I like the web.[configuration].config replacement technique that is now available in Visual Studio, and for most files, you can now get this functionality with another plugin called SlowCheetah. However, SlowCheetah can't work with plain old .txt files like robots.txt. If you're like me, you really just need to swap out some robots.txt file that says "index my site" with another that says "don't index, you never saw this staging server". In this case, the solution is simple enough -- Pre-Build Event. Do the follow:

1) Right-click on your project and select "Properties".

2) Select "Build Events". Here is where we are going to add a single magic line.

 

3) Here is where we are going to add a single magic line which copies one of my versions to the root as robots.txt:

copy $(ProjectDir)Content\robots_txt\robots.$(ConfigurationName).txt $(ProjectDir)robots.txt /Y

Note that I am storing my different robots.[ConfigurationName].txt versions in /Content/robots_txt - you can put this anywhere that make sense in your project just change the first argument of copy command.

 

4) That's it! Change your configuration and then build the solution. You should see the different robots.txt file in your solution.

Part of the reason I choose C# for larger web projects, and a big reason I point to when people ask me about my tech preferences is the nice, clean, managed strongly-typed objects. "I want to know if I'm using my variables correctly at compile time, not after users start getting errors". Is this short sided of me? Am I being a code-purist, or prude?

About 6 months ago I started to let my guard down. There was a really great article written by Alexandra Rusina in the February 2011 issue of MSDN that gives you the C# skinny on var, dynamic, and object:

Understanding the Dynamic Keyword in C# http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/magazine/gg598922.aspx

Having read that, I get the difference, but why do I want to dance around without the fences? Why treat the standard int the same I would a string / value pair? It's chaos. It's all "var", it's groovy, right? No. What is this, PHP?

My "ah ha" moment was a couple weeks ago at the Mix11 conference in Las Vegas. I do a lot of Facebook development, and a lot of pulling my hair out because of the world of pain that is Facebook development. With facebook, you can get at user data using their old REST apis, their FQL queries, FQL multi-queries, and now their Graph APIs (and GraphAPIs with queries). The strongly typed control freak in me was declaring objects like "FriendLinks", "Friend", "FamilyConnection", "PhotoTag", etc. It got out of control. At Mix, I was really eager to hear from the creator of one of the C# libraries for Facebook, Jim Zimmerman about the status of his library, Facebook C# SDK. If you do Facebook development I highly recommend watching his talk in its entirety: http://channel9.msdn.com/Events/MIX/MIX11/OPN06 

What struck me the most of Jim's talk is that Jim feels my pain. For as much as Facebook can give a developer, they hide it in cracks and corners of their API. Sometimes you have to call their Graph API, get a result, then call an FQL query. Sometimes the result changes with new data because they've introduced a new feature. Deprecation of older APIs is quick. It's a very dynamic API. Which is exactly what led Jim to create the SDK the way he did. "I'm not writing a wrapper API around Facebook", he says with absolute conviction. I don't blame him. Instead, this SDK gives developers the tools we need.

I decided to give it a whirl. Here's the easy one, the Graph API for getting "me" (this user):

var client = new FacebookWebClient();

dynamic me = client.Get("me");
ViewBag.Name = me.name;
ViewBag.Id = me.id;

Nice! Now, no matter what Facebook adds to the "user" object, I can take advantage of it. if they added a profile property favorite_candy, it's just me.favorite_candy, and I've got it implemented. OK, but I might not mind adding a property to a Facebook.User object. So this is kinda cool, but I'm not totally sold.

Next, I'm going to commit to start poking around at some of the FQL (Facebook Query Language) tables I can query: http://developers.facebook.com/docs/reference/fql/, specifically, I want to query for all the photos I am tagged in from the photo_tag table: http://developers.facebook.com/docs/reference/fql/photo_tag/

var query0 = "SELECT pid FROM photo_tag WHERE subject=me()"; //photos I am tagged in

try
{
    var result = (IList<object>)client.Query(query0);
}
catch (FacebookApiException ex)
{
    throw;
}

Here's the data just back from Facebook's servers (I'm tagged in 356 photos):

