Integrate Sitecore with Alexa

During last month’s Sitecore symposium I had the pleasure to present with my colleague Ben Adamski on expanding the reach of your Sitecore content with voice-activated assistants through an Alexa skill. This blog post will describe the integration discussed during this presentation and will provide some additional details.

Sitecore 9 omnichannel foundation

Sitecore has a solid omnichannel foundation which enables it to act as a headless CMS. Below diagram shows the main integration points exposed by Sitecore out of the box.

Omnichannel Foundation

  1. OData Item Service: this service can be used to query and retrieve any Sitecore item and retrieve it in JSON format.
  2. SXA Layout Service: the SXA layout service supports modelling content as JSON. This is done in the experience editor and uses the same layout engine as regular Sitecore pages. This allows content authors to use the tools they are already familiar with and personalization is supported. Also analytics and tracking are working like a regular Sitecore page as the layout engine is used to render.
  3. xConnect Client API: the xConnect client API needs to be used to retrieve the previous customers’ interactions with Sitecore.
  4. Commerce 9 OData API: any data which resides in Sitecore Commerce can be retrieved using this API.

Integration with the Sitecore services

There are several options to call the Sitecore services mentioned above. They were called from AWS Lambda in our demo during Symposium but there are some other options too:

  1. AWS Lambda: this is AWS’ serverless computing platform. Here are some key considerations for hosting this in Lambda:
    Pro:
    – Relatively simple integration with Alexa. Alexa runs in AWS and integration with Lambda takes just a few clicks and there are many examples online.
    – Little effort required to include Alexa SDK which simplifies integration with Alexa
    Con:
    – Most Sitecore developers are not familiar with Lambda and will need to spend some time getting up to speed
  2. Azure/on-premise: Alexa can call any restful endpoint so the integration layer can be hosted anywhere accessible by AWS so this can be hosted in Azure or your existing on-premise data center:
    Pro:
    – No need to get up to speed with a new platform
    Con:
    – Will require more effort to integrate securely with Alexa

Alexa Skill Kit SDK

There is an Alexa Skill Kit SDK available which makes working with Alexa significantly easier. The SDK is available in Node.js, Java and Python. Getting started with the Node.js SDK is surprisingly simple for C# developers as the new version 2 of the SDK is using async/await and promises instead of the callback based style which was previously used. Below is a code sample which runs when the user performs a search in the Alexa Skill. There are a few things to note about this:

  • This uses the Item Service to perform the search. The query is built on line 9.
  • The call to execute and await the search query is on line 11 and the httpGet method is starting at line 31. This calls the Item Service.
  • Methods from the Alexa Skill Kit SDK are used extensively for example on lines 23-28 to send the output speech to Alexa.

const SearchIntentHandler = {
    canHandle(handlerInput) {
        return handlerInput.requestEnvelope.request.type === 'IntentRequest'
            && handlerInput.requestEnvelope.request.intent.name === 'SearchIntent';
    },
    async handle(handlerInput) {
        const searchTerm = handlerInput.requestEnvelope.request.intent.slots.SearchTerm.value;

        const query = '/item/search?term=' + searchTerm;

        const response = await httpGet(query);

        var searchResult = "";
        var cnt = 0;

        for (var i = 0; i  {
        const request = http.request(options, (response) => {
            response.setEncoding('utf8');
            let returnData = '';

            if (response.statusCode = 300) {
                return reject(new Error(`${response.statusCode}: ${response.req.getHeader('host')} ${response.req.path}`));
            }

            response.on('data', (chunk) => {
                returnData += chunk;
            });

            response.on('end', () => {
                resolve(JSON.parse(returnData));
            });

            response.on('error', (error) => {
                reject(error);
            });
        });
        request.end();
    });
}

Alexa Skill Interaction Model

The focus on this blog post is on the Sitecore integration with Alexa but it is important to understand that there is some Alexa work as well, specifically setting up the interaction model. There are 3 main entities in the interaction model:

  • Intents: the intent defines what the user is trying to achieve. The code above is handling the search intent.
  • Utterances: these are phrases likely spoken by the user to invoke the intent. Most intents will have multiple utterances. In above example an utterance mapped to the search intent could be “please search for “
  • Custom slot types: slot types hold the values for phrases the user says, but cannot be part in the utterance. In above example the “search term” is an example of a slot type and Alexa will automatically populate it with the search team spoken by the user.

The interaction model is stored in json, below is the json from the search intent. More information about the interaction model can be found here.

{
  "name": "SearchIntent",
  "slots": [
    {
      "name": "SearchTerm",
      "type": "AMAZON.SearchQuery"
    }
  ],
  "samples": [
    "please search for {SearchTerm}",
    "search for {SearchTerm}",
    "what is {SearchTerm}"
  ]
}

Integrated Alexa with other channels

It is important to built an Alexa Skill which is integrated with your brand’s other channels. A user is not going to have a good voice experience with a disconnected Alexa skill as this skill is not able to leverage customer interaction information from other channels to deliver a relevant and personalized experience. It is also important to understand customers behavior across all channels to get a single view of the customer and to provide relevant content to each user.

