SimpleFileFetcher for Azure Start up tasks

I know some of you are waiting for more news on my “Simple Cloud Manager” Project. Its coming, I swear! Meanwhile, I had to tackle one fairly common Azure task today and wanted to share my solution with you all.

I’m working on a project where we needed an Azure PaaS start-up task that would download a remote file and unzip it for me. Now there’s several approaches out there of varying degrees of complexity. Powershell, native code, etc… But I wanted something even simpler, a black box that I could pass parameters too that required no additional assemblies/files to work. To that end I sat down and spent about 2 hours crafting the “Simple File Fetcher”.

The usage is fairly simple: simplefilefetcher -targeturi:<where to download the file from> -targetfile:<where to save it to>

You can also optionally specify a parameter that tells it to unzip the file, ‘-unzip’, and another that will make sure downloaded file is deleted, ‘-deleteoriginal’.

I spent most of the 2 hours looking at and trying various options. The final product was < 100 lines of code and now that I know how to do it, would only likely take me 10-20 minutes to rebuild (most of that spend debugging the argument parsing). So instead of boring you all with an explation of the code, I’ll just share it along with a release build of the console app so you can just use it. :)

Until next time!

Azure Tenant Management

Hey everyone. I’m writing this post from Redmond, WA. I’m in here on the Microsoft campus this week to meet with some of my colleagues and explore options for my first significant open source project effort. We’re here to spend three days trying to find ways to manage the allocation of, and monitor the billable usage of Azure resources. There are two high level objectives for this effort:

  • Allow non-technical users to provision and access Azure resources without the need to understand Azure’s terminology and even granting direct access to the underlying Azure subscription
  • Monitor the billable usage of the allocated resources, and track against a “cap”

On the surface this seems pretty simple. That is, until you realize that not all the Azure services expose individual resource usage, and of the ones that do, they all do it separately. It gets even more complicated when you realize that you may need to do things like have users “share” cloud services and even storage accounts.

Couple examples

So let’s dive into this a little more and explore a couple of the possible use cases I’ve heard from customers.

Journalism Students

Scenario: We have a series of journalism students that will be learning to provision and maintain a online content management system. They need someplace to host their website, upload content, and need GIT integration so they can version any code changes they make to their site’s code. The instructor for the course starts by creating an individual web site for them with a basic CMS system. The student will then access this workspace as they perform their coursework.

Challenges: Depending on the languages they are using, we may be able get by Azure Web Sites. But this only allows us up to 10 “free” web sites, and what happens to the other students. Additionally, students don’t know anything about the different SKUs available and just want things that work, so do we need to provide “warm-up” and auto-scaling? Additionally, since the instructor is setting up the web sites for them, we need a simple way for the instructor to get the resources provisioned, and give the students access to it without the instructor needing to even be aware of the Azure subscriptions. We also need to track compute and bandwidth usage on the individual web site.

Software Testers

Scenario: A small company has remote testers that perform quality assurance work on software. These workers are distributed but need to remote into Windows VMs to run tests. Ideally, these VMs will be hosted “in the cloud”, and the company wants a simple façade whereby the workers can select which software they need to test and then provision a virtual machine for them. The projects being tested should be “billed back” for the resources used by the testers and the testers work on multiple projects. Additionally, the testers should be able to focus on the work they have to do, not how to manage and provision Azure resources.

Challenges: This one will likely be Azure Virtual Machines. But we need to juggle not only compute/bandwidth, but track impact on storage (transactions and total amount stored) as well. We also need to be able to provision VMs from a selection of customer gallery images and get them running for the testers, sometimes across subscriptions. Finally, we need to be aware of challenges with regards to VM endpoints and cloud services if we to maximize the density of these VMs.

Business Intelligence

Scenario: Students are learning to use Oracle databases to analyze trends. The instructor is using the base Oracle database images from the Azure gallery but has added various tools and sample datasets to them for the students to use. The students will use the virtual machines for various labs over the duration of the course and each lab should only take a few hours.

Challenges: If these VMs were kept running 24×7, it would costs thousands of dollars per month per student. So we need to make sure we can automate the start and stop of the VMs to help control these costs. And since the Oracle licensing fees appear as a separate charge, we need to be able to predict these as well based on current rates and the amount of time the VM was active.

So what are we going to do about it?

In short, my plan is to create a framework that we will release via open source to help fill some of these gaps. A simple, web based user interface for accessing your allocated resources, some back end services that monitor resource usage and track that against quotas set by solution administrators. Underneath all that, a system that allows you to “tag” resources as associated with users or specific projects. If all goes well, I hope to have the first version of this framework published and available by the end of March, 2015 that will focus on Azure Web Sites, IaaS VMs, and Azure Storage.

However, and this is the point of my little announcement post, we’re not going to make you wait until this is done. As this project progresses, I plan to regularly post here and in January we’ll hopefully have a GIT repository where you’ll be able to check out the work as we progress. Furthermore, I plan to actively work with organizations that want to use this solution so that our initial version will not be the only one.

So look for more on this in the next couple weeks as we share our learnings and plans. But also, let me know via the comments if this is something you see value in and what scenario you may have. And oh, we still don’t have a name for the framework yet. So please post a comment or tweet @brentcodemonkey with your ideas. J

Until next time!

Attempting to define “IOT”

NOTE: the following represents my own opinions and should NOT be consider an official viewpoint for any person or organization. These opinions are also still in flux, so if you ask me again in a month, it’s likely to have changed.

Jason, a friend and colleague, recently posted an update on his blog titled “What is Internet of Things”. In his post, he calls out a couple great potential scenarios, but I called him out for not really defining IOT. He attempted to counter with what is in my opinion a marketing blurb. I like and respect Jason, so much of this back and forth was good natured colleague rib-poking. But realized I shouldn’t be poking at his attempt without making my own.

How do you define the undefinable?

To start with. I want to call out that attempting to define “IOT” is like attempting to define “the cloud”. Over time, “cloud” has settled on a definition that revolved around a collection of attributes: scalable, self-service, pay for what you use, and internet accessible. These still fluctuated greatly, and to some degree were dependent on the viewpoint of the consumer of “cloud” based services. But it gave us a starting point.