Nice! So, I can make up queries and get back dynamic objects. OK, so that's cool, but even these smaller name/value pair type queries STILL hadn't sold me on ditching my safe zone of inteli-sense warm fuziness. Here's the clincher. I want all friends who are tagged with me in photos, and which photo we were tagged, as well as when that tag happened. Yes, you read that correctly. This scenario gave me pause and excitement. I don't want a strongly typed object anymore. Also, I need an FQL Multi-query to make this happen, starting with the query above where I select the photo ids of all the photos I am in. Here's that using the C# SDK:

 

var query0 = "SELECT pid FROM photo_tag WHERE subject=me()"; //photos tagged in
var query1 = "SELECT pid,subject,created,text FROM photo_tag WHERE pid IN (SELECT pid FROM #query0)"; //friends tagged in photos with me
try
{
    var result = (IList<object>)client.Query(query0, query1); //multi-query

    var resultPhotosUserIn = ((IDictionary<string,object>)result[0])["fql_result_set"];
    var resultTagsOfPeopleInPhotos = ((IDictionary<string,object>)result[1])["fql_result_set"];
}
catch (FacebookApiException ex){
     // Note: make sure to handle this exception.
     throw;
}

And here's my new frankenstein object. What's nice is if I didn't qet the FQL query right, or those data fields returned data differently than I expected, I can preview it in the debugger.

This makes a lot of sense now. If you're doing a lot of interesting Facebook queries, dynamic variables are your friends. Jim's approach also makes sense. As the Facebook API changes, he doesn't have to rush to his computer to update wrapper classes that we all have to wait to download.

Oh, and to sweeten the deal, this Facebook C# SDK is available as a NuGet package. Check out the install guides. Using NuGet you can have all this magic in your project in 5 minutes. 

Overview

This isn't a quick read, but I'm attempting to hit quite a few of the decision points I made migrating to Azure. I was skeptical, but as a result I have a nicer site architecture that is extremely scalable. I'm hoping that by laying out these areas where I had to pause and investigate I can better inform you on how to get "in the cloud".

The Scenario

Everyone's got their "big idea". We're gunna be like Mark Zuckerberg, but bigger, and we're going to get there faster. Well, maybe not, but, you probably have a big idea and you're concerned about the scenario that the site gets more traffic than your hardware can manage because of an outside event, the "Oprah effect". A few months ago I launched FoodBusterGame.com for the White House Apps For Healthy Kids contest. I decided to give Azure a try and also to be ready in case we won and a national press release got us that huge spike of users. For you, it might be your next big thing, your twitter or facebook.

So let's run with that, your next big thing gets mentioned on Oprah. Since you had a feeling the diva of TV might for some reason king your site you may done some / all of the following (in order of $$):

Less Scalable / Cheaper:

  • Spoken with your hosting plan about if they can increase the resources to your site
  • Paid for a Virtual Machine (VM) which can have it's resources expanded, to a point
  • Hosted on some VM cloud service like Amazon EC2, where you could deploy more copies of a site but you haven't figured out load balancing
  • Have a dedicated server hosted, and another one in a box ready to be co-located as well.

More Scalable / Expensive:

  • Have an EC2 load balanced setup with multiple VMs for database, web, and maybe a CDN
  • Have a load balancer, a database server and a web server, have rack space for more.
  • Have a server farm, with load balancing ready to go, even while you only have 20 users.

All of these scenarios crossed my mind, and I've heard of a people implementing few other general patterns.

Furthermore, I know how to set up simple load balancing for a scalable website, I've done it at work. You basically want to assume that a client will hit the load balancer, and get Server 1 on a request, but maybe get Server 2 on the second one. Server 2 needs to have access to that user's Session data, so you have to put that session data in a shared space, like the database. Same thing with any files they upload / need to get back; there needs to be some shared storage.

However, most of us don't start out our website projects with this in mind. We do a File -> New Project and let ASP.NET store the session information in memory, and we upload user files to a folder on the hard drive of the server. That's where I started at least, and it has worked for years on small to medium web projects.