With the customer’s permission Alexa can return the location of the customer. This can be used to provide more relevant location based content to the user. During our presentation we showed location based personalization with Sitecore and Alexa. The location cannot be used integrate between channels as Amazon does not allow use of the location to associate the user to a customer with the same address. Amazon can reject or suspend your skill if they find out this is being done. More information about the use of location can be found here

Account linking is the feature which should be used to connect Alexa with other channels. Account linking connects the identity of the Alexa user to an identity in a third party system through OAuth 2.0. Setting this up will be easier if the Sitecore solution runs on version 9 since this supports federated authentication. More information about account linking can be found here.

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Sitecore 9 fix heartbeat.aspx

The heartbeat page is a useful page in Sitecore as it shows if Sitecore can connect to it’s databases. If so it will return a 200 status. It can be found at /sitecore/service/heartbeat.aspx and it can be a good practice to point the load balancer’s health check to this page. This will avoid that any traffic is send to a server which cannot connect to its backend database.

Sitecore 9 has introduced a number of new connectionstrings with xConnect and the heartbeat page will fail on these. This can be avoided by adding the new connectionstrings to the excluded connections so the heartbeat page will not return an error while Sitecore’s databases are online. Below is the value which can be used to get the heartbeat page to work in Sitecore 9.

<setting name=”Sitecore.Services.Heartbeat.ExcludeConnection” value=”LocalSqlServer| xconnect.collection| xconnect.collection.certificate| xdb.referencedata.client| xdb.referencedata.client.certificate| xdb.marketingautomation.reporting.client| xdb.marketingautomation.reporting.client.certificate| xdb.marketingautomation.operations.client| xdb.marketingautomation.operations.client.certificate|  EXM.CryptographicKey| EXM.AuthenticationKey| Session| sharedSession” />

Deploying Sitecore 9 in AWS RDS

Using RDS to host Sitecore databases can be a good option when you want to deploy Sitecore 9 in AWS. RDS is a database service so you do not need to setup and maintain VMs or SQL Server. However you might run into a few issues when trying to do so, which are related to contained database authentication.

Enabling contained database authentication

Sitecore 9 uses contained database authentication by default. This avoids needing to manage logins outside the database. However this is turned off by default in RDS and trying to enable it through SQL like below will throw an error saying you do not have permission to run the RECONFIGURE statement.

--this will not work in RDS
sp_configure 'contained database authentication', 1;
GO
RECONFIGURE;
GO

Instead you will have to go to the database instance’s parameter group and set enable contained database authentication, see screenshot below. The instance might need to be restarted for this change to take effect.

RDS enable contained database authentication

Fix errors with SIF

The Sitecore Installation Framework might throw some errors as well because some of the Sitecore web deploy packages (.scwdp) try to enable contained database authentication through the above SQL code. This can be fixed by:

  1. renaming the package to .zip
  2. unzipping
  3. remove SQL code
  4. zip again, make sure to keep original folder structure
  5. rename to .scwdp and deploy

Fix invalid dynamic placeholders after upgrading to Sitecore 9

Sitecore 9 supports Dynamic Placeholders OOTB and does no longer require the popular Dynamic Placeholder third party module. The format used by Sitecore for the dynamic placeholders is different than the format used by the Dynamic Placeholder module:

Old dynamic placeholder pattern: placeholderName_renderingId. Example:

content_acda6718-0907-4a6c-8c6b-b157f5d708ac

Sitecore placeholder pattern: {placeholder key}-{rendering unique suffix}-{unique suffix within rendering}. Example:

content-{acda6718-0907-4a6c-8c6b-b157f5d708ac}-0

You will have to update your presentation details for these differences otherwise the renderings will not be shown on the page.

Richard Seal already wrote a great blog post about how to upgrade this using SPE. This works well and also does a great job of explaining other tasks that need to be performed to move to Sitecore’s dynamic placeholders. However it doesn’t cover below 2 scenario’s:

  • Nested Dynamic placeholder: a rendering with a dynamic placeholder can contain another rendering with a dynamic placeholder.
  • Multilingual: a item can have dynamic placeholders in multiple language versions of the final layout.

Approach

I started with Martin Miles’ code which iterates through all the renderings and updates placeholders. From here the logic is updated to loop through each language version of every item. Below code updates every match of an old style dynamic placeholder so nested placeholders are taken care of appropriately:

bool requiresUpdate = false;

foreach (RenderingDefinition rendering in device.Renderings)
{
    if (!string.IsNullOrWhiteSpace(rendering.Placeholder))
    {
        var newPlaceholder = rendering.Placeholder;
        foreach (Match match in Regex.Matches(newPlaceholder, PlaceholderRegex, RegexOptions.IgnoreCase))
        {
            var renderingId = match.Value;
            var newRenderingId = "-{" + renderingId.ToUpper().Substring(1) + "}-0";

            newPlaceholder = newPlaceholder.Replace(match.Value, newRenderingId);

            requiresUpdate = true;
        }

        result.Add(new KeyValuePair<string, string>(rendering.Placeholder, newPlaceholder));
        rendering.Placeholder = newPlaceholder;
    }
}

if (requiresUpdate)
{
    string newXml = details.ToXml();

    using (new EditContext(currentItem))
    {
        LayoutField.SetFieldValue(field, newXml);
    }
}

Working Solution

The final working solution is uploaded to my Github and can be found here A few notes on solution:

  • Admin page is added at <sitecoreurl>/sitecore/admin/custom/migratedp.aspx
  • All content under /sitecore/content is updated, template standard values are not
  • Make sure to back up content before running this