Configure preview features with Azure App Configuration

In my preview post about implementing preview features in asp.net core, I explained how to introduce the concept of feature flags in your application and manage it with the default appsettings.json.

Managing your features from appsettings is not the best approach as it requires application restarts which will distrupt the application users.

In this post, I will explain how to do the configuration with a tool that was built just for this.

Azure App Configuration has feature management feature that allows you to manage your features, turn it on or off and set the filters for each feature flag. It also enables auto refresh which basically allows you to change a feature and this change will reflect immediately in your application.

Register Azure App Configuration as a Configuration Source

Asp.net core supports multiple configuration sources. When you call the CreateDefaultBuilder method in Program.cs, it automatically registers the following configuration sources for your application

appsettings.json
appsettings.{environment}.json
user secrets
environment variables
command line arguments

The registration happens in the same order above. You can have a look at the source code in this link If a specific key exists in a configuration source, you can override its value by adding it in the next configuration source. Ex: If the key ConnectionStrings:DefaultConnection exist in appsettins.json and also exist in user secrets, the one in user secrets will be used. This is good to override some values in your local dev environment such as passwords and connection strings to avoid pushing it to your source control

To register azure app config as an additional config source, you can add the following in Program.cs after installing the package Microsoft.Azure.AppConfiguration.AspNetCore

            Host.CreateDefaultBuilder(args)
                .ConfigureAppConfiguration(config =>
                {
                    var configuration = config.Build();
                    config.AddAzureAppConfiguration(azureAppConfig =>
                    {
                        var azureAppConfigConnectionString = configuration["AzureAppConfig:ConnectionString"];
                        azureAppConfig.ConfigureRefresh(refresh =>
                        {
                            refresh.SetCacheExpiration(TimeSpan.FromSeconds(5));
                        });
                        azureAppConfig.UseFeatureFlags();
                        azureAppConfig.Connect(azureAppConfigConnectionString);
                    });
                })
                .ConfigureWebHostDefaults(webBuilder =>
                {
                    webBuilder.UseStartup<Startup>();
                });

From line 2-15, you can see that we are configuration the application configuration by adding a new configuration source in line 5. In line 7, we are reading the connection string from the previous configuration sources. This way you can add your connection string in appsettings.json or user secrets, I have added it here in appsettings.json under the name AzureAppConfig:ConnectionString. From line 8-11, we are configuring the caching time for the configuration. If you configure it for 5 seconds, the keys from azure app config will be cached and no requests will be done to azure app config to get the latest updates. Line 12 simply asks Azure App Configuration SDK to include the features when it reads all configurations and finally we use the connection string to connect to the azure config instance.

Creating Azure App Config

Log in to Azure Portal and create a new App Configuration resource. You can only create one free app configuration per subscription. Once it is created, go to Access Keys from the left menu and copy either the primary or secondary connection string and update your appsettings file

Now you should be all set. If you run the application and navigate to https://localhost:44375/PreviewFeatures, you should be able to see the page if your feature configuration allows it.

So far, we didn’t add any features to our Azure App Config instance yet, this means the application will fall back to the appsettings.json

Add Features in Azure App Configuration

To start managing your features from Azure App Config, Click Feature Manager from the left menu and Choose Add then type the feature name as PreviewFeatures and choose Off then click add

Now refresh the URL https://localhost:44375/PreviewFeatures, and if the feature PreviewFeatures was enabled in appsettings, it will still appear. So what are we doing wrong?

Enable Auto Refresh

By default, the Azure App Configuration does not do auto refresh in your asp.net core. You have to register a middleware that does that by adding the following line in the Configure method inside Startup.cs

app.UseAzureAppConfiguration();

Now, if you run the application again, the first time it starts, it will get the most recent values from Azure App Config and now you should see the PreviewFeatures controller not working. But if you enabled it again from azure portal by toggling the On/Off flag from the Feature Manager page, and wait for 5 seconds, you should refresh and see that the PreviewFeatures is now working again.

Notice that the toggle turns on or off the feature for everyone. If you need to use the feature filter, then click the 3 dots and choose Edit. Under Filters, click add and type the feature filter name, in this case UserFeatures which we created previously. Notice how the state changed from On/Off to Conditional. Now when you refresh, the filter will be executed to decide if the feature should be enabled or disabled for each user.

