Running your app on Windows Server Core Containers

Most of the day I work on an app which makes use of NServiceBus. If you've ever talked to me about messaging, then you know that I'm all over messaging like a ferret in a sock.
Sock Ferret

So I'm, understandibly, a pretty big fan of NServiceBus - for the most part. The thing with architecting your solution to use SOA or Microservices or whatever we're calling it these days is that you end up with a lot of small applications. Figuring out how to deploy these can be a bit of a pain as your system grows. One solution I like is to make use of the exciting upcoming world of containers. I've deployed a few ASP.NET Core applications to a container but NServiceBus doesn't work on dotnet Core so I need to us a Windows container here.

First up is to download the ISO for Windows Server Core 2016 from Microsoft. You can do that for free here. I provisioned a virtual box VM and installed Windows using the downloaded ISO. I chose to use windows server core as opposed to the version of windows which includes a full UI. The command line was good enough for Space Quest II and by gum it is good enough for me.

Starting up this vm gets you this screen

Okay, let's do it. Docker isn't installed by default but there is a great article on how to install it onto an existing machine here. In short I ran


Which started up powershell for me (weird that powershell isn't the default shell). Then

wget -uri -OutFile C:\Install-ContainerHost.ps1  
& C:\Install-ContainerHost.ps1

I didn't specify the -HyperV flag as in the linked article because I wanted Docker containers. There are two flavours of containers on Windows at the moment. HyperV containers which are heavier weight and Docker containers which are lighter. I was pretty confident I could get away with Docker containers so I started with that. The installer took a long, long time. It had to download a bunch of stuff and for some reason it decided to use the background downloader which is super slow.


By default, the docker daemon only listens on which means that you can only connect to it from inside the virtual machine. That's not all that useful as all my stuff is outside of the virtual machine. I needed to do a couple of things to get that working.

The first was to tell docker to listen on all interfaces. Ideally you shouldn't allow docker to bind to external interfaces without the TLS certificates installed. That was kind of a lot of work so I ignored the warning in the logs that it generates


Yeah that's fine. To do this open up the docker start command and tell it to listen on the interface.

notepad c:\programdata\docker\runDockerDaemon.cmd  

Now edit the line

docker daemon -D -b "Virtual Switch"  

to read

docker daemon -D -b "Virtual Switch" -H  

Now we need to relax the firewall rules or, in my case, turn off the firewall completely.

Set-NetFirewallProfile -name * -Enabled "false"  

Now restart docker

net stop docker  
net start docker  

We should now be able to access docker from the host operating system. And indeed I can by specifying the host to connect to when using the docker tools. In my case on port 2376 on

docker -H tcp:// ps -a  
CONTAINER ID        IMAGE               COMMAND             CREATED             STATUS   PORTS               NAMES  

Finally, we can actually start using docker.

I hammered together a quick docker file which sucked in the output of my NSB handler's build directory.

FROM windowsservercore

ADD bin/Debug /funnel

WORKDIR /funnel

ENTRYPOINT NServiceBus.Host.exe  

This dockerfile is based on the windowservercore image which was loaded onto the virtual machine during the setup script. You can check that using the images command to docker. To get the docker file running I first build the image then ask for it to be run

docker -H  tcp:// build -t funnel1 -f .\Dockerfile .  
docker -H  tcp:// run -t -d funnel1  

The final command spits out a big bunch of letters and numbers which is the Id of the image. I can use that to get access to the command line output from that image

docker -H  tcp:// logs fb0d6f23050c9039e65a106bea62a9049d9f79ce6070234472c112fed516634e  

Which gets me

With that I'm most of the way there. I still need to figure out some networking stuff so NSB can find my database and put our license file in there and check that NSB is actually able to talk to MSMQ and maybe find a better way to get at the logs... okay there is actually a lot still to do but this is the first step.

I squash my pull requests and you should too

A couple of weeks ago I made a change to my life. It was one of those big, earth shattering changes which ripple though everything: I started to squash the commits in my pull requests.

It was a drastic change but I think an overdue one. The reasons for my change are pretty simple: it makes looking at commit histories and maintaining long-lived branches easier. Before my pull requests would contain a lot of clutter: I'd check in small bits of work when I got them working and whoever was reviewing the pull request would have to look at a bunch of commits, some of which would later be reversed, to get an idea for what was going on. By squashing the commits down to a single commit I can focus on the key parts of the pull request without people having to see the mess I generated in between.

If you have long lived branches (I know, I know) then having a smaller number of commits during rebasing is a real help. There are fewer things that need merging so you don't end up fixing the same change over and over again.

Finally the smaller number of commits in mainline give a clearer view of what has changed in the destination branch. You individual commits might just have messages like "fixing logging" but when squashed into a PR the commit becomes "Adding new functionality to layout roads automatically". Looking back that "fixing logging" commit isn't at all helpful once you're no longer in the thick of the feature.

What has it done for me?