Using that as an example, I think we could define IOT solutions as also requiring a set of attributes:

Things – A ‘thing’ is a specialized, autonomous piece of technology capable of performing an action, but does not possess a traditional human user interface. A phone or computer is a device. A security hand scanner, motion sensor, or even the GPS sensor in a phone could be considered a “thing”..

Data – Our things, being highly specialized, will have limited capabilities. But one of these will be the ability to report on the information they gather so something else can process the data, turning it into information. They *may* also be able to receive commands to alter their function (i.e. changing your sampling rate from 1s to 5s). In many case, we can likely expect both.

Connectivity – How that data moves in and out of “the things”, requires some type of connection. This could be a cellular network, location specific wi-fi, etc… In part, this refers to how the “things” interact or the data is gathered. The connection can be persistent (always on), or transient (on/off as required), but if you have to do stuff like plug a device into it or move data via USB or SD, we’re lacking the “internet” part of IOT. A big discussion point here is if the “thing” is directly connected, or requires assistance to connect (like the GPS sensors mentioned above).

Management – This attribute is how we track the “things”. Are they curated and highly managed (likely in a factory scenario). Or are they anonymous and unmanaged (open sourced climate telemetry gathering). This also covers attributes like how do I identify the device and separate it from “rogue” devices.

So with a set of initial attributes identified, the next step is to use them to define some scenarios.

A Factory Scenario

So Jason’s post calls out a manufacturing scenario. I’m careful to “a” scenario, because our definition above allows for a nearly infinite set of scenarios. But here’s one possibility: a single factory that makes widgets. For this scenario, we can identify the our IOT attributes.

The things: each piece of machinery has 3 sensors on it: power monitoring, pieces made, and operating temperature and one actuator: power control

Data: The sensors each capture a specific measurement every 1 second and report it every 5 seconds while the machine is running to a local controller.

Connectivity: The sensors area wired to a “controller” that’s mounted on the machine. This in turn is connected into the factory’s private wi-fi network. While the controller can take action on the data, it mostly just displays it and hands it back up to a central service on the network.

Management: When a machine is installed in the factory, there’s a step where the machine (and its sensors) are connected to the network, and “registered” with the factory’s services. Additionally, since the sensors are hard-wired to the machine “controller”, it has information about the sensors it can in turn share up to the factory services.

So we have a basic scenario that has all four attributes, and meets our basic criteria. The factory is capable of determining when the data is trending downward (perhaps power is increasing while pieces being produced is being reduced). It can then take action like telling the machine to shut down because a technician is on the way. We can also collect and trend the data, mining it over time.

But IOT also creates some common challenges.

Ingestion of telemetry: If I only have 100 machines, this isn’t a big deal. But what I’m in a scenario where I have several thousand or hundreds of thousands? How do I scale my factory services to ingest that many connections and messages?

Device Management: Sensors fail and have to get replaced. As machines fail, they may be parted out. So a sensor that fails may be replaced with a sensor that used to be on a different machine. So I constantly need to be able to track the relationships.

Connectivity: What happens if the factory wi-fi goes down? Or worse yet a visitor to the factory taps into the network and starts sending rogue messages that alter my factory data? What if they send commands to the machines that cause them to overheat?

It’s these challenges that all the vendors are racing to solve with their various IOT Solutions!

What are the solutions?

I recently saw slides from a session given by Alessandro Bassi at the M2M+ Industry Summary in Milano, Italy. In this session, he calls out that innovation for its own sake will usually fail. It needs to be supported by a good business model. So the vendors in this space are all attempting to offer their business solutions.

In some cases, these solution are highly targeted. The tech startup NEST, is a good example of this. It has a thing, the thing gathers data, it’s connected and transmits the data, and its managed (you register your device). In this case, the vendor is trying to solve a specific problem, driving down home energy costs, and marketing this solution to consumers is their business model.

In other cases, the solutions are industry focused. With the vendor providing a collection of services that work together in a more flexible way to help drive larger, more strategic initiatives. In the link I just shared, it’s a collection of solutions targeting hardware and software to help with factory scenarios like I listed above. This solution is positioned to organizations that are in that industry vertical, to address the requirements of that industry.

And lastly, we have services like the ones I’ve been working with lately; ISS, Service Bus, Project Orleans, and HDInsight. These are more building block oriented. They aren’t specific industry or even set of scenarios. They are meant to allow higher level, more encompassing solutions to be created. These get marketed to either software vendors looking to build our commercial or consumer solutions, or to organizations that need to build out customized solutions for internal use.

Each approach has pros and cons, but then they are also targeting a different business models. So it’s about picking the approach that best addresses your needs. Meanwhile, the vendors are all looking to capitalize on the market and find a way to sell their solution to solve the “IOT problem”.

Summary – have we accomplished anything?

This was the first time I’ve really put any of these thoughts down. Looking back over the typos and grammar errors, I have to ask if I’ve accomplished anything. I did set down a rough definition for what I think “IOT” is. This also allows me to call out some of the common challenges to related scenarios and ultimately even call out the types of solutions the industry is offering. So I guess you could say I have defined IOT.

But I can’t help and think the practical reality is more difficult. The definition of IOT will continue to evolve and there will always be shades of gray. So it’s important to keep in mind that different things to different people. With that in mind, I think I’ll stick to my “remain calm and ask questions” approach, and when someone comes to me with “an IOT scenario”, my first response will always be “so tell me about it”. The scenario and its challenges will always trump an arbitrary terminology definition. And in the end, it’s the solution and the business value that is brings that really matters more than the industry buzzword. Isn’t it?

Until next time!

Automating ARR Configuration

In the world of cloud, we have to become familiar with the concept of DevOps, and this means that often times we need to code setups rather then write lengthy (nearly 5000 words) sets of instructions. In my last post, I walked you through manually setting up ARR. But what if we want to take this to the next level and start automating the setup?