I have included all the updates on GitHub repo. Feel free to ask me any questions

Log to Azure Table Storage in asp.net core to

Asp.net core has abstracted the logging operations into the ILogger interface and instead of having too many frameworks for logging, you just need to add a logging provider such as Console, SeriLog, Windows Event Viewer. In this post, I will create a custom logging provider that logs to Azure table storage

Why Azure Table Storage?

Azure table storage can store petebytes of semi-structured data with high performance inserts and updates. It is also cheap which makes it very suitable for storing log messages. It also allow us to connect to the log messages from many tools such as Azure Storage explorer unlike the case when you log messages to the file system on an Azure App Service

Structure of a custom logger

Logger

This is where the actual code for logging will exist and it must implement the ILogger

public class AzureTableLogger : ILogger
{
Microsoft.WindowsAzure.Storage.Table.CloudTable loggingTable;

    public AzureTableLogger(string connectionString, string tableName)
    {
        var storageAccount = Microsoft.WindowsAzure.Storage.CloudStorageAccount.Parse(connectionString);
        var cloudTableClient = storageAccount.CreateCloudTableClient();
        loggingTable = cloudTableClient.GetTableReference(tableName);
        loggingTable.CreateIfNotExistsAsync();
    }

    public IDisposable BeginScope<TState>(TState state)
    {
        return null;
    }

    public bool IsEnabled(LogLevel logLevel)
    {
        return true;
    }

    public void Log<TState>(LogLevel logLevel, EventId eventId, TState state, Exception exception, Func<TState, Exception, string> formatter)
    {
        var log = new LogEntity
        {
            EventId = eventId.ToString(),
            LogLevel = logLevel.ToString(),
            Message = formatter(state, exception),//exception?.ToString(),
            PartitionKey = DateTime.Now.ToString("yyyyMMdd"),
            RowKey = Guid.NewGuid().ToString()
        };

        var insertOp = TableOperation.Insert(log);
        loggingTable.ExecuteAsync(insertOp).GetAwaiter().GetResult();
    }
}

public class LogEntity : Microsoft.WindowsAzure.Storage.Table.TableEntity
{
    public string LogLevel { get; set; }
    public string EventId { get; set; }
    public string Message { get; set; }
}

As you can see, we just use the Azure Table Storage SDK to connect to the storage account and create a cloud table client. The logger accepts the table name and connection string as a constructor parameter which will be injected using the LoggingProvider. This is the minimum version of a logger and it needs a lot of improvement but it is good as a start.

LoggingProvider

public class AzureTableLoggerProvider : ILoggerProvider
{
    private readonly string connectionStringName;
    private readonly string tableName;

    public AzureTableLoggerProvider(string connectionString, string tableName)
    {
        connectionStringName = connectionString;
        this.tableName = tableName;
    }
    public ILogger CreateLogger(string categoryName)
    {
        return new AzureTableLogger(connectionStringName, tableName);
    }

    public void Dispose()
    {

    }
}

In this provider, we just use the two parameters passed in the constructor to create a new logger instance

LoggingProviderExtension

 public static class AzureTableLoggerExtensions
    {
        public static ILoggerFactory AddTableStorage(this ILoggerFactory loggerFactory, string tableName, string connectionString)
        {
            loggerFactory.AddProvider(new AzureTableLoggerProvider(connectionString, tableName));
            return loggerFactory;
        }
    }

This last block is not a must but its for the sake of clean code and clarity. In this step, we just inject our logging provider into the ILoggerFactory. When the application starts, we will have to call the AddTableStorage method to be able to use the new logger.

Add the provider in startup.cs

   public class Startup
    {
        // This method gets called by the runtime. Use this method to add services to the container.
        // For more information on how to configure your application, visit https://go.microsoft.com/fwlink/?LinkID=398940
        public void ConfigureServices(IServiceCollection services)
        {
            services.AddControllers();
        }

        // This method gets called by the runtime. Use this method to configure the HTTP request pipeline.
        public void Configure(IApplicationBuilder app, IWebHostEnvironment env, ILoggerFactory loggerFactory)
        {
            if (env.IsDevelopment())
            {
                app.UseDeveloperExceptionPage();
            }
            loggerFactory.AddTableStorage("LoggingSample", "UseDevelopmentStorage=true");
            app.UseRouting();
            app.UseEndpoints(endpoints =>
            {
                endpoints.MapDefaultControllerRoute();
            });
        }
    }

