Azure

Level Up Azure for IT Pros ... And SharePoint Too!

p>Hope that everyone had a great Thanksgiving holiday in the US and getting ready for the holiday season around the world. I have been enjoying time with my family in New York including giving my niece and nephew a brand new Xbox One. They have been filling their free time since with many waves of Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare. Even I am getting into it now. I am guessing there will be many multiplayer games on Xbox Live with them. Oh darn!

One of the things I forgot to blog about earlier is one of the best events online for IT Pros. The Azure IaaS for IT Pros Online Event that has been hosted by Rick Claus is giving IT Professionals some great information about Azure and specifically the infrastructure as a service (IaaS) offerings. Azure keeps adding incredible services for Azure users including some recent additions: 

  • D-Series VMs with more memory and dedicated Intel CPU Cores 
  • G-Series (aka Godzilla-Series) with even more memory and dedicated Intel CPU Cores 
  • Premium Storage on SSD for Standard D-Series and G-Series servers that will offer 4,000 IOPs per VHD (Standard storage offers 500 IOPs per VHD).

Getting an opportunity to play with these services has excited me to what Azure can offer IT Professionals. One of the best uses of Azure for IT Pros is making "proof of concept" environments. You can prove how technologies work while not taking any of your current on-prem hardware. Another easy use is running development or QA testing environments. In both of these cases, you can turn on and off the environment while you need it and only be billed for the environment while it is on.

But I have buried the lead here folks. On Thursday, at 12:00 Pacific time, I will be talking about SharePoint on Azure. Yup, that's right … I will be talking about how to run SharePoint on Azure. There are some tweaks and best practices I will be talking about with SharePoint on Azure IaaS. I will also go over the new Cloud App Model (CAM) and how you can use Azure with it. Lastly, there's a few other things Azure can help with around SharePoint. I am including my introduction video here:

I recommend you heading over to http://aka.ms/levelupazure to watch the recorded sessions and to see me live tomorrow. If you can't see me live, you can always catch up on the recordings.

My Azure Hosting Hiccups, or "How to Shoot One's Self in Your Own Foot"

As you might have read, I moved my website onto Azure a couple of weeks ago. I have not looked back at all. Well, okay. Two events made me rethink my strategy around hosting on Azure. One was my own doing and the other is a conflict between DotNetNuke and the Azure SQL model. Both were resolved and I am again 100% on hosting via Azure, until the next problem rears its ugly head.

Let's review how I got to today. First, I started out on Azure with my DotNetNuke instance using the DotNetNuke Azure Accelerator. It was a miserable failure and I was floundering. I also had other issues going on that night with various technologies and decided to skip it. Then, I found the ease of setting up my Azure hosted DotNetNuke CMS system. Success!

Let's move on to last Saturday, March 2nd. I decided to do some re-configuring of the website on Azure. First thing, I reviewed my account and my bandwidth and processing needs were pushing the limits of the free account. I had to change from their "Free" webhosting instance to the "Shared" model. On top of that change, I wanted the URL to be my own website's URL and not the azurewebsites.net version that is created when you setup a website on Azure. Lastly, I wanted to use a publishing system so I could upload changes to my site when update came out. In my case, the only one I had some experience in (and not very much as I find out) was GIT but I did not want to tie my Azure site to GitHub, so I selected localized GIT on my desktop. With all of these actions, I pulled out the gun, filled and loaded the magazine, chambered a round, and pointed it at my foot.

Sunday morning rolls around and I get a text message page at 6:30 am; my Azure website is offline. HUH? How can it be offline? Did Azure have another one of their illustrious outages? Looking at the site on my phone, I got at 502 error. Ummmm … "Bad Gateway"??? Thinking my DNS was having issues, I went to the default Azure website URL and got slapped with another 502 error. My site was down! Jumping out of bed, I fumble into my computer and start to look at the issue. I pulled up the Azure Portal, my site, my monitoring services and my VM hosted mail server to get an external perspective on the issue. No matter how many times I pressed SHIFT-F5, the site was down. I checked all browsers and still the same. I had the monitoring service check from all of its servers; still down. Looking through the Azure portal, nothing seemed to be misconfigured. Checking the Azure DB, no issues were seen there. Last check was looking at the webserver logs from Azure; the logs did not show anyone visiting the site. Huh? How could my attempts from my phone, home computer and hosted VM not register in the Logs. I restarted the website services and nothing in the logs. One more SHIFT-F5 and "Ta da!", website functional. HUH? BLAM! That hurt.