Now there are several examples out of there automated configuration of ARR in Windows Azure. I don’t want to simply rehash those examples, but instead “teach you to fish” as it were. And while I don’t have all the answers (I am not and don’t intend to be an ARR “expert), I do want to share with some you some of the things I’ve learned on this subject lately.

Installing ARR “automatically”

In my last write-up, I talked about using the Web Platform installer to download and install ARR and its dependencies. Fortunately, we can take this step and turn it into a fairly simple powershell script. The samples below are from a start-up script I created for a Windows Azure PaaS Cloud Service worker role.

First, I’m going to set up a couple of variables so we have most of things we want to customize at the top of the script.

# temporary variables

$temppath = $env:roleroot + “\approot\startuptemp\”
$webpifile = “webpi.msi” 
$tempwebpi = $temppath + $webpifile 
$webplatformdownload = http://download.microsoft.com/download/7/0/4/704CEB4C-9F42-4962-A2B0-5C84B0682C7A/WebPlatformInstaller_amd64_en-US.msi&#8221;

These four variables are, in order:

  • temppath: where we’ll put the file when its downloaded
  • webpifile: the name I’m going to give to webPI install file after we download it
  • tempwebpi: the full path with name that it will be saved as (make sure this isn’t to long or we’ll have issues)
  • webplatformdownload: the URL we are going to download the WebPI installer from

Next up, we need the code to actually create the temporary location and download the webPI install package to that location.

# if it doesn’t exist create a temp location that we can place files in
Write-Host “Testing Temporary Path: “ + $temppath
if((Test-Path -PathType Container $temppath) -eq $false)
{
    Write-Host “Created WebPI directory: “ + $temppath
     New-Item -ItemType directory -Path $temppath
}

# if it doesn’t already exist, download Web Platform Installer 4.6 to the temp location
if((Test-Path $tempwebpi) -eq $false)
{
    Write-Host “Downloading WebPI installer”
    $wc = New-Object System.Net.WebClient
    $wc.DownloadFile($webplatformdownload, $tempwebpi)
}

Ideally, we may want to wrap this in some re-try logic so we can handle any transient issues related to the download, but this will get us by for the moment.

Now, we need to install the WebPI using “/quiet” or silent install mode.

#install Web Platform Installer
Write-Host “Install WebPI”
$tempMSIParameters =  “/package “ + $tempwebpi + ” /quiet”
(Start-Process -FilePath “msiexec.exe” -ArgumentList $tempMSIParameters -Wait -Passthru).ExitCode

Please note that I’m not testing to ensure that this installed properly. So again, for full diligence, we should likely wrap this in some error handling code.

With all that done, all that remains is to use WebPI to install ARR.

#use WebPI to install ARR v3
Write-Host “Using WebPI to install ARR v3”
$tempPICmd = $env:programfiles + “\microsoft\web platform installer\webpicmd”
$tempPIParameters = “/install /accepteula /Products:ARRv3_0”
Write-Host $tempPICmd
(Start-Process -FilePath $tempPICmd -ArgumentList $tempPIParameters -Wait -Passthru).ExitCode

Now this is where we run into our first challenge. Note in the fourth line of this sample that I specify a product name, “ARRv3_0”. This wasn’t just some random guess. I needed to discover what the correct product ID was. For those that aren’t familiar with the Web Platform Installer, it gets its list of products from an RSS feed. There are many feeds, but after some poking around, I found the 5.0 feed at http://www.microsoft.com/web/webpi/5.0/WebProductList.xml

I right clicked the page, viewed source and searched the result “ARR”, eventually finding the XML node for “Application Request Routing 3.0” (the version I’m after). In this node, you’ll find the productID value that I needed for this step. Below is a picture of the RSS feed with this value highlighted.

Needless to say, tracking that down the first time took a bit of digging. J

When you put all the snippets above together, and run it, it should result in ARR being installed and running. Mind you, this assumes you installed the IIS server role, and that nothing goes wrong with the installs. But automating those two checks is a task for another day.

Getting Scripting for changing our IIS configuration

So the next step is scripting our IIS configuration. If you search around, you’ll find links on using appcmd, and maybe even a few on powershell. But the challenge is figuring out the right steps to take if you plan to only for your own unique situations and don’t have days (sometimes weeks) to dig through all the documentation. I started down this path, analyzing the options available and their parameters with the intent to then spend countless hours writing and debugging my own scripts. That is, until I found the IIS Configuration Editor.

When you load the IIS Manager UI, there’s an innocent looking icon in the management section labelled “Configuration Editor”. This will allow you to edit the IIS configuration, save/reject those changes, and even…. generate scripting!

Now there is a catch… this tool assumes you have an understanding of the monsterously complex schema that is the applicationHost.config. When you launch the Configuration Editor, the first thing you’ll need to do specify what section of the configuration you want to work with. And unless you’ve digested the docs and have a deep understanding of the schema, this can be a real “needle in a haystack” proposition.

Fortunately for us, there’s a workaround we can leverage, namely the applicationHost.config file itself. What I’ve taken to doing, is start by using the GUI to make the configuration changes I need, and making note of the unique names I give items. Once you’ve done that, you can go to the folder “%SYSTEMROOT%\System32\inetsrv\config\” and there you will find the applicationHost.config XML file. Open that file in your favorite XML editor, and have your search button ready.

In my previous article, I set up a web farm and gave it a unique name, a name I can now search on. So using text search, I located the <webFarms><webFarm… node that described “App1Farm” (my unique name). Furthermore, this helped me identify that for setting up the web farm, I select the “webFarms” section in the Configuration Editor that I’m going to work in “webFarms”.

Once there, I can open up the collection listed, and I’ll see any farms that have been configured. After a bit of trial and error I can even find out the specific settings needed to set up my server farm, separating my custom settings from the defaults. This where the fun starts.

If you look at the previous screen shot, on the far right are the actions we can take: Apply, Cancel, and Generate Script. When you use this editor to start making changes, these options will be enabled. So assume I go in and add a Web Farm like I described in my last post. When I close the dialog where I edited the settings, before I click on Apply or Cancel, I instead click on Generate Script and get the following dialog box!