My trip to the clouds

I'll admit, last year at PDC09 I was initially a little skeptical of Azure. It seemed too "pie in the sky" (excuse the pun) to rely on, too perscribed / limiting, and too different from my normal Web Server / Database Server combo duo I've gotten used to. However, the more I use Azure, the more it has forced me to modify my project in a way that I could handle the Oprah scenario. I say "forced" because I resisted. I found that while I still had options, the more scalable, better practices began to reveal themselves. Here's how Azure made me scalable:

Step 1 - Trying to get away with the old way - everything on one Azure Web Role VM & SQL Azure

Without much fuss I was able to use the Windows Azure SDK to re-create my site in an Azure Visual Studio project. I put my project up on Azure, my tables copied to SQL Azure using SQL Migration Wizard, bada bing, I'm "in the clounds". It shouldn't be much of a surprise that you can do this because even though you don't have access to it, every Azure instance is a Windows Server VM. In fact soon Microsoft will allow remote access to these (although I'm trying to avoid needing that for simple deployment / re-deployment).

So then I thought "ok, great, I'm in the clouds". BUT, guess what happens when you want to move from 1 instance to 2? Azure adds a load balancer which does round-robin traffic directing like my datacenter example above. A user might be interacting with Server 1 on one request, then Server 2 on another. The problem occurs if I log in on one server, but on the next request I was no longer logged having hit Server 2....

Step 2 - Attempt to put my Session State in the SQL cloud

In the traditional on-site server farm scenario what I'd do is just use the ASP.NET Session State SQL provider and point my web servers to all manage session in a SQL Server database. It's pretty quick and easy. You can build the SQL tables using a single command, and you add a couple lines to your web.config on each server and you're done -- all servers share session data.

My first inclination was to try to do the exact same thing using SQL Azure. Turns out it works, but with one issue. When you do this on a physical SQL server there is a scheduled job that runs every so often to invalidate old / expired sessions. SQL Azure doesn't support timed jobs, and so you'd have to figure out a way to run the "DeleteExpiredSessions" stored procedure regularly, otherwise you'll get people logging in with stale sessions. Here's a blog that suggests you have to create a worker role (another VM type which can run a looped / repeated code): http://blogs.msdn.com/b/sqlazure/archive/2010/08/04/10046103.aspx. This seems like overkill, setting up a full VM instance just to run a command every minute or two. Maybe you could justify it if the worker role had a whole slew of other things it was doing.

My next thought was to try to game the system, keep it all in one VM and somehow run that SP (bad, ugly coding, performance degrading thoughts ensued, I was glad to see that I'm not the only one (see the comments, esp by Michael Lang: http://blogs.msdn.com/b/sqlazure/archive/2010/08/04/10046103.aspx)

Step 3 - Embrace the SessionState in Table Storage

When Azure was first launched there wasn't SQL Azure. The developers asked, and Microsoft responded with a full relational DB in the clouds. The initial thought was that we'd use table storage. That understood, a lot of the common scenarios are worked out nicely to run in TableStorage.  SessionState is one of those.

I found this great blog post that helped walk me through TableStorage: http://www.intertech.com/Blog/post/Session-State-in-Windows-Azure.aspx

As the author points out, you'll need to include the AspProviders project found in the Azure Demos. This will give you the library you need: Microsoft.Samples.ServiceHosting.AspProviders.TableStorageSessionStateProvider 

*Note: I'd like to echo the sentiment that this library should get added to some part of the Azure SDK, in a more permanent namespace because of how important / useful it is.

**Note: I also recommend forking over a few bucks for the Cerebrate Cloud Storage tool to view your Table / Blob storage in Azure. Big time saver.

Step 4 - Make Deploy Fun & Easy

If you use Azure in a continuos production cycle you're going to be deploying a lot. Once you deploy, it takes me about 15 minutes until the whole site is up in "staging". Do yourself a favor and set up Azure deployment in Visual Studio. If you do this right, you click "Publish" and you can walk away and get a snack while your entire site goes up for staging. Here's a great blog post on how to set this up: http://blogs.infragistics.com/blogs/anton_staykov/archive/2010/08/31/how-to-publish-your-windows-azure-application-right-from-visual-studio-2010.aspx

Behold the beauty of right-click, "Publish": 