Now, our application is ready to log messages to Azure Table Storage. The sample above is using local storage emulator and will create a table named LoggingSample. Lets create a controller and log some messages

    [ApiController]
    [Route("[controller]")]
    public class CustomersController : Controller
    {
        private ILogger<CustomersController> logger;

        public CustomersController(ILogger<CustomersController> logger)
        {
            this.logger = logger;
        }

        public IActionResult Index()
        {
            logger.LogInformation("This is a message from customers controller");
            return Ok();
        }
    }

In the Index action, we called the logger to add a test message. Notice that you don’t have to specify anything other than the ILogger. Asp.net core DI will inject the proper logger at runtime.

Notice the new columns added to the table such as EventId and LogLevel. These are properties in the LogEntity classes added in the first code snippet. Notice also that it logs all messages logged by the asp.net infrastructure not just the test message that we added

Next steps

Our next step would be adding a middleware that will show a nice UI that will display log messages. This can come handy when you want to debug something and need to see the error messages

Migrate your asp.net settings to Azure App Configuration

Before asp.net core, we only had the web.config file to configure and read the application settings from code. The framework didn’t have a plugable way of adding an extra configuration providers. Any other confiruation data sources meant a custom solution and custom code to read and update configuration keys.

With asp.net core, we got the new appsettings.json as one source of configuration. Along with it came the environment variables, other files, secret keys that can be used to omit connection strings and passwords from being stored on source control.

Things event got better with Azure App Service that has a settings/configuration section that can override the application settings and connection strings sections. This applies to both asp.net framework and asp.net core.

Isn’t this enough already?

It is good as a start. but, it has a major issue. If you change any value in your configuration keys, it means the application must be restarted which affects the logged in users and may cause data loss.
Another issue is that our application code and configuration exists in the same place which contradicts with the twelve factor . These configuration keys cannot also be shared with other applications except using copy/paste

Azure App Configuration

Azure App Configuration is a service that is still in preview that can be a central place for all your configuration keys and feature flags.
It is so easy to add it to your asp.net core configuration provider using the provided nuget packages.

Add the need packages

First, install the package Microsoft.Azure.AppConfiguration.AspNetCore . You may need to check that you enabled prerelease versions if you are using visual studio

In your Program.cs file, add the following code which will inject Azure app configuration as a configuration provider. Notice that you will have to add a key named “AppConfig” in your connectionStrings section in appsettings.json that will store the connection string for your Azure App Configuration

public static IWebHostBuilder CreateWebHostBuilder(string&#091;] args) =>
    WebHost.CreateDefaultBuilder(args)
        .ConfigureAppConfiguration((hostingContext, config) =>
        {
            var settings = config.Build();
            config.AddAzureAppConfiguration(settings&#091;"ConnectionStrings:AppConfig"]);
        })
        .UseStartup<Startup>();

Now, your application is ready to read any configuration keys from Azure App Configuration. All you need to do is to create a new instance by following this link

Reuse your existing configuration keys

It’s not only too easy to add Azure App Configuration to your asp.net core app but also migrating your existing keys. You don’t want to end up with a situation where you have to spend hours moving your keys manually or writing scripts to do it. Azure App Configuration can do that for you.

As you can see above, it is too simple. Just choose Import/export from the left menu then choose where you want App Configuration to import the values from:

  1. App Configuration: you can import the values from another Azure App Configuration instance
  2. App Service: which can be perfect in our case since it will import the values from your Azure App Service
  3. Configuration File: you can pass the appsettings.json directly and it will import the values from there

Once you did that, you will have all keys/connection strings imported and ready to go.

Conclusion

Azure App Configuration is a great service that still in preview but it enables you to offload your application from configuration keys and connection strings. It also has the auto refresh which will allow your app to always have the latest config keys without the need to restart your application and impact your users.
It also has feature management which is a great addition but we will talk about it in future posts.

Azure Functions anatomy – Part 2 – What is inside a Function App?

In the previous post (Azure Functions 2.0 Anatomy- Part 1), we saw the structure of a function app. In this part, I will explain the different components of an Azure Function.