This shows me the code needed to make the change I just made. And I can do this via C#, JavaScript, the AppCmd utility, or Powershell! Now the sample above just creates a farm with no details, but you can start to see where this goes. We can now use this utility to model the configuration changes we want to automate and generate template code that we can then incorporate into our solutions.

Note: after you’ve generated the code you want, be sure to click on apply or cancel as appropriate. Otherwise the Generate Script option continues to track the delta of the changes you are making and will continue to generate code for ALL the changes you are making.

Writing our first C# IIS Configuration Modifications

So with samples in hand, we’re ready to start writing some code. In my case, I’m going to do so with C#. So open up Visual Studio, and create a new project (a class library will do), and paste in your sample code.

The first thing you’ll find is that you’re missing a reference to the Microsoft.Web.Administration. Providing your development machine has IIS w/ the Administration tools installed, you can add a reference to %systemroot%/system32/inetsrv/Microsoft.Web.Administration.dll to your project and things should resolve nicely. If you can’t find the file, then likely you will need to add these roles/components to your dev machine first. I cover how to do this with Windows Server 2012 in my last post, but for Windows 8 (or 7 for that matter), it’s a matter of going to Programs and Features, and then turning Windows features on or off.

When you click on the highlighted option above, this will bring up the Windows Features dialog. Scroll down to “Internet Information Services” and make sure you have IIS Management Service installed, as well as any World Wide Web Services you think you may want.

The mundane out of the way, the next step is to get back to the code, we’ll start by looking at some code I generated to create a basic web farm like I used last time.

The first step, is to get a ConfigurationSection object that contains the “webFarms” section (which we selected when we were editing the configuration, remember).

ServerManager serverManager = new
ServerManager();

Configuration config = serverManager.GetApplicationHostConfiguration();

ConfigurationSection webFarmsSection = config.GetSection(“webFarms”);

ServerManager allows us to access the applicationHost.config file. We use that object to retrieve the configuration, and in turn pull the “webFarms” section into a ConfigurationSection object we can then manipulate.

Next up, we need to get the collection of web farms, and create a new element in that collection for our new farm.

ConfigurationElementCollection webFarmsCollection = webFarmsSection.GetCollection();

ConfigurationElement webFarmElement = webFarmsCollection.CreateElement(“webFarm”);

webFarmElement[“name”] = @”sample”;

The collection of farms is stored in a ConfirationElementCollection object which is populated by doing a GetCollection on the section we retrieved previously. We then use the CreateElement method to create a new element of type “webFarm”. Finally, give that new element our name, in this case ‘sample’. (Original, aren’t I *grin*)

The next logical step, is to make sure we identify the affinity settings for new web farm. In my case, I change the default timeout from 30 to 10 minutes.

ConfigurationElement applicationRequestRoutingElement =

webFarmElement.GetChildElement(“applicationRequestRouting”);

ConfigurationElement affinityElement =

applicationRequestRoutingElement.GetChildElement(“affinity”);

affinityElement[“timeout”] = TimeSpan.Parse(“00:10:00”);

Using the same ConfigurationElement we retrieve in the last snippet, we now go retrieve a child element that contains the settings for application request routing. And using that element, get the one that has details on how affinity is set. In this case, setting “timeout” to the timespan of 10 minutes.

I also want to change the load balancing behavior. The default is least request, but I prefer round robin. This is done in the same manner, but we use the “loadBalancing” element instead of the “affinity” element of the same “applicationRequestRouting” element we just used.

ConfigurationElement loadBalancingElement =

applicationRequestRoutingElement.GetChildElement(“loadBalancing”);

loadBalancingElement[“algorithm”] = @”WeightedRoundRobin”;

Now that we’re all done, it’s time to add the new web farm element back to the farms collection, and commit our changes to the applicationHost.config file.

webFarmsCollection.Add(webFarmElement);

serverManager.CommitChanges();

And there we have it! We’ve customized the IIS configuration via code!

What next…

As you can likely guess, I’m working on a project that will pull these techniques together. Two actually. Admittedly there’s no solid sample here, but then my intent was to share some of the learning I’ve managed to wring out of IIS.NET, MSDN, and TechNet. And as always, bring them to you in a way that’s hopefully fairly easy to digest. While my focus has admittedly been on doing this with C#, you will hopefully be able to leverage the Configuration Editor to help you with any appcmd or Powershell automation you’re looking to pull together.

If all goes well over the next couple weeks, I’ll hope to share my projects with you. These will hopefully add some nice, fairly turnkey capabilities to your Windows Azure projects, but more importantly bring all these learnings into clear focus. So bear with me a bit longer as I go back into hiding to help get the remaining work completed.

Until next time!

ARR as a highly available reverse proxy in Windows Azure

With the general availability of Windows Azure’s IaaS solution last year, we’ve seen a significant uptake in migration of legacy solutions to the Windows Azure platform. And with the even more recent announcement of our agreement with Oracle for them to support their products on Microsoft’s hypervisor technology, Hyper-V, we have a whole new category of apps we are being asked to help move to Windows Azure. One common pattern that’s been emerging is for the need for Linux/Apache/Java solutions to run in Azure at the same level of “density” that is available via traditional hosting providers. If you were an ISV (Independent Software Vendor) hosting solutions for individual customers, you may choose to accomplish this by giving each customer a unique URI and binding that to a specific Apache module, sometimes based on a unique IP address that is associated with a customer specific URL and a unique SSL certificate. This results in a scenario that requires multiple IP’s per server.

As you may have heard, the internet starting to run a bit short on IP addresses. So supporting multiple public IP’s per server is a difficult proposition for a cloud, as well as some traditional hosting providers. To that end we’ve seen new technologies emerge such as SNI (Server Name Indication) and use of more and more proxy and request routing solutions like HaProxy, FreeBSD, Microsoft’s Application Request Routing (ARR). This is also complicated by the need for delivery highly available, fault tolerant solutions that can load balancing client traffic. This isn’t a always an easy problem to solve, especially using just application centric approaches. They require intelligent, configurable proxies and/or load balancers. Precisely the kind of low level management the cloud is supposed to help us get away from.