Step 5 - Blob Storage

Think of blob storage as your high-availability common file area. If a user uploads his / her profile photo, you'd put it here. The best news is that your project automatically has blog storage, and you only page for what you use. I followed this demo on setting up blob and it was pretty easy: http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/wazplatformtrainingcourse_exploringwindowsazurestoragevs2010_topic3.aspx

If you just want a quick-fix for saving to and reading from Azure, create a helper class and grab out of that example the following few methods:

  • EnsureContainerNotExists
  • GetContainer
  • SaveFile
  • DeleteFile

(again, use the Cerebrate tools to view the contents)

Step 6 - Set it all up in ServiceConiguration.csfg (and ServiceDefinition.csdef)

You should just be aware that a lot of your cloud settings aren't going in Web.Config. You need to reference your TableStorage account, BlobStorage account, etc in your ServiceConfiguration.csfg (and define these points in ServiceDefinition.csdef).

Conclusion

If you decide to deploy to Azure you've got a lot of options. You'll find your way pretty easily, but your first trip to the clouds is going to be your most memorable. I can safely say that I'm a fan -- the Azure mimics my way of thinking, I just had to find the right tools, samples, and syntax. I love that at any moment I can scale up to 100 instances, and then back down to just 2. Oprah, over here!!!

I recently launched Food Buster (www.foodbustergame.com) as part of the Apps For Healthy Kids competition. It's a web game that utilizes jQuery, Ajax, and JSON based web services to send information to and from the web server and the web database. When players come back to the game they pick up where they left off, logging back in to their account and seeing how many points they have.

I decided to check out the PhoneGap project in the hopes of reusing some of the code I had already done. A lot of people know and love web technologies,. I much prefer building my iPad app in HTML5, jQuery, and local storage databases using SQLite. The beauty of this all is Webkit. Phonegap is basically a full-screen web engine, and if you include the Phonegap.js file in your html page, you get access to phone hardware, native dialog boxes, some native UI elements, and on phones you get some of the phone functionality.

Before starting your phonegap app it's important to think through the strategy. It's a little bit of a paradigm shift to move an app from a server/client setup to it all built in to the device.

Here was my strategy for conversion:

 

 

Web/Server PhoneGap What it is in Food Buster
SQL Tables (referenced data sets) static JSON object file There are 2,000+ food items with calorie, fat, sugar, portion size information. I converted this to a JSON object array and created foodData.js
SQL Tables (user and game history) HTML5 Datatables (sql lite) When you return to Food Buster, all of your previous games are used to calculate your current points and you start off where you left off in the game.
jQuery .ajax() calls none, since your data is local cut them out! On the web every time a user drops a food item on to the scale
 looped data output / grids / repeated items
 jQuery Templates
Food items are repeated, results page has repeated items, etc.
jQuery Templates
jQuery Templates
Dynamically add a new food item after one is stacked, dynamically add 
 CSS CSS
All the styles, image backgrounds, and style information is 100% identical. Food Buster makes use of a large background but the main objects are in a fixed-width container which is narrower than the iPad
 Session localStorage / sessionStorage (HTML5)
While you are playing a round of the game, each item stacked on the scale sends an ajax call back to the server to identify that it has been selected. That way, if the page is refreshed, you don't have to start all over again. On the iPad, this can similarly be done using localStorage. In fact, the app can be closed and then re-launched!

Ultimately you'll have to decide how you break up your app, not all scenarios map the way I've done it. 

A couple more tips I'll share:

That's it! enjoy iOS developing using the latest and greatest of web technologies and javascript frameworks!

In a surprise move, Apple has relaxed their restrictions on which tools and languages developers can use to build apps for iPad and iPhone they previously disallowed in section 3.3.1:

"In particular, we are relaxing all restrictions on the development tools used to create iOS apps, as long as the resulting apps do not download any code," Apple said in a statement released to the press. "This should give developers the flexibility they want, while preserving the security we need."

http://arstechnica.com/apple/news/2010/09/apple-relaxes-restrictions-on-ios-app-code-iad-analytics.ars

I'm now intrigued at the propsect of the following code-reuse possibility using the Mono framework in addition to Microsoft C#. With Apple easing this restriction, C# works on:


With all of these tools, the goal is to reuse the functional (backend) code, and use the native UI (user interface) toolsets. For instance, on iPhone you still use Apple's user interface builder, but instead of combining that with backend code in Objective-C, you combine it with C# and the MonoTouch Framework(open-source .NET implementation). Same for Android, you combine it with Android's native UI builder, same with Phone 7. For the web, we use the MVC pattern which keep our functional code separate from our view (presentation code). Moving from the web to phones isn't a 1-to-1 switch, but some of our code could be cut / pasted.



