Gunnar Peipman – Programming Blog

How my company uses Windows Azure in development process

I have used MSDN Ultimate Windows Azure benefit from the day it was made available and from this day I have more and more used Windows Azure on my everyday’s development work. I’m building mostly web-based applications and services and Windows Azure fits well for this scenario. In this posting I will introduce you how Windows Azure supports development work in practice of one small software company.


Why Windows Azure?

This is the first question that developers from other companies ask me when they hear about my heavy use of Windows Azure. I have experiences from past – based on server and shared hosting – and I can say that Windows Azure makes my life way easier. Main reasons are here:

  • no hardware costs – I don’t have to rent or buy servers, I don’t have to monitor their physical health and it’s not my responsibility to buy more hardware, replace broken parts or buying new machines when old ones need to be retired,
  • no maintenance costs – I don’t have to spend my time on deploying updates, make fancy configuration changes and other administrative work I had to buy in before or in the case of over-shared shared hosting I had to have endless discussions with tech support to get test sites run at normal speed,
  • no backups – what’s on cloud will stay on cloud – I don’t have to worry about installing my systems again when some environment crashes because it is up to Windows Azure service to keep my machines alive and backed up,
  • control over server – something you don’t get with shared hosting is control over server environment – on Windows Azure I can access my virtual machines over Remote Desktop to detect problems or made some simple configuration changes,
  • small or zero expenses- if you have small company and you have MSDN Ultimate subscription you have Windows Azure as part of your development environment for free (of course, if you spend more resources than the amount included to your MSDN benefit you must pay).

From practice. Windows Azure, by costs, is somewhere between shared and server hosting. Comparing calculations are not easy to do because when calculating expenses on your side you have to consider also people’s work related to supporting servers, operating systems etc. It’s possible you have cheaper model worked out. I’m owner of small company and I’m only happy when price and outcome are in very good balance.

It is easy to involve Windows Azure to your development processes and once it’s done you will definitely enjoy it.

Scenarios for Windows Azure

For me the most important scenarios in development processes where Windows Azure comes in are as follows:

  • test environments – on test environments we do in-house or team testing,
  • public test environments – here are also customers involved,
  • demo environments – do demo our systems to possible new customers.

For all of these scenarios I like one common characteristic – it’s fire and forget deployment.

From practice. All these environments are important to us and other people who are involved in our work. Stability and availability must be very good and this is where Windows Azure is the best choice for us. We don’t need endless discussions and negotiations with tech support of services anymore – if we need more resources we can buy what we need.

Deployments to cloud environment

Deploying systems to cloud environment is damn easy. You can use Visual Studio for it and if you like to automate things then you can also use MS Build and PowerShell. Here are possible options for deployments:

  • Cloud projects on Visual Studio,
  • PowerShell scripts to build and deployment packages,
  • MS Deploy – works also for Windows Azure web sites,
  • Integration with Team Foundation Services.

From practice. I’m using mostly cloud projects and to some compute instances we deploy more than one separate system with one shot. We are using special deployment projects that include folder for each separate system and these systems are deployed to folders using Visual Studio file deployment. When systems are deployed to folders we run cloud deployment project that moves all new stuff to cloud. We do it around 4-5 times per day and preparation for deployment takes only some minutes,

Database deployments

With systems we must also deploy their databases. In most cases SQL Azure web database is more than enough for us. Visual Studio makes it extremely easy to deploy database updates from database to Visual Studio database project and from database project to different database.

It’s also possible to use database deployments where database is recreated before deployment. Test data can be part of database project – you can use post-deployment scripts to pump test data to database. There’s nothing complex. Just spend some hours on playing with database projects and you are there.

You can find some reading about database projects here:

From practice. Visual Studio database projects are very powerful tool to synchronize changes between databases. Of course, it’s not silver bullet that solves all your problems but still it’s very good result if database deployment takes you couple of minutes instead of hours of manual update. SQL Azure is also supported, just make sure you set SQL Azure as target database.

Architectural changes in applications

Now comes the most complex part – in-premises and shared hosting applications are not usually built to handle file system, sessions and cache as services. If you write simple web applications then Windows Azure Web Sites should be enough for you – similar to shared hosting and fast deployments using MS Deploy.

For compute instances you need some tweaking. You have to build application the way that it works in shared hosting and on compute instance. This means using dependency injection to plug file access and session providers to your application depending on where it is running.

From practice. First time it takes time to get all those pieces together and function normally on Windows Azure. Consider two-three working days for some of your great developers for this task. When everything starts running and you have idea how things work then next times it takes you around hour to get all tweaks done for new project.

Conclusion

I started using Windows Azure when it was young platform and over time I have reached the point where Windows Azure is mandatory service in my development processes. There are many ways how Windows Azure can support your development processes and it’s not hard to get there. Visual Studio provides you with very good tools and making some more advanced use of database projects in Visual Studio you will work also deploy your databases very fast. Your first time on building up everything described here may take time and be painful for you but when you get things running you will never want to go back.

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5 thoughts on “How my company uses Windows Azure in development process

  • How my company uses Windows Azure in development process Gunnar Peipman…

    Thank you for submitting this cool story – Trackback from WindowsAzureRocks…

  • Care to expand on how you handled email? At $70 p/m, SendGrid just doesn’t cut it for most people.

  • Gunnar says:

    Thanks for question, Anthony! Fo e-mails you can use also free services like Google snd Live. If your mail amounts are bigger or these services doesn’t work well for you then you can use your ISP SMTP server or install one by yourself. I hope that Windows Azure will provide SMTP services too one day but as you can imagine it’s not easy to do (by example, magine easy to scale spam cloud).

  • szoftver says:

    hm, it’s okay but not 100%:

    no maintenance costs – I’m not sure. Azure is a special environment with specifict needs. you dont have to install service packs but negligating maintenance is dangerous imho.

    no backups – no backup on server level but you have to backup on other levels (ie. application data)

  • Gunnar says:

    Well, I had a lot of fears also before making heavy use of Azure. Step by step all those fears went away as I saw more and more about stuff is already available there so I don’t have to waste my time on infrastructure issues. My applications needed some little tweaking and they are dual by nature – they work on both classic hosting and on cloud.

    Deployments depend on web.config transforms. When I run application on dev machine, it doesn’t make any use of Azure. If I make cloud deployment then application goes to cloud automatically with correct configuration. And it’s damn easy when you have did it couple of times.

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