But today, I’m here to share one solution I created for a customer that I think addresses some of this need. Using Microsoft’s ARR modules for IIS, hosted in Windows Azure’s IaaS service, as a reverse proxy for a high-density application hosting solution.

Disclaimer: This article assumes you are familiar with creating/provisioning virtual machines in Windows Azure and then remoting into them to further alter their configurations. Additionally, you will need a basic understanding of IIS and how to make changes to it via the IIS Manager console. I’m also aware of there being a myriad of ways to accomplish what we’re trying to do with this solution. This is simply one possible solution.

Overview of the Scenario and proposed solution

Here’s the outline of a potential customer’s scenario:

  • We have two or more virtual machines hosted in Windows Azure that are configured for high availability. Each of these virtual machines is identical, and hosts several web applications.
  • The web applications consist of two types:
    • Stateful web sites, accessed by end users via a web browser
    • Stateless APIs accessed by a “rich client” running natively on a mobile device
  • The “state” of the web sites is stored in an in-memory user session store that is specific to the machine on which the session was started. So all subsequent requests made during that session must be routed to the same server. This is referred to as ‘session affinity’ or ‘sticky sessions’.
  • All client requests will be over SSL (on port 443), to a unique URL specific to a given application/customer.
  • Each site/URL has its own unique SSL certificate
  • SSL Offloading (decryption of HTTPS traffic prior to its receipt by the web application) should be enabled to reduce the load on the web servers.

As you can guess based on the title of this article my intent is to solve this problem using Application Request Routing (aka ARR), a free plug-in for Windows Server IIS. ARR is an incredibly powerful utility that can be used to do many things, including acting as a reverse proxy to help route requests in a way that is completely transparent to the requestor. Combined with other features of IIS 8.0, it is able to meet the needs of the scenario we just outlined.

For my POC, I use four virtual machines within a single Windows Azure cloud service (a cloud service is simply a container that virtual machines can be placed into that provides a level of network isolation). On-premises we had the availability provided by the “titanium eggshell” that is robust hardware, but in the cloud we need to protect ourselves from potential outages by running multiple instances configured to help minimize downtimes. To be covered by Windows Azure’s 99.95% uptime SLA, I am required to run multiple virtual machine instances placed into an availability set. But since the Windows Azure Load Balancer doesn’t support sticky sessions, I need something in the mix to deliver this functionality.

The POC will consist of two layers, the ARR based Reverse Proxy layer, and the web servers. To get the Windows Azure SLA, each layer will have two virtual machines: two running ARR with public endpoints for SSL traffic (port 443) and two set up as our web servers, but since these will sit behind our reverse proxy, they will not have any public endpoints (outside of remote desktop to help with initial setup). Requests will come in from various clients (web browsers or devices) and arrive at the Windows Azure Load Balancer. The load balancer will then distribute the traffic equally across our two reserve proxy virtual machines where the requests are processed by IIS and ARR and routed based on the rules we will configure to the proper applications on the web servers, each running on a unique port. Optionally, ARR will also handle the routing of requests to a specific web server, ensuring that “session affinity” is maintained. The following diagram illustrates the solution.

The focus on this article in on how we can leverage ARR to fulfill the scenario in a way that’s “cloud friendly”. So while the original customer scenario called for Linux/Apache servers, I’m going to use Windows Server/IIS for this POC. This is purely a decision of convenience since it has been a LONG time since I set up a Linux/Apache web server. Additionally, while the original scenario called for multiple customers, each with their own web applications/modules (as shown in the diagram), I just need to demonstrate the URI to specific application routing. So as you’ll see in later in the article, I’m just going to set up a couple of web applications.

Note: While we can have more than two web servers, I’ve limited the POC to two for the sake of simplicity. If you want to run, 3, 10, or 25, it’s just a matter of creating the additional servers and adding them to the ARR web farms as we’ll be doing later in this article.

Setting up the Servers in Windows Azure

If you’re used to setting up Virtual Machines in Windows Azure, this is fairly straight forward. We start by creating a cloud service and two storage accounts. The reason for the two is that I really want to try and maximize the uptime of the solution. And if all the VM’s had their hard-drives in a single storage account and that account experienced a sustained service interruption, my entire solution could be taken-offline.

NOTE: The approach to use multiple storage accounts does not guarantee availability. This is a personal preference to help, even if in some small part, mitigate potential risk.

You can also go so far as to define a virtual network for the machines with separate subnets for the front and back end. However, this should not be required for the solution to work as the cloud service container gives us DNS resolution within its boundaries. However, the virtual network can be used to help manage visibility and security of the different virtual machine instances.

Once the storage accounts are created, I create the first of our two “front end” ARR servers by provisioning a new Windows Server 2012 virtual machine instance. I give it a meaningful name like “ARRFrontEnd01” and make sure that I also create an availability set and define a HTTPS endpoint on port 443. If you’re using the Management portal, be sure to select the “from gallery” option as opposed to ‘quick create’ as it will give you additional options when provisioning the VM instance and allow you to more easily set the cloud service, availability set, and storage account. After the first virtual machine is created, create a second, perhaps “ARRFrontEnd02”, and “attach” it to the first instance by associating it with the endpoint we created while provisioning the previous instance.

Once our “front end” machines are provisioned, we set up two more Windows Server 2012 instances for our web servers, “WebServer01” and “WebServer02”. However, since these machines will be behind our front end servers, we won’t declare any public endpoints for ports 80 or 443, just leave the defaults.

When complete, we should have four virtual machine instances, two that are load balanced via Windows Azure on port 433 and will act as our ARR front end servers and our two that will act as our web servers.

Now before we can really start setting things up, we’ll need to remote desktop into each of these servers and add a few roles. When we log on, we should see the Server Manager dashboard. Select “Add roles and features” from the “configure this local server” box.