I don't like having mysteries. One of the toughest thing for me in my IT world is to have something fix itself and not know what the root cause is. Many of you might remember IBM's commercials around the "Self-Healing Server Pixie Dust". I mock these commercials because parts of servers can fix themselves but others cannot. System Admins are still a necessary group of people no matter what technologies you add to hardware or software. Giving those professionals the information they need to perform good root cause analysis is more important than self-healing. Yet, this is what I was looking at. Nothing in the logs, in the stats, nor in the code told me what was wrong. Nothing like this happened the 7 days I was hosting it on the "Free" model. Being a good IT Operations person, I started rolling back my changes. Doing the easy stuff first, I reversed the DNS work and then went to breakfast. During my meal, I got 10 pages that my site was up, then down, then up, then … well, you get the idea. After breakfast, I went home and switched the site back to the "Free" model. I waited for any changes and was met with similar pages and watching my site go from non-responsive to responsive. My final thought was that the problem must be in the GIT deployment system.

The story turns very interesting at this point. Reviewing the settings for Azure, there is no way for an Azure administrator to remove a deployment system from a website. No mechanism is in the Azure Portal to change once a deployment system is selected. I was stuck with an unstable site and no way to revert back what I did. It seems Azure's method is to just recreate the site. I copied the code from my Azure website to my local computer, deleted the Azure website and created a new one in Azure, copying the code back from my desktop. Thanks to many factors, the file copying seemed to take hours though, in reality, it took 35 minutes for both down and up loads. I clicked on the link for the new site and ".NET ERROR". A huge sigh and facepalm later, I delved into what was going on. DotNetNuke was missing key files; my copy from the internet did not include them. Instead of trying to figure out where I went wrong, I reviewed what I had: an Azure website with code that was bad and an Azure SQL DB with my data. To make it easy for me, I decided to just build a new DotNetNuke installation from scratch with a new DB. Then, recopy my blog data back in to complete my work. After approximately 2 hours of work later, my site was back up and running again on the Azure URL. Success!

Going over all of the changes I wanted to make, I decided to separate out the changes and leave them for 24 hours to verify that it would not affect my site. The critical change I needed to make was changing from the "Free" mode to the "Shared" mode for the website. Azure would block the site if I did not do this because I was over my resources. This was a "no brainer" for me so this was my first change. I re-enabled my redirect from the server that hosted this site before and all was working again. Monday night rolls around and all has been stable. My next change, the URL to my domain name, was prepped and executed. My site was stable for the rest of the night and into the next day. My analysis was correct, the configuration of GIT as a "publishing" system was the cause of my outages on Sunday. Tuesday night led to a lot of review of Azure web publishing. All of the information I was able to find led me to my final conclusion; I am not developing my own code and do not need publishing. None of the systems would help me and only looked to make things more difficult. In its current mode, I can FTP files up and down from the site which is good enough for me.

Let's move on to Wednesday. I received a notice from DotNetNuke that they released 7.0.4 of their system and my site is currently running 7.0.3. I should upgrade it to make sure I am safe, secure and stable, right? As I started to download the code for the update, I got the gun back out again, filled and loaded that magazine, chambered a round, and got it aimed right next to the hole I put through my foot on Sunday. Using FTP, I uploaded the update code and pulled up the upgrade installation page. I waited for the upgrade to complete while working through my e-mail. When it completed, I turned and saw "Completed with errors". BLAM! I got to stop shooting myself like this.