But why C#? Aren't we playing in to the hands of the evil empire? Well, not really. I've said it before, C# is a great language that is as powerful as anything out there but lets developers write fewer lines of code. Like Java, we don't concern ourselves with low-level memory allocation and we get access to a powerful, tried and true tested framework for almost every web, client, server scenario you can find yourself in.


But C# isn't "free" as in "freedom", I hear. Well, more than you'd think. Microsoft released C# in a way that you, I, or for instance, Novell could freely implement the language and it is now a free ECMA standard language: http://port25.technet.com/archive/2009/07/06/the-ecma-c-and-cli-standards.aspx

As Microsoft's release explains it:"Under the Community Promise, Microsoft provides assurance that it will not assert its Necessary Claims against anyone who makes, uses, sells, offers for sale, imports, or distributes any Covered Implementation under any type of development or distribution model, including open-source licensing models such as the LGPL or GPL."

They even went so far as to apply these rules to their MVC framework, ASP.NET MVC.

Most businesses have to pick and choose to support more than one phone, which means a different code base and developer skillset. Web-based mobile apps are one approach, but are limited in capability so sometimes don't fit the need. I hope to see C# grow as a broader solution to cross-platform development.

Food Buster Game

14 Sep 2010 In: ASP.NET, Food Buster, San Diego

Apps For Healthy Kids contest /

Food Buster Logo

A couple of months ago my wife and I created a healthy app for kids called Food Buster for the USDA and Michelle Obama's Apps For Healthy Kids contest. Creating the game with my wife was a lot of fun, and I even learned a thing or two about food, calories, and exercise. What has ensued though has been nothing short of a humbling experience.  Once we had been selected as finalists we decided that should we win the popular vote we would donate the $4,500 prize to two great non-profits. This gave our efforts a purpose besides getting us to Washington D.C. and the support from friends, family, and total strangers was great.

We even got a little bit of air time from channel 6 San Diego:

We had a nice article written about us by the UCSD news, another great article in the North County Times, and just the briefest mention by the LA Times.

My wife and I had a great time building this app, getting people interested and educated about our cause and showing off our idea. We went to great lengths to get the word out, including dressing up in costume as a carrot and banana for web clips and walking around town:

 

The good news is we aren't done yet. Nope. We've got some great plans for Food Buster. New features, more interacive game playing, and better graphics, and sound. We got a lot of feedback these last few months and are excited to put it in to action.

We also just became members of a great program by Microsoft to support startups called BizSpark which helps new startup businesses get off the ground by giving them access to all the development tools Microsoft has to offer (all that  I'd ever need, that is). I'm proud to endorse this program and these tools. Building Food Buster in just a couple months in my off hours was only possible because I had access to great tools which made rapid development possible. I developed Food Buster using ASP.NET, jQuery Ajax, jQuery UI, SQL Server, and LINQ data objects.

Many thanks to Aaron and Lynn at Microsoft for inviting me to the program, setting me up with the tools and answering all the questions I had about it. We now have some very powerful tools to further develop with as well as access to some much needed server resources on the Azure cloud platform.

 

 

I'm going to PDC

14 Oct 2009 In: ASP.NET, Technology

Despite not winning the INETA grand prize, I won some great licenses to Telerik, ComponentOne, and SyncFusion components. I already use the Telerik Ajax controls on a daily basis, I'm excited to try out the ComponentOne suite and the MVC tools from SyncFusion.

And even more good news, I found out I will still be attending Microsoft PDC this year (Nov 17-19) thanks to my boss. In fact, our small team will be going -- awesome. Looking forward to learning about all the new stuff that is coming out. It seems like this year has seen more new technologies than most so it should be interesting. Plus, my brother-in-law lives 3 blocks from the LA convention center and has an extra parking space -- how perfect is that?