In the “Add Roles and Features” wizard, skip over the “Before you Begin” (if you get it), and select the role-based installation type.

On the next page, we’ll select the current server from the server pool (the default) and proceed to adding the “Web Server (IIS)” server role.

This will pop-up another dialog confirming the features we want added. Namely the Management Tools and IIS Management Console. So take the defaults here and click “Add Features” to proceed.

The next page in the Wizard is “Select Features”. We’ve already selected what we needed when we added the role, so click on “Next” until you arrive at the “Select Role Services”. There are two optional role services here I’d recommend you consider adding. Health and Diagnostic Tracing will be helpful if we have to troubleshoot our ARR configuration later and The IIS Management Scripts and Tools will be essential if we want to automate the setup of any of this at a later date (but that’s another blog post for another day). Below is a composite image that shows these options selected.

It’s also a good idea to double-check here and make sure that the IIS Management Console is selected. It should be by default since it was part of the role features we included earlier. But it doesn’t hurt to be safe. J

With all this complete, go ahead and create several sites on the two web servers. We can leave the default site on port 80, but create two more HTTP sites. I used 8080 and 8090 for the two sites, but feel free to pick available ports that meet your needs. Just be sure to go into the firewall settings of that server enable inbound connections on these ports. I also went into the sites and changed the HTML so I could tell which server and which app I was getting results back from (something like “Web1 – SiteA” works fine).

Lastly, test the web sites from our two front end servers to make sure they can connect by logging into those servers and opening a web browser and enter in the proper address. This will be something like HTTP://<servername>:8080/iisstart.htm. The ‘servername’ parameter is simply the name we gave the virtual machine when it was provisioned. Make sure that you can hit both servers and all three apps from both of our proxy servers before proceeding. If these fail to connect, the most likely cause is an issue in the way the IIS site was defined, or an issue with the firewall configuration on the web server preventing the requests from being received.

Install ARR and setting up for HA

With our server environment now configured, and some basic web sites we can balance traffic against, it’s time to define our proxy servers. We start by installing ARR 3.0 (the latest version as of this writing and compatible with IIS 8.0. You can download it from here, or install it via the Web Platform Installer (WebPI). I would recommend this option, as WebPI will also install any dependencies and can be scripted. Fortunately, when you open up the IIS Manager for the first time and select the server, it will ask if you want to install the “Microsoft Web Platform” and open up a browser to allow you to download it. After a few adding a few web sites to the ‘trusted zone’ (and enabling file downloads when in the ‘internet’ zone), you’ll be able to download and install this helpful tool. Once installed, run it and enter “Application Request” into the search bar. We want to select version 3.0.

Now that ARR is installed (which we have to do on both of our proxy servers), let’s talk about setting this up for high availability. We hopefully placed both or proxy servers into an availability set and load balanced the 443 endpoint as mentioned above. This allows both servers to act as our proxy. But we have two possible challenges yet:

  1. How to maintain the ARR setup across two servers
  2. Ensure that session affinity (aka sticky sessions) works with multiple, load balanced ARR servers

Fortunately, there’s a couple of decent
blog posts on IIS.NET about this subject. Unfortunately, these appear to have been written by folks that are familiar with IIS, networking, pings and pipes, and a host of other items. But as always, I’m here to try and help cut through all that and put this stuff in terms that we can all relate too. And hopefully in such a way that we don’t lose any important details.

To leverage Windows Azure’s compute SLA, we will need to run two instances of our ARR machines and place them into an availability set. We set up both these servers earlier, and hopefully properly placed them into an availability set with a load balanced endpoint on port 443. This allows the Windows Azure fabric to load balanced traffic between the two instances. Also, should updates to the host server (where our VMs run) or the fabric components be necessary, we can minimize the risk of both ARR servers being taken offline at the same time.

This configuration leads us to the options highlighted in the blog post I linked previously, “Using Multiple Instances of Application Request Routing (AAR) Servers“. The article discusses using Shared Configuration and External Cache. A Shared Configuration allows two ARR servers to share their confiurations. By leveraging a shared configuration, changes made to one ARR server will automatically be leveraged by the other because both servers will share a single applicationhost.config file. The External Cache is used to allow both ARR servers to share affinity settings. So if a client’s first request is sent to a given back end web server, then all subsequent requests will be sent to that same back end server regardless of which ARR server receives the request.

For this POC, I decided not to use either option. Both require a shared network location. I could put this on either ARR server, but this creates a single point of failure. And since our objective is to ensure the solution remains as available as possible, I didn’t want to take a dependency that would ultimately reduce the potential availability of the overall solution. As for the external cache, for this POC I only wanted to have server affinity for one of the two web sites since the POC is mocking up both round-robin load balancing for requests that may be more like an API. For requests that are from a web browser, instead of using shared cache, we’ll use “client affinity”. This option returns a browser cookie that contains all the routing information needed by ARR to ensure that subsequent requests are sent to the same back end server. This is the same approach used by the Windows Azure Java SDK and Windows Azure Web Sites.

So to make a long story short, if we’ve properly set up our two ARR server in an availability set, with load balanced endpoints, there’s no additional high level configuration necessary to set up the options highlighted in the “multiple instances” article. We can get what we need within ARR itself.

Configure our ARR Web Farms

I realize I’ve been fairly high level with my setup instructions so far. But many of these steps have been fairly well documented and up until this point we’ve been painting with a fairly broad brush. But going forward I’m going to get more detailed since it’s important that we properly set this all up. Just remember, that each of the steps going forward will need to be executed on each of our ARR servers since we opted not to leverage the Shared Configuration.

The first step after our servers have been set up is to configure the web farms. Open the IIS Manager on one of our ARR servers and (provided our ARR 3.0 install was completed successfully), we should see the “Server Farm” node. Right-click on that node and select “Create Server Farm” from the pop-up menu as shown in the image at the right. A Server Farm is a collection of servers that we will have ARR route traffic to. It’s the definition of this farm that will control aspects like request affinity and load balancing behaviors as well as which servers will receive traffic.