Components

Every Azure Function 2.0 consists of the following components:

  • Trigger
  • Bindings (one of which is the trigger). Binding can be input or output
  • Value Converter/Binder
  • Listener

A binding can be a Blob file, a queue message, an event from event hub or event grid or any custom binding developed by anyone. One of these bindings can initiate the function call and in this case it is called a Trigger.
A binding can also be Input or Output. Input binding delivers data to the function and output binding is used by the function to write data.

Now, assume we have the following function and its configuration

        [FunctionName("SampleFunction")]
        public static void Run([QueueTrigger("myqueue-items", Connection = "AzureWebJobsStorage")]string myQueueItem, [Blob("sample-output")]Stream output, TraceWriter log)
        {
            log.Info($"C# Queue trigger function processed: {myQueueItem}");
        }

This function has 2 binding parameters. myQueueItem which is both an input binding and a trigger, and output which is an output binding.

How Azure Functions call this method and convert the queue message to a string and the stream to a Blob file?

Binding, Listener, Value Provider and Converter

When the azure function app starts, it scans all functions that exist in the app directory like we saw in the previous post, and for each function it reads the input, output and trigger from the function config JSON file.

The scanning process uses a descriptor provider which creates the input binding, output binding, trigger and an invoker

Once all functions are loaded, it tried to load the types for each function that was developed outside the portal. It uses the scriptFile and EntryPoint as you can see below. The entry point in the previous code snippet is FunctionApp1.Function1.Run method that exist in the assembly FunctionApp1.dll

{
  "generatedBy": "Microsoft.NET.Sdk.Functions-1.0.14",
  "configurationSource": "attributes",
  "bindings": [
    {
      "type": "timerTrigger",
      "schedule": "0 */5 * * * *",
      "useMonitor": true,
      "runOnStartup": false,
      "name": "myTimer"
    }
  ],
  "disabled": false,
  "scriptFile": "../bin/FunctionApp1.dll",
  "entryPoint": "FunctionApp1.Function2.Run"
}

Each function app can either have a DLL function or a function created by portal. But not both.

Now, lets see what are the other components inside a binding:

  • Listener (IListener): This one has a method named StartAsync, which basically start listening for an event to trigger the function. For Azure Blob trigger, it scans the logs for new or modified files. For Queue trigger, it check for new messages in the specified queue.
  • Value Provider (IValueProvider): Once the listener has the event that should trigger the function, it uses the value provider to fill all input parameters. If the trigger was a blog trigger, then the value will be the file, the metadata, the name and content of the file itself. For a Queue, it will be content of the message and so on and so forth.
  • Value Converter (IAsyncConverter): This will be used to convert the values found in the value provider to all the input parameters configured for the function. In the previous example, StorageQueueMessageToStringConverter will be used to convert the CloudQueueMessage instance to the string parameter named myQueueItem. The same will be used to write data to output parameters, the framework will choose the best converter that matches the Output parameter type (Stream) and the type of variable that will be used to write to stream, ex: String or any Stream Writer.
  • Executor (ITriggerExecutor): Now we know that the function should be triggered, we have the data from input binding and we bound all input parameters, now we need to call the function body. This takes place using an implementation of ITriggerExecutor which can use reflection to call the function or in a very special case, it may get executed as a web hook like the case with HTTP trigger.

In the next post, I will dig more into Azure Function App to explore the extensions and host.

Azure Functions 2.0 anatomy – Part 1

In these series of posts, I will explain the internals of Azure Functions and how it works. By the end of it, you should be able to understand what happens once an Azure Function is deployed till the moment it is triggered and invocation completes.

Is it a Web App?

Yes, every Azure Function App that uses .Net as a Language runs as as.net core web app. When the app starts, it loads all your functions and proxies and set up the routes and listeners for each function.

Web App Structure

Just like any other Azure Web App, it consists of the following folders:

  • data: This folder contains another folder named “functions” which has another folder called extensions. The extensions folder has a list of all extensions installed to your Functions App. Each file has a reference to a nuget package that has the extension implementation.
  • Log Files
  • site: it has the wwwroot which hosts the asp.net core web app and all the functions
Data -> Functions folder structure

But for Azure Functions App, the following folders are added:

.nuget

Contains all nuget packages installed when you install a new extension. A reference for each extension installed exist in a file under: data\functions\extensions. The sample extension file below specify the package :Microsoft.Azure.WebJobs.Extensions.ServiceBus

In Azure Functions 1.0, it was running on .Net 4.6 and the runtime already included all the supported triggers and bindings. But, with version 2.0, the runtime only includes http and timer binding and all the other bindings can be developed and installed separately using extensions. This allows you to develop your own extensions and upload it without the need to wait for a new version of Azure Functions.

