicts (for example, holiday schedules, or other scheduled launches, since they can only support a certain number per day). They'll understand that this is a “preliminary” date subject to change.
- Access to Technical Review Courses
- With your DXP subscription comes technical training that covers hostnames, environments, deployments, how to use the DXP management portal, and monitoring services. Consider who from your team is the most appropriate member for this training. It's usually your tech lead.
- Provision Environments, Set Up Hostnames
- Optimizely will create the cloud services and install an “empty” CMS database.
- You should decide what hostnames to use for each environment. Typically https://integration.your-company.com, https://preprod.your-company.com, and, in most cases, the production environment needs two hostnames: “www.your-company.com” for go-live and “prod.your-company.com” for pre-go-live testing.
- If you're planning a multisite instance, you very likely will want Integration/Preproduction/Production/www names for each domain.
- It's important to set custom hostnames instead of using the default “yourcompany.dxcloud.episerver.net” names, as it allows for the use/testing of your website using the full networking configuration, including the Cloudflare CDN. Without custom hostnames, you won't be able to fully test your site, and your launch day becomes a lot riskier.
- As mentioned, Optimizely DXP uses Cloudflare CDN. You have the option to use Cloudflare's DNS services as well, but beware if you're already utilizing Cloudflare on your domain since extra prep work may be required. At Verndale, we recently had a launch issue caused by this, which caused the go-live DNS changes to take much longer than anticipated.
- Consider whether your implementation partner will be doing all the development or working alongside your internal team. Trust your partner’s best judgment regarding code setup, team collaboration, code reviews, etc.
- This is often the longest step of the process – having a plan for the following steps ahead of time will help you remember.
- Deployments to Cloud Environments
- Optimizely has developed a deployment API that will help you get your code from your source control management up to the Integration environment.
- Your partner should have done this before and probably has a standard practice.
- Deployments from Integration to Preproduction and from Preproduction to Production are triggered through the DXP management portal.
- Content Load
- Often overlooked, remember to plan enough time to create all your web pages and blocks inside the newly-developed templates.
- Include time for translation services if you're utilizing a translation provider.
- Confirm the Launch Date
- At least one month in advance, reach out to your Optimizely CSM to confirm the launch date.
- This will trigger a checklist on their side, including some of the following topics.
- Performance Testing
- Both Verndale and Optimizely recommend running automated performance and load tests before going live.
- Decide which environment to use for these tests. If this is a new site, you could use the production environment. You may also choose to use the preproduction environment. In either case, coordinate with your partner and Optimizely, as Optimizely will scale the environment to match the correct post-go-live cloud services. Note: you don’t want to load-test against a smaller environment.
- In addition to load testing, consider other kinds of performance tests:
- Automated content quality tools such as SiteImprove
- Web security scans
- Static code analysis for security hotspots
- Go-Live Preparation
- Optimizely’s checklist, provided when you schedule your go-live date, will include a few items such as setting up friendly hostnames, SSL certificates, ensuring successful code deployments, setting up database backups, setting up monitoring, and reducing your DNS TTL.
- Over the years Verndale has developed a more exhaustive checklist that's too long to post here and includes additional things to double- and triple-check. The list includes testing friendly 404 and 500 pages, setting up a favicon, robots.txt and sitemap.xml files, configuring URL rewrite best practices, finalizing the list of DNS changes for go-live, validating any IP-restricted integrated APIs, fully testing all integrations and features in all environments, and more planned activities.
- Your Optimizely CSM will schedule a conference call with you, your partner, and the Optimizely launch support team. In most cases, this is as simple as making the DNS changes and testing the live site.
What's Post Launch?
Launch day is just the beginning. Digital is never “done.”
In addition to the uptime and availability monitoring that Optimizely provides, your partner may provide even more managed services like monthly security and accessibility scans or a period of maintenance and feature enhancements.
One important and highly beneficial service that Optimizely provides is the “Implementation Quality Index.” Make sure that you're signed up to receive it monthly, and remember to request Optimizely to send this information to your implementation partner too. The “IQI” report gives you a snapshot of your webpages' performance, how many server errors happened, if the CDN cache is being utilized successfully, and other important metrics. Keeping tabs on this report month-over-month can help you understand the impact of code updates and feature enhancements or bug fixes.
Finally – plan for the future! You’ve just launched a wonderful new digital experience for your customers, visitors, or users. What can you dream up next to add to that experience? Your implementation partner can help you take a look at additional products that can enhance and help you measure the impact of this digital experience, such as Optimizely Data Platform (ODP), Content Recommendations, or Web Experimentation.
Contact us to learn more about the services in this article and how Verndale can enhance your digital experiences.