The first step in setting up the farm is to add our web servers. Now in building my initial POC, this is the piece that caused me the most difficulty. Not because creating the server farm was difficult, but because there’s one thing that’s not apparent to those of us that aren’t intimately familiar with web hosting and server farms. Namely that we need to consider a server farm to be specific to one of our applications. It’s this understanding that helps us realize that we need the definition of the server farm to help us route requests coming to the ARR server on one port, to be routed to the proper port(s) on the destination back end servers. We’ll do this as we add each server to the farm using the following steps…

After clicking on “Create Server Farm”, provide a name for the farm. Something suitable of course…

After entering the farm name and clicking on the “Next” button, we’ll be presented with the “Add Server” dialog. In this box, we’ll enter in the name of each of our back end servers but more importantly we need to make sure we expand the “Advanced Settings” options so we can also specify the port on that server we want to target. In my case, I’m going to a ‘Web1’, the name of the server I want to add and I want to set ‘httpPort’ to 8080.

We’re able to do this because Windows Azure handles DNS resolution for the servers I added to the cloud service. And since they’re all in the same cloud service, we can address each server on any ports those servers will allow. There’s no need to define endpoints for connections between servers in the same cloud service. So we’ll complete the process by clicking on the ‘Add’ button and then doing the same for my second web server, ‘Web2’. We’ll receive a prompt about the creation of a default a rewrite rule, click on the “No” button to close the dialog.

It’s important to set the ‘httpPort’ when we add the servers. I’ve been unable to find a way to change this port via the IIS Manager UI once the server has been added. Yes you can change it via appcmd, powershell, or even directly editing the applicationhost.config, but that’s a topic for another day. J

Now to set the load balancing behavior and affinity we talked about earlier, we select the newly created server farm from the tree and we’ll see the icons presented below:

If we double-click on the Load Balance icon, it will open a dialog box that allows us to select from the available load balancing algorithms. For the needs of this POC, Least Recent Request and Weighted Round Robin would both work suitably. Select the algorithm you prefer and click on “Apply”. To set the cookie based client affinity I mentioned earlier, you can double click on the “Server Affinity” option and then check the box for “Client Affinity”.

The final item that we will make sure is enabled here is SSL Offloading. We can verify this by double-clicking on “Routing Rules” and verifying that “Enabled SSL Offloading” is checked which is should be by default.

Now it’s a matter of repeating this process for our second application (I put it on port 8090) as well as setting up the same two farms on the other ARR server.

Setting up the URL Rewrite Rule

The next step is to set up the URL rewrite rule that will tell ARR how to route requests for each of our applications to the proper web farm. But before we can do that, we need to make sure we have two unique URI’s, one for each of our applications. If you scroll up and refer to the diagram that provides the overview of our solution, you’ll see that an end user request to the solution are directed at custaweb.somedomian.com and device api calls are directed to custbweb.somedomain.com. So we will need to create an aliasing DNS entry for these names and alias them to the *.cloudapp.net URI that is the entry point of the cloud service where this solution resides. We can’t use just a forwarding address for this but need a true CNAME alias.

Presuming that has already been setup, we’re ready to create the URL rule for our re-write behavior.

We’ll start by selecting the web server itself in the IIS server manager and double clicking the URL Rewrite icon as shown below.

This will open the list of URL rewrite rules, and we’ll select “add rules…” form the action menu on the right. Select to create a blank inbound rule. Give the rule an appropriate name, and complete the sections as shown in the following images.

Matching URL

This section details what incoming request URI’s this rule should be applied too. I have set it up so that all inbound requests will be evaluated.

Conditions

Now as it stands, this rule would route nearly any request. So we need have to add a condition to the rule to associate it with a specific request URL. We need to expand the “Conditions” section and click on “Add…”. We specify “{HTTP_HOST}” as the input condition (what to check) and set the condition’s type is a simple pattern match. And for the pattern itself, I opted to use a regular expression that looks at the first part of the domain name and makes sure it contains the value “^custAweb.*” (as we highlighted in the diagram at the top). In this way we ensure that the rule will only be applied to one of the two URI’s in our sample.

Action

The final piece of the rule is to define the action. For our type, we’ll select “Route to Server Farm”, keep HTTP as the scheme, and specify the appropriate server farm. And for the path, we’ll leave the default value of “/{R:0}”. The final piece of this tells ARR to add any paths or parameters that were in the request URL to the forwarded request.

Lastly, we have the option of telling ARR that if we execute this rule, we should not process any subsequent rules. This can be checked or unchecked depending on your needs. You may desire to set up a “default” page for requests that don’t meet any of our other rules. In which case just make sure you don’t “stop processing of subsequent rules” and place that default rule at the bottom of the list.

This completes the basics of setting up of our ARR based reverse proxy. Only one more step remains.

Setting up SNI and SSL Offload

Now that we have the ARR URL Rewrite rules in place, we need to get all the messiness with the certificates out of the way. We’ll assume, for the sake of argument, that we’ve already created a certificate and added it to the proper local machine certificate store. If you’re unsure how to do this, you can find some instructions in this article.

We start by creating web site for the inbound URL. Select the server in the IIS Manager and right-click it to get the pop-up menu. This open the “Add Website” dialog which we will complete to set up the site.

Below you’ll find some settings I used. The site name is just a descriptive name that will appear in the IIS manager. For the physical path, I specified the same path as the “default” site that was created when we installed IIS. We could specify our own site, but that’s really not necessary unless you want to have a placeholder page in case something goes wrong with the ARR URL Rewrite rules. And since we’re doing SSL for this site, be sure to set the binding type to ‘https’ and specify the host name that matches the inbound URL that external clients will use (aka our CNAME). Finally, be sure to check “Require Server Name Indication” to make sure we support Server Name Indication (SNI).

And that’s really all there is to it. SSL offloading was already configured for us by default when we created the server farm (feel free to go back and look for the checkbox). So all we had to do was make sure we had a site defined in IIS that could be used to resolve the certificate. This will process the encryption duties, then ARR will pick up the request for processing against our rules.