{
  "Id": "d3a33dd0-3941-4acf-a303-72773995901d",
  "Status": 1,
  "StartTime": "2019-01-02T02:49:23.5568341+00:00",
  "EndTime": "2019-01-02T02:50:50.1029788+00:00",
  "Error": null,
  "Properties": {
    "id": "Microsoft.Azure.WebJobs.Extensions.ServiceBus",
    "version": "3.0.0"
  }
}

ASP.NET

This folder contains all data protection keys used in the web app

To have a look at this folder structure and explore it yourself, use the following URL: https://%5BFUNCTION_APP_NAME%5D.scm.azurewebsites.net/DebugConsole

wwwroot folder structure

wwwroot folder structure

As you can see, there are 3 folders. Each folder represent a single function. All DLLs for each function exist in the bin folder.

The host.json file by default only has the version number for the function

{
  "version": "2.0"
}

Inside each function, there is a function.json file that has the configuration for this function.

{
  "generatedBy": "Microsoft.NET.Sdk.Functions-1.0.14",
  "configurationSource": "attributes",
  "bindings": [
    {
      "type": "timerTrigger",
      "schedule": "0 */5 * * * *",
      "useMonitor": true,
      "runOnStartup": false,
      "name": "myTimer"
    }
  ],
  "disabled": false,
  "scriptFile": "../bin/FunctionApp1.dll",
  "entryPoint": "FunctionApp1.Function2.Run"
}

The Azure Functions run-time use this file to load the metadata for each function during application startup. The most important properties are the scriptFile which points to the DLL that has the code and the entryPoint that has the exact c# method name that will be executed when the function triggers.
The configurationSource specifies where to read the function configuration such as connection strings for the blob storage or service bus. attributes means it will be retrieved from code.
The binding key lists all bindings for this function. For this sample, it is a timer and it is the trigger, so it has a single binding. For others, it can be bindings that represents input, output and a trigger.

In the next post, I will explain the internals of each function, and how the bindings and triggers works.

How Azure Functions Blob Trigger works

Introduction

Azure functions enable you to quickly build a piece of functionality that can be triggered by an external system such as Azure Blob Storage, Storage Queue, CosmoDB, Event Hub and the list goes on. In this post, I will explain how Azure Blob Trigger works.

Sample Function

If you created a new Azure Function using Visual Studio, you will end up with the following code:

 public static class Function1
    {
        [FunctionName("Function1")]
        public static void Run([BlobTrigger("samples-workitems/{name}", Connection = "")]Stream myBlob, string name, TraceWriter log)
        {
            log.Info($"C# Blob trigger function Processed blob\n Name:{name} \n Size: {myBlob.Length} Bytes");
        }
    }

The secret lies in the attribute [BlobTrigger]. It accepts the path to the storage container which Azure Web Jobs will monitor. As you know, Azure Functions is based on Azure Web Jobs, so the same triggers are used.

How Azure Web Job knows about a file that is being added, updated or removed to a container?

Run the sample app you just created in visual studio, it should work on the local storage emulator. Now, you should be able to invoke the function by creating a blob container called samples-workitems in your development storage account and you should end up with the following structure.

blob container

You can see the container “samples-workitems” which Azure Web Jobs will monitor and invoke the function whenever a file is changed there. But there is also another container named “azure-webjobs-hosts” which is the secret for how Azure monitor the files in that container.

If you opened that container, you will find a folder called “blobreceipts” which has a folder for the function name.

Inside the folder with the function name, there are some other folders with strange names like below

etags

These strange names are the ETag of each blob file added, edited or removed. So, when you change a file in any container, Web Jobs will create a new folder here with the new version ETag for that file and inside this folder you will find the same structure of the file being edited. In our case, there should be a folder called samples-workitems and inside this folder the file that was modified.