If anyone has any suggestions for which talks to make sure to attend please let me know! I'm halfway through a Wrox ASP.NET MVC book, and playing with LINQ and of course JQuery and fun ASP.NET 3.5 Ajax things. I'm also hoping to finish the Silverlight labs that I didn't finish at the Irvine Microsoft training. Silverlight 3 already? MVC 2.0? Geez.. it's to easy to get behind.

See you there!

My INETA Code Challenge Entry

21 Sep 2009 In: ASP.NET, Wedding Planning
Besides planning a wedding, packing for the honeymoon, getting all loose ends tied up at work, and generally being overwhelmed getting everything for the wedding I entered the INETA Component Code Challenge contest with a chance at a PDC scholarship. Due date was the week before the wedding, but we had some stuff we still had to take care of like table assignments, table tent cards, and making sure we knew who was coming / who was staying. Check out the video above -- I used some cool controls from Telerik and DevExpress. 
 
You can see the top 10 entries (including mine!) here: http://www.inetachamps.com/codechallenge
 
Aside from the bragging rights of being in the top 10 I apparently win a "prize pack" of components. Hey, that's pretty cool! 

I really like these Content Part controls (cs:ContentPart) that come on Community Server. It's a great content management system where you log in and the content area can be double-clicked and you can change the content right then an there. Even better, you can place these on any page on the site. Awesome! But the catch, sadly, is that there are 2 lines of code that make it so that only users in the "SystemAdministrator" roles get access to these nifty CMS boxes of joy.

Yuck! That means if I have a page with a Content Part I want someone else to update I have to make them a SystemAdministrator giving them access to moderate the forums, touch up any blocks, add files wherever they please... and on and on. What if I have 5 content areas / content parts on one page and I want 5 users to have access only to their own area to make updates?

I stumbled across this forum where it was explained that CS will probably address this in the next version:

http://communityserver.org/forums/t/483248.aspx

Impatient me, I've figured out a way around this for now. I'm sure the next version of CS will have a much more graceful solution but here goes--

Overview: What we’re going to do is allow more than just users in the SystemAdministrator role to edit Content Areas. To do that we will add an extra property to the CP:ContentPart control called “AllowedRoles” which will be a string of allowed roles you create who can edit the particular content area. Next, we’re going to make an exception to the 2 checks in the libraries for ContentPart and EditContent which only allow users in SystemAdministrator role to edit the ContentPart. The exception is if they are in that role or in a new role called “ContentEditor”. To allow a non-administrator rights to edit a particular ContentPart, you’ll have to add them to the new “ContentEditor” role. Then, you’ll add another role like “HomePageEditor” and use that role to assign which user can edit which ContentPart. Note: This is not a quick easy fix. If you are new to .NET you shouldn’t attempt this as it may corrupt your libraries and cause your site to go down. Also, there's a small risk that a content user could hack to edit another content panel -- users not in the ContentEditor group aren't a risk, please read the disclaimer in my document.

 

I'm posting a step by step guide here:

http://www.aaroncoleman.name/cs_contentarea_fix/cs_fix_paper.doc

http://www.aaroncoleman.name/cs_contentarea_fix/ContentPart.cs

http://www.aaroncoleman.name/cs_contentarea_fix/EditContent.cs

and more files:


http://www.aaroncoleman.name/cs_contentarea_fix/

 

You'll see 2 options -- one with all the steps you'll need to edit the source code in the CS 2.1 SP2 SDK, and the other to simply copy my CommunityServer.Controls.dll file to your bin directory and overwrite the existing one -- make sure you're on CS 2.1 SP2. You'll still need to do steps 1 and 4 in my guide. (UPDATE: I was very politely contacted by the Community Server team and asked to remove the .DLL option. It's against their terms and while I like to think I'm a pretty trustworthy guy someone more malicious could write themselves a backend hole to get in to your site. Sorry, no .DLL but the other option is easy enough.)

Thanks to the Community Server team for such an awesome product.


I'll check back to answer questions on this forum.

--Aaron


P.S. If you're the kind of person who feels the need to give because of all the doors this opens up.. consider a donation of any size to www.savedarfur.org, a cause I believe is within our reach.