Debugging ARR

So if we’ve done everything correctly, it should just work. But if it doesn’t, debugging ARR can be a bit of a challenge. You may recall that back when we installed ARR, I suggested also installing the tracing and logging features. If you did, these can be used to help troubleshoot some issue as outlined in this article from IIS.NET. While this is helpful, I also wanted to leave you with one other tip I ran across. If possible, use a browser on the server we’re configured ARR on to access the various web sites locally. While this won’t do any routing unless you set up some local DNS entries to help with resolving to the local machine, it will show you more than a stock “500” error. By accessing the local IIS server from within, we can get more detailed error messages that help us understand what may be wrong with our rules. It won’t allow you to fix everything, but could sometimes be helpful.

I wish I had more for you on this, but ARR is admittedly a HUGE topic, especially for something that’s a ‘free’ add-on to IIS. This blog post is the results of several days of experimentation and self-learning. And even with this time invested, I would never presume to call myself an expert on this subject. So please forgive if I didn’t get into enough depth.

With this, I’ll call this article to a close. I hope you find this information useful and I hope to revisit this topic again soon. One item I’m still keenly interested in is how to automate these tasks. Something that will be extremely useful for anyone that has to provision new ‘apps’ into our server farm on a regular basis. Until next time then!

Postscript

I started this post in October 2013 and apologize for the delay in getting it out. We were hoping to get it published as a full-fledge magazine article but it just didn’t work out. So I’m really happy to finally get this out “in the wild”. I’d also like to give props to Greg, Gil, David, and Ryan for helping do technical reviews. They were a great help but I’m solely responsible for any grammar or spelling issues contained here-in. If you see something, please call it out in the comments or email me and I’m happy to make corrections.

This will also hopefully be the first of a few ARR related posts/project I plan to share over the next few weeks/months. Enjoy!

Cloud Computing News Digest for September 21st, 2012

I normally publish this over at my Sogeti blog at http://blogs.us.sogeti.com/ccdigest/ but that’s down at the moment so we’re going to my backup copy. I know, the self proclaimed “cloud guy” isn’t in the cloud. Well there’s an old saying that goes something like ‘the cobbler’s children have no shoes’. Smile

I’d say I’m late with this edition but this is developing into enough of a pattern that I think I’m just going to start thinking of monthly as the new weekly J So on to the news…

The Cloud Security Alliance (CSA) and Fujitsu announced the launch of the Big Data Working Group. The intent of this organization is to help the industry by bringing forth best practices for security and privacy when working with big data. They will start focused on research across several industry verticals with their first report due sometime this fall.

At the 2012 CloudOpen conference this past August, Suse announced their OpenStack based enterprise level private cloud solution called amazingly enough “Suse Cloud”. This IaaS based solution would help organizations deploy and manage private clouds with self-service and workload standardization capabilities.

I also found an article about a competitor to OpenStack, Eucalyptus. SearchCloudComputing has published a “deep dive” into using Eucalpytus 3.1. You’ll need to register as a member (its free) to read the full article

In my job, I’m often asked what skills are needed for cloud. This article by Joe McKendrick does a nice job of covering the list. Not just for individuals, but for organizations as well.

When you talk to cloud vendors, they will eventually reference PEU (Power to Energy Utilization) statistics in some way. But as this piece by David Linthicum over at Toolbox.com explains, the real savings are in the ability to adjust to changing needs and in turn, changing our consumption.

Last month the world watched the 2012 Summer Olympics. And it turns out the cloud played a major hand in helping deliver that content around the globe. Windows Azure Media Services helped deliver live and on-demand video content to several broadcasters. Eyes weren’t just on the games as Apica, a vendor of testing and monitoring solutions, monitored various Olympics related web sites and scored them for their uptime and performance.

For this edition I also found a presentation by Adrian Cockcroft of Netflix on the Cassandra (another noSQL database solution) Performance and Scalability on AWS. Even if you don’t plan to use Cassandra, I highly recommend listen to this and picking up what you can of their approach and learnings. The video lasts about an hour.

Pfizer (the drug…. er… pharmaceutical company), also ventured into the world of cloud computing to help with supply chain issues. If you ever wondered about your critical delivery, what about getting lifesaving medicine to patients.

On the Google front, they haven’t been quite. They recently launched the Google Cloud Partner Program, giving them a way to help promote and leverage delivery partners not unlike the programs already in place at Amazon and Microsoft.

Related to topics that are close to my heart, I have a great article on resilient solution engineering from Jesse Robbins at GameDay. Having all this capacity for disaster recovery and failover doesn’t do us much good if we won’t create solutions that can take advantage of it. And on the subject of architecture, just yesterday I ran across this great list of items for architectural principles taken from Will Larson’s “Introduction to Architecting Systems for Scale”. Definitely give this a read.

And to close out this edition, I have an info graphics on enterprise cloud adoption. I’m not a big fan of infographics, but I found this one useful and figured I’d share it with all of you.

Avoiding the Chaos Monkey

Yesterday I was pleased (and nervous) to be presenting at the Heartland Developers Conference in Omaha, NE. I’ve been hoping to present at this event for a couple years and was really pleased that one of my submissions was accepted. Especially given that the topic was more architect/concept then code. It was only my second time presenting this material and the first time for a non-captive audiance. And given that it was the 2pm slot, and only a handful of people fell asleep or left, I’m pretty pleased with how things went.

I’ve posted the deck for my Avoiding the Chaos Monkey presentation so please feel free to take and reuse. I just ask that you give proper credit and I’d love any feedback on it. I received some great feedback from HDC on the material and will be making some updates that show some real world scenarios and how applying the principles covered in this presentation can address them. I spoke to some of these during the presentation, but agreed with my colleague Eric that it would help to have more concrete and visual examples to drive the message home. I’ve already submitted the talk to two upcoming conferences and hopefully it will get accepted at one. Meanwhile, feel free to snag a copy and drop me a comment with any feedback you have!

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