When a new file is added, Azure will check if  its ETag exist in the azure-webjobs-hosts folder and if not, then it will call the Azure Function. This way it will prevent duplicate calls for the same file. This pattern is called blob receipt.

Note that this process depends on Azure Blob Storage Logging which can take up to 10 minutes to write to the container azure-webjobs-hosts to improve performance. If you need your function to trigger faster then consider using Storage Queue trigger instead.

 

How to build a web application on Azure?

Microsoft Azure is one of the leading cloud platforms that enables us to build a scalable and highly performing web applications. In this article,  I will list the available options that allow you to quickly understand what you need in order to build your application and what services to use in each layer.

What do we need to build a web application?

Each web application needs some services in order to work propably. For example, a web server, a database server, queuing system etc..

In the past few years, I have found many people using Azure wrong or inefficiently. Some used virtual machines while they should have used Web Apps, others used a huge size of a virtual machine because they didn’t know they could scale their VM without losing the data. Accordingly, I will do my best to give you a summery of Azure services that you can utilize to build your next fantastic Web App.

Application Life-cycle Management

So, first things first. You need a place to store your use cases, test cases, source code, run unit tests and perform a continuous integration and deployment.

Although it may not be a part from Azure, but Team Services integrates seamlessly with Azure and many Azure Services like Web Apps, Mobile Apps, Azure Functions … support continuous integration with Azure.

Team Services help you to have a central repository for your source code, documents and requirement. It also supports Visual Studio Team Services and Git as a source control. It is free and supports unlimited number of projects with 5 free users.

Hosting

Now, you developed your web application, tested it and it is time to host it. Azure supports hosting for .Net, Java, PHP, NodeJS, and Python built applications.

In this phase you have more than one option:

  1. Virtual Machine: This is the very basic option and should not be used unless you have no other way, ex: migrating a legacy application that cannot work with a PAAS offering, in this case you simply have a virtual machine in the cloud and you can remotely connect to it, install the needed software and deploy your application. Note that this is the most expensive solution.
  2. Cloud Services: This is the same as Virtual Machine except that it offloads some of the work to be done by you such as setting up software and windows updates. It has 2 types, a web role which is setup to host a web application directly, and a worker role which enables you to host an executable application such as a windows service or a console app. The good part about cloud services is that you provide it with a package that has your code and it manages the deployment of the application. If the virtual machine hosting the app went down, Azure will automatically creates another virtual machine and deploy the code to it.
  3. App Service: This is the Platform as a Service or PAAS offering from Azure, all you have to worry about here is your code. It gives you a vitrual directory on cloud and all you have to do is to deploy your App to it either through web deploy, FTP or upload a package. It also offers continous integration and monitoring capabilities. This is the most flexible and cheapest option and you can autoscalre it according to the CPU usage, RAM usage and other factors. So basically, you can start small and scale as you need later. Azure App Service has Web Apps to host your application, Mobile App which is a backend as a service to your mobile apps, Logic Apps which gives you the option to build your businss logic and integration between different systems, and finally API Apps which is used to host your REST api web Apps.

Integration

If your application integrates with other systems, then you can use Azure Logic App, Azure Functions, BizTalk Service and Service Bus

Most services gives you a very nice visual designer that allows you to orchestrate your business logic and it offers out of the box seamless integration with many external systems such Office 365, Dynamic CRM or On-premise system through BizTalk Services

Data Storage

Azure offers many services to store your data, all of it are based on Azure Storage Account which is the main storage system for all services in Azure. Each account has some storage and throughput limitation, you can check these limitation from here

  1. If you need to store text files or video files, you can use Page and Block blobs. Each type is suitable for specific file types, you can read more about it from here
  2. Use Azure Media Services if you have to store and stream media files.
  3. Azure table storage is suitable if you need a NoSQL database, it provides a high throughput storing and retrieving entities that have no referential integrity between them.
  4. Azure DocumentDB is a NoSQL document database similar to MongoDB, it is a born in the cloud database that you can use if you need a low latency high performing database
  5. Azure SQL Database is a SQL Server database in the cloud where you need not to worry about SQL Server installation, Backup and Restore or anything else, you just create a database and use it.
  6. Azure File Share is used to replace any legacy File System Share in any legacy application.

 

Now, you should be able to have some basic knowledge about the features you can use to build your next web application.