I've already talked about some of the great benefits in the code base but for me, individually, there were some nicities too. First off is that I don't have to worry about screwing up so much. If I go down some crazy path in the code which doesn't work then I can bail out of it easily and without worrying that other developers on my team (Hi, Nick!) will think less of me.

I find myself checking in code a lot more frequently. I have a git alias to just do

git wip  

and that checks in whatever I have lying around. It is a very powerful undo feature. It do a git wip whenever I find myself at the completion of some logical step be it writing a unit test or finishing some function or changing some style.

How do you do it?

It is easy. Just work as you normally would but with the added freedoms I mentioned. When you're ready to create a pull request then you can issue

git log  

and find the first commit in your branch. There are some suggested ways to do this automatically but they never seem to work for me so I just do it manually.

Now you can rebase the commits

git rebase -i 0ec9df23  

where 0ec9df23 is the sha of the last commit on the parent branch. This will open up an editor showing all the commits in chronological order. On left you'll see the word pick.

pick 78fc6bc added PrDC session to speaking data  
pick 9741725 Podcast with Yves Goeleven

# Rebase 9d792c2..9741725 onto 9d792c2

Starting at the bottom just change all but the first of these to squash or simply s. Save the file and exit. Git will now chug a bit and merge all the changes into one. With this complete you can push to the central repo and issue the pull request. You can add additional changes to this PR to address comments and, just before you do the merge, do another squash. You may need to push with -f but that's okay, this time.

I'm a big fan of this approach and I hope you will be too. It is better for your sanity, for the team’s sanity and for the git history's sanity.

SQL Server Alias

Ever run into that problem where everybody on your team is using a different database instance name and every time you check out you have to update the config file with your instance name?

Boy have I seen some complicated solutions around this involving reading from environments and having private, unversioned configuration files. One of the developers on my team recommended using SQL Server Aliases to solve the problem. I fumbled around with these for a bit because I couldn't get them to work. Eventually, with some help, I got there.

Let's say that you have an instance on your machine called sqlexpress but that your project needs an instance called sqlexpress2012. The first thing is to open up the SQL Server Configuration Manager. The easiest way to do this is to run


where the 13 is the version number of SQL server so SQL 2014 is 12 and SQL 2016 is 13. That will give you

SQL Server Configuration Manager

The first thing to check is that your existing instance is talking over TCP/IP.

Enable TCP/IP

Then click on the properties for TCP/IPO and in the IP Addresses tab check for the TCP Dynamic Ports setting

Dynamic ports

Make note of that number because now we're going to jump to the alias section.
Aliases Right click in there and add a new alias
In here we are going to set the alias name to the new name we want to use. The port number is what we found above, the protocol is TCP/IP and the server is the existing server name. You then have to repeat this for the 64 bit client configuration and then restart your SQL server. You should now be able to use the new name, localhost\sqlexpress2012 to access the server.

Updating Sub-Collections with SQL Server's Merge

When you get to be as old as me then you start to see certain problems reappearing over and over again. I think this might be called "experience" but it could also be called "not getting new experiences". It might be that instead of 10 years experience I have the same year of experience 10 times. Of course this is only true if you don't experiment and find new ways of doing things. Even if you're doing the same job year in and year out it is how you approach the work that determines how you will grow as a developer.

One of those problems I have encountered over the years is the problem of updating a collection of records related to one record. I'm sure you've encountered the same thing where you present the user with a table and let them edit, delete and add records.

A collection of rows

Now how do you get that data back to the server? You could send each row back individually using some Ajax magic. This is kind of a pain, though, you have to keep track of a lot of requests and you're making a bunch of requests. You also need to track, behind the scenes, which rows were added and which were removed so you can send specific commands for that. It is preferable to send the whole collection at once in a single request. Now you've shifted the burden to the server. In the past I've handled this by pulling the existing collection from the database and doing painful comparisons to figure out what has changed.

There is a very useful SQL command called UPSERT which you'll find in databases such as Postgres(assuming you're on the cutting edge and you're using 9.5). Upsert is basically a command which looks at the existing table data when you modify a record. If the record doesn't exist it will be created and if it is already there the contents will be updated. This solves 2/3rds of our cases with only delete missing. Unfortunately, SQL Server doesn't support the UPSERT command - however it does support MERGE.

I've always avoided MERGE because I thought it to be very complicated but in the interests of continually growing I figured it was about time that I bit the bullet and just learned how it works. I use Dapper a fair bit for talking to the database, it is just enough ORM to handle the dumb stuff while still letting me write my own SQL. It is virtually guaranteed that I write worse SQL than a full ORM but that's a cognitive dissonance I'm prepared to let ride. By writing my own SQL I have direct access to tools like merge which might, otherwise, be missed by a beefy ORM.