One of the modern advantages of DotNetNuke is the logging that upgrades and installs do now. I was able to pull up the installation log and get the exact error messages from the upgrade installation: 3 SQL errors when it was processing the SQL upgrade statements. Looking at each error, the error messages were confusing to me. In two of the errors, the upgrade tried to determine if an index was in place and then remove said index to replace with a new one. Yet, when this was performed on my Azure DB, it threw an error saying "DROP INDEX with two-part name is not supported in this version of SQL Server". How am I going to fix this? For those of you that don't know, my start in IT was in SQL DBA and programming. I dug out my rusty SQL skills and started through the database alongside online the MSDN website for Azure SQL. In no time, I figure out what I need to do to modify the DotNetNuke code and run the SQL statements against my Azure SQL DB. The third error was even more interesting. The DotNetNuke code wanted to verify that a default value was set for a column in one of the tables. The way this is done normally in SQL Server is to query against the sys.sysconstraints system view. The problem with this in Azure SQL DB is that there is no sysconstraints view available. The SQL statement that ran returns "Invalid object name 'sysconstraints'". More digging and I found my answer; Azure SQL has the new Catalog Views of check_constraints, default_constraints, and key_constraints available. Quick change to using the default_constraints view and I found that the desired default was in place. My upgrade is now complete and a success.

As you can see, I did all of the damage myself; I cannot blame Azure for it. My impatience to not read all the way through and just get things going caused my own downtimes. I have no doubt my thrifty behavior will also be my downfall when Azure has any sort of outage in the US West Websites or SQL DB layers. If I want a website that will not go down, I need to create and pay for the Azure infrastructure to do that. For now, I am super happy with my decision. To the cloud!

Are you thinking about moving your website into a cloud provider? If not, what is stopping you from doing that? Post your questions and comments below.

Moved my Site and Blog to Azure … How Easy!

Well, I finally made the switch. As many of you can see in the URL, my blog has moved from my personal servers onto the Azure fabric. It is something I wanted to do for a while and never got quite around to finishing until now. It is not totally done but I am happy with the interim results.

For those that don't know, Azure can offer easy web hosting up in their cloud with CMS systems like WordPress and DotNetNuke. I personally do use DotNetNuke and have for several years. Installation was looking to be interesting thanks to a few projects around like the DotNetNuke Azure Accelerator. Other blog entries and wikis are out there talking about how to get this accomplished.

A few weeks ago, I tried to use these "recipes" and failed miserably. In the same evening, I also screwed up local installs of some test servers and thought if I could just strike out at a bar, the evening would be complete. The process seemed to be fraught with missing settings, steps that did not work as advertised and some complications, later found out to be caused by Azure issues.

The next day, I sat back down and looked at the Azure offering and within the "creation" workflow for a website is a "From Gallery" option. For grins, I clicked on it and the world got so easy for me! Within this option, Azure offers a multitude of predefined systems for installation from their Azure Store. This includes many CMS systems like DotNetNuke, Drupal, Joomla!, WordPress, MediaWiki, Orchard and many more. It also includes E-commerce engines, forum systems, galleries, and wikis. Right at the top of the list is DotNetNuke Community Edition, my choice for CMS. They make the Professional version available as well but that is a paid product and I know what I am doing with the CMS engine.

I started down their wizard path to creating my new Azure website using the Gallery image of DotNetNuke Community edition 7.0.3. Clicking the "next" arrow brought me to their initial configuration screen where I put in my Azure URL, told it to create me a new DB for the project, and allowed me to choose the region for hosting, West US in my case. One more screen for the DB setup on a new server, the DB username and password, and which region for the DB hosting, West US again for me, and we are off to the races. The next steps are very DNN specific so I will not bore the majority of my readers with those details.

Once all was setup, I could browse to the Azure Base Site URL and look at my new DNN installation. Within 10 minutes, I had my beloved DotNetNuke 7.0.3 running in the Azure cloud without any major work on my part. I was able to install my favorite blogging module, Live Blog from Mandeeps, and thanks to my SQL knowledge, port over this blog from my personal server to the Azure site. A quick set of redirections and here you are with my new version of my blog. Now, I just need to get more content up here…

Have you started using Azure for hosting of your sites? If not, why not give it a try with a 90-day trial? Sign up at http://www.windowsazure.com/en-us/pricing/free-trial/