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Application Lifecycle Management Overview for Windows Azure

Developing in Windows Azure is at once not that much different from what you’re familiar with in on-premises systems, and different in significant ways. Because of these differences, developers often ask about the specific process to develop and deploy a Windows Azure application - more formally called an Application Lifecycle Management, or ALM.

There are specific resources you can use to learn more about various parts of ALM - I’ve referenced those at the end of this post. But ALM has multiple definitions, from the governance of code injection, domain upgrade, testing, process flow and more. Many developers are interested in the finer-grained information, like how do I develop and deploy an application? What tools do I need, and how do I get the code running somewhere that I can test?

I’ll cover the very high-level process here, and refer you to specifics at the end of each section, so that you can take it all in at one viewing, and then bookmark for more detail when you need more information. I won’t be covering processes like Continuous Integration or Agile and other methodologies in this post - I’ll blog those later.

Initial Development

You start with writing code. You have three ways to do this. You can use Visual Studio (even the Express Edition Works), Eclipse, or by leveraging the REST API format. You can do this in a standalone (non-connected) environment like your laptop.

Using Visual Studio is one of the simplest methods to create an Azure application, allowing you to combine the Azure components you want to leverage (Storage, Compute, SQL Azure, the Service Bus, etc.) along with the on-premises code you have now or are creating. Once you’ve installed and patched Visual Studio, just download and install the Windows Azure Software Development Kit (SDK) and you’ll have not only all the API’s you need to talk to Azure, but a fully functioning local environment to run and test your code before you deploy it. You’ll also get a robust set of samples. You can download what you need for all of that (free) here: http://www.windowsazure.com/en-us/develop/downloads/ . There’s a step-by-step process here: http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/magazine/ee336122.aspx

You can also use Eclipse to develop for Windows Azure. You won’t get the full runtime environment in just that kit alone, but you can use this successfully on a Linux system. I have several folks using this method. The downloads and documentation for that is here: http://www.windowsazure4e.org/

You can use REST API’s to hit Azure Assets and control them. Not my preferred method, but possible. There are REST API’s for various sections of Azure. You can find the main reference for that here: http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/windowsazure/ff800682.aspx 

Note: We recently demonstrated using a Cloud-based Integrated Development Environment (IDE) for Node.js deployment to Windows Azure. More on that here: http://www.readwriteweb.com/cloud/2012/01/cloud9-ide-to-enable-nodejs-ap.php

Deploying to a Test Instance

After you write the code, you’ll need to test it somewhere. The Azure Emulator on your development laptop is for a single user on that laptop, and it also has some subtle differences from the production fabric as you might imagine. Normally you’ll set up a small subscription to run and test the application, just like you would have a set of test servers. Each subscription has its own management keys and certificates, so this assists in keeping the testing environment separate for billing and control.

More on that general information here: http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/ff803362.aspx 

Deploying to Production

Once you have developed the code and tested it, you need to move it to a location where users can access it. In reality, there is no physical difference in the type of machines, fabric or any other component in “Production” Windows Azure accounts and the “Test” accounts, but you’ll most often pick smaller systems to deploy on in testing, and you’ll probably keep the URL in the plain format.

In the Production Windows Azure account, the team normally limits the access to the account for deployment to a separate set of developers. This ensures code flow and control. A DNS name is normally mapped to the longer, Microsoft-generated URL so that your users access the application or data the way you want them to.

More on setting up an account here: http://techinch.com/2010/06/14/setup-your-windows-azure-account/ 

Managing Code Change

With the application deployed, there are two broad tasks you need to consider. One is managing changes through the application, and the other involves management, monitoring and performance tuning for an application.

To make a code change, the standard ALM process is followed, just as above. You can use command-line tools to automate the process as you would with an on-premises system. A vide on that shows you how: http://www.microsoftpdc.com/2009/SVC25. Normally this is used with an “In-Place” upgrade into Production Account, since your testing is completed in a separate account. More on that process here: http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/windowsazure/ee517255.aspx

One difference is the “VIP Swap” process you can use for the final push to Production. In essence, this allows you to have two copies of the application running on the Production account, with a quick way to cut over and back when you’re ready. The process for that is detailed here: http://msdn.microsoft.com/en-us/library/windowsazure/ee517253.aspx 

For monitoring, you have several options. You should enable the Windows Azure Diagnostics in your code - more on that here: http://archive.msdn.microsoft.com/WADiagnostics.

You can observe uptime and other information on the Windows Azure Service Dashboard, where you can also consume the uptime as an RSS feed: http://www.windowsazure.com/en-us/support/service-dashboard/ 

From there, you can also use System Center to monitor not only Windows Azure deployments but internal applications as well. The Management Pack and documentation for that is here: http://www.microsoft.com/download/en/details.aspx?id=11324.

There are also 3rd-party tools to manage Windows Azure. More on that here: http://www.bing.com/search?q=monitor+Windows+Azure&form=OSDSRC 

Other References:

There is a lot more detail in this official reference: https://www.windowsazure.com/en-us/develop/net/fundamentals/deploying-applications/ 

Bryan Group explains the ramifications of the Secure Development Lifecycle (SDL) with lots of collateral you can review: http://blogs.msdn.com/b/bryang/archive/2011/04/26/applying-the-sdl-to-windows-azure.aspx

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