The first thing to know about MERGE is that it needs to run against two tables to compare their contents. Let's extend the example we have above of what appears to be a magic wand shop... that's weird and totally not related to having just watched the trailer for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Anyway our order item table looks like

create table orderItems(id uniqueidentifier,  
                        orderId uniqueidentifier,
                        colorId uniqueidentifier,
                        quantity int)

So the first task is to create a temporary table to hold our records. By prefacing a table name with a # in SQL server we get a temporary table which is unique to our session. So other running transactions won't see the table - exactly what we want.

using(var connection = GetConnection())  
   connection.Execute(@"create table #orderItems(id uniqueidentifier,
                                                 orderId uniqueidentifier,
                                                 colorId uniqueidentifier,
                                                 quantity int)");

Now we'll take the items collection we have received from the web client (in my case it was via an MVC controller but I'll leave the specifics up to you) and insert each record into the new table. Remember to do this using the same session as you used to create the table.

foreach(var item in orderItems)  
    connection.Execute("insert into #orderItems(id, orderId, colorId, quantity) values(@id, @orderId, @colorId, @quantity)", item);

Now the fun part: writing the merge.

merge orderItems as target  
      using #orderItems as source
      on target.Id = source.Id 
      when matched then
           update set target.colorId = source.colorId, 
                  target.quantity = soruce.quantity
      when not matched by target then 
      insert (id, 
     values (, 
     when not matched by source 
      and orderId = @orderId then delete;

What's this doing? Let's break it down. First we set a target table this is where the records will be inserted, deleted and updated. Next we set the source the place from which the records will come. In our case the temporary table. Both source and destination are aliases so really they can be whatever you want like input and output or Expecto and Patronum.

merge orderItems as target  
      using #orderItems as source

This line instructs on how to match. Both our tables have primary ids in a single column so we'll use that.

on target.Id = source.Id  

If a record is matched the we'll update the two important target fields with the values from the source.

when matched then  
           update set target.colorId = source.colorId, 
                  target.quantity = soruce.quantity

Next we give instructions as to what should happen if a record is missing in the target. Here we insert a record based on the temporary table.

when not matched by target then  
      insert (id, 
     values (, 

Finally we give the instruction for what to do if the record is in the target but not in the source - we delete it.

when not matched by source  
     and orderId = @orderId then delete;

In another world we might do a soft delete and simply update a field.

That's pretty much all there is to it. MERGE has a ton of options to do more powerful operations. There is a bunch of super poorly written documentation on this on MSDN if you're looking to learn a lot more.

Copy Azure Blobs

Ever wanted to copy blobs from one Azure blob container to another? Me neither, until now. I had a bunch of files I wanted to use as part of a demo in a storage container and they needed to be moved over to a new container in a new resource group. It was 10 at night and I just wanted it solved so I briefly looked for a tool to do the copying for me. I failed to find anything. Ugh, time to write some 10pm style code, that is to say terrible code. Now you too can benefit from this. I put in some comments for fun.

using Microsoft.WindowsAzure.Storage;  
using Microsoft.WindowsAzure.Storage.Blob;  
using System;  
using System.Collections.Generic;  
using System.Linq;  
using System.Text;  
using System.Threading.Tasks;

namespace migrateblobs  
    class Program
        static void Main(string[] args)
            //this is the source account
            var sourceAccount = CloudStorageAccount.Parse("source connection string here");
            var sourceClient = sourceAccount.CreateCloudBlobClient();
            var sourceContainer = sourceClient.GetContainerReference("source container here");

            //destination account
            var destinationAccount = CloudStorageAccount.Parse("destination connection string here");
            var destinationClient = destinationAccount.CreateCloudBlobClient();
            var destinationContainer = destinationClient.GetContainerReference("destination container here");

            //create the container here

            //this token is used so the destination client can pull from the source
            string blobToken = sourceContainer.GetSharedAccessSignature(
                       new SharedAccessBlobPolicy
                           SharedAccessExpiryTime =DateTime.UtcNow.AddYears(2),
                           Permissions = SharedAccessBlobPermissions.Read | SharedAccessBlobPermissions.Write

            var srcBlobList = sourceContainer.ListBlobs(useFlatBlobListing: true, blobListingDetails: BlobListingDetails.None);
            foreach (var src in srcBlobList)
                var srcBlob = src as CloudBlob;

                // Create appropriate destination blob type to match the source blob
                CloudBlob destBlob;
                if (srcBlob.Properties.BlobType == BlobType.BlockBlob)
                    destBlob = destinationContainer.GetBlockBlobReference(srcBlob.Name);
                    destBlob = destinationContainer.GetPageBlobReference(srcBlob.Name);

                // copy using src blob as SAS
                destBlob.StartCopyFromBlob(new Uri(srcBlob.Uri.AbsoluteUri + blobToken));

I stole some of this code from an old post here but the API has changed a bit since then so this article is a better reference. The copy operations take place asynchronously.

We're copying between containers without copying down the the local machine so you don't incur any egress costs unless you're moving between data centers.

Have fun.