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Sitecore Helix: Lets Talk Layers

Here are some notes from the decision-making process our team uses with regard to what goes where and in which layer. Of course, the helix documentation does go over the guidelines but it’s not until you start working with the architecture that things begin to become clear.

Project Layer

Definition: The Project layer provides the context of the solution. This means the actual cohesive website or channel output from the implementation, such as the page types, layout and graphical design. It is on this layer that all the features of the solution are stitched together into a cohesive solution that fits the requirements.

Comment: The project layer is probably the most straightforward layer to understand. In our project, the modules in this layer remained lightweight and mostly contain razor view files that allow content editors to build up the HTML structure of the pages.

The website content (under home), page templates and component templates are serialized by Unicorn and also live in this layer.

It’s also worth mentioning one particular gotcha you may hit in development to do with template inheritance and you can read more in this blog post.

Feature or Foundation?

Feature Definition: The Feature layer contains concrete features of the solution as understood by the business owners and editors of the solution, for example news, articles, promotions, website search, etc. The features are expressed as seen in the business domain of the solution and not by technology, which means that the responsibility of a Feature layer module is defined by the intent of the module as seen by a business user and not by the underlying technology. Therefore, the module’s responsibility and naming should never be decided by specific technologies but rather by the module’s business value or business responsibility.

Discussion: For our feature modules, we aimed for single concrete features that are independent of each other. They may contain views, templates, controllers, renderings, configuration changes and related business logic code to tie it all together. The point is to always stick to the rule: “Classes that change together are packaged together”.

When building feature modules, it’s also very handy to think about the feature modules removal as you build it. Keep asking yourself how easy would it be to roll back this module and what would I need to do. Doing so will help you to keep those dependencies under control.

Foundation Definition: The lowest level layer in Helix is the Foundation layer, which as the name suggests forms the foundation of your solution. When a change occurs in one of these modules it can impact many other modules in the solution. This mean that these modules should be the most stable in your solution in term of the Stable Dependencies Principle.

 

Discussion: We found that our foundation modules usually consist of frameworks or code that provide a structural functionality to support the web application as a whole. Each foundation module may be used by multiple feature modules to provide them with the support they need to run properly. Our foundation modules contain API calls, configuration, ORM structures (Glass Mapper), initialisation code, interfaces and abstract base classes.

An important point is that unlike feature layer modules, the foundation layer modules can have dependencies to other foundation layer modules. If this was not the case it would be very difficult to construct the foundation layer in the first place.

For the most part, the team can make some fairly quick decisions about what goes where in the initial project planning. And what goes where is fairly obvious after you get familiar with the habitat example project. The main dilemma you’re going to encounter is around where your repositories and services (key business logic) might need to sit.

Business LogicWhat goes where! Help!

Let’s consider the definitions above, they seem straightforward enough. However, in agile projects where things may change rapidly or requirements are not immediately clear (which happens a lot), you’re inevitably going to need to make some judgment calls.

What am I talking about with the above statement, well let’s say one developer codes up a feature module at the beginning of that project. At first, it seems like that particular portion of code is only required by that particular feature. Down the track a requirement surfaces whereby the same business logic needs to be used in another Feature module. Helix rules dictate:

  • Classes that change together are packaged together.
  • No dependencies between feature projects should exist.

A lesser developer may be tempted at this point to duplicate the code in both feature modules to get the job done quickly. This, however, breaks some fairly important fundamental coding standards that many of us try to stick to. Step back to consider the technical debt that duplicate code leave behind vs dependencies between your Helix feature modules.

The solution to this dilemma; it’s time to refactor that feature logic and move it into the foundation layer. After which any feature modules that needs to reference the same code can reference it in the foundation layer.

Remember “with great power comes great responsibility” and this is especially true when touching code in the foundation layer. The code you touch in the foundation layer should be highly stable and well tested as the helix guidelines suggest.

Was the original decision a mistake?

On the flip side of the coin its worth considering that it wasn’t a mistake to put that piece of code in the feature layer to start with. Technically if no one else needed to use the code at the time and it was reasonably unforeseen that anyone else would need to use it, then it probably was the correct call.

Accept that things may change

The team members on your helix project will need to be flexible and accepting of change. I think it’s worth being prepared for some open discussions within your team about what goes in the foundation layer and what goes in the feature layer. It’s certainly going to be open to interpretation and a topic of debate. A team that can work together and be open to a change of direction within their code structure will help the code base stay within the helix guidelines as the project evolves.

Good luck!