Devops

What are automated deployments and why do I need them?

When your working on a new website build as either the marketer responsible for the site or the project manager overseeing it’s build, some of the most frustrating tasks to be using up your budget can originate from the IT team and come under the category of setup.

They can suck days even weeks from a project but offer no visible features or benefit to the end user, worse still they often need to come at the start of a project which for people wanting to see a design turn into a webpage just feels like a delay and lack of progress.

Manual Deployments

So, what are automated deployments and why are they worth it? Well first let’s examine what a deployment is to begin with.

When a change or new feature is ready to be built for a site, it will have been turned into a specification and handed over to a development team to build. The developers will then write some code and test it on their local machines, they may even demo it to someone else. At some point though, that work needs to get from their machine to the server(s) it runs on so that other people like QA can see it without using the devs machine. Typically, there will be 3 server environments set up for a website:

  1. Dev / Test – An environment used by the developers and QA to build, test and refactor new features and fixes.
  2. UAT / Staging – An environment used by the website owners / stakeholders that the features have been deployed to for review and approval before they are deployed into production.
  3. Production – The live website that is accessible over the internet.

In a manual deployment setup, the developer is responsible for copying the website into each of the environments. This will generally involve:

  1. Getting the version of code to be deployed from source control.
  2. Publishing a build of the site locally (some languages need to be compiled into machine code, and most modern websites will run a task on the CSS and JavaScript to obfuscate and reduce the file size).
  3. Login to databases and run any scripts to update the database.
  4. Login to the web servers using something like a remote desktop client.
  5. Copy and Paste the new files onto the server.
  6. Make some sort of record that the deployment has been done and what it included.

As you can probably guess each of these steps is prone to human error; What if the developer gets the wrong version from source control? What if they overwrite the wrong folder? What if they miss the database changes? What if they don’t record the deployment, how can we be sure what version is on an environment?

Not only that but it’s also a lengthy task for someone to do. Some parts are just waiting for a code publish to complete or a file copy to finish. For the odd production deploy with a decent checklist this might not be so bad, but for iterating work into QA this can not only make QA fails for minor things really costly to fix, but also result in bundling more and more changes together to cut down the number of releases which then reduces the flow of work feeding into QA and slows the pace at which features can be developed and released.

A Better Way

Now we understand the issues, we certainly don’t want that as a cost throughout the lifetime of our site, so how do we avoid it?

Well, automated deployments quite simply take all these manual steps, automated them with a few bonuses on top. By doing this we remove all the elements of human error and are left with consistent results each time.

There’s two parts to an automated pipeline, the first is build and the second is release.

The build part relates to the first 2 steps of our manual process. We need to get the code from source control and then publish it. Once we’ve done this, we are left with a build that we can assign a release number to. By automating it we’ve also ensured that the build happens the same way each time rather than any differences between developers’ machines being. At this point we can also start detecting build failures and include some automated testing to pick up on errors before even involving QA.

The release part relates to the remaining steps of the manual process. First of all the process of copying files and running scripts now becomes one large script that won’t miss a step and in addition to that, now we have build numbers we can see which build is on each environment and only promote the one we want to the next environment. Because we’re promoting builds rather than doing the whole build process again, we’re also ensuring that the build going to production is the exact same thing that was tested on QA and then reviewed on UAT. With some clever integrations with things like GitHub and Jira we can also automated release notes to say what was included in each of the releases.

Degrees of Automation

It worth noting at this point that there are different degrees of automation and this will greatly affect the cost of setup.

As well as automating the deploy of code, we could also automate the entire server setup through the use or ARM templates in Azure. Different levels of automated testing can be implemented from very low code coverage to very high; a test could even be what the level of code coverage is.

Automation could also extend to include load balancers for green / blue deployments where zero downtime of the site is achieved by using multiple production servers and switching between them while files are being copied.

Is this the CI and CD thing I’ve heard about?

Two terms I deliberately haven’t used in this article is Continuous Integration (CI) and Continuous Delivery (CD) and that’s because although automated deployments forms part of achieving them they are not the same thing and it’s worth knowing how they differ.

Continuous Integration related to the build part of the automated setup and aims to deal with issues arising from multiple developers working on a project. When more than one developer works on a copy of a website locally, both sets are changing in different way to what is contained within source control. The longer this goes on for the bigger the differences get and the harder it will become to merge again. Continuous Integration advocates shortening the gaps between merges to as shorter time as possible, potentially multiple time per day. By having automated tools in place to run a build whenever this happens, issues can be identified as early as possible.

Continuous Delivery relates more to the release aspect of the automated setup and is an aim to be constantly delivering / deploying updates to a solution as fast as possible. By doing this, deployments become trivial and smaller updates are delivered at a much faster pace rather that being queued for one big release. Automation helps make this a reality by removing many of the manual time consuming tasks that are repetitive.

Equivalent of the Octopus Package Library for Azure Devops

I’ve been using Team City and Octopus deploy in our CI setups for several years, but over the last 6 months have slowly been moving over to use Azure Devops. This is mostly to move away from needing to keep an application like Team City updated by switching to a SAAS service. Octopus is available as a SAAS service, but as Azure Devops is also capable of doing releases I opted to start with that rather than using Octopus again.

One of my first challenges was how you replace Octopus’s package library. The solutions I’m working on (which are generally Sitecore based), consist of the application we write and store in Source Control, and all the other pre-built parts of Sitecore which we don’t store in source control.

With Octopus deploy we would add these static parts to the Octopus package library and then release a combination of them and our application to a server, wiping what is there before we do. That then gives us the exact same deploy on every target.

With Azure Devops however, things are a bit different.

Azure Artifacts

The closest equivalent of the package library is Azure Artifacts. Rather than a primary purpose being to upload packages to be included in a deploy. The goal of Artifacts is more inline with the output of a pipeline being saved to an Artifact which can then be a package feed for things like NuGet or npm.

Unfortunately, there is also no UI to directly upload a NuGet package to an Artifact feed like there is with Octopus’s package library. However, it is possible to upload a pre-built NuGet package another way using NuGet.exe itself.

Manually uploading a NuGet package to Azure Artifacts

To start you need to create a feed for your package to uploaded to.

Login to Azure DevOps and got to Artifacts. Click Create feed and give it a name.

Click connect to feed and select NuGet.exe. You will see under the heading project setup a nuget.config file to add to your solution.

Create an empty solution in Visual Studio and add a nuget.config file to the root folder using the source from the website. It will look something like this;

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="utf-8"?>
<configuration>
<packageSources>
  <clear />
  <add key="MyFeed" value="https://pkgs.dev.azure.com/.../_packaging/MyFeed/nuget/v3/index.json" />
</packageSources>
</configuration>

Copy the NuGet package you would like you publish into the root folder as well. I’m using a package we have created for a tool called Feydra. My folder now looks like this.

Before we can publish into our NuGet feed we need to setup a personal access token. This is done from within Azure Devops.

In the top right corner click the person icon and then select profile. On the profile screen you will see a section called Personal access tokens under Security.

From here click New Token and give it the Read, write & manage permission for Packaging.

You will be given a token which you should save a copy of.

Now we are ready to publish are NuGet package to the Artifact feed.

Open a command prompt at the folder containing your solution file and run the following commands

nuget push -Source &lt;SourceName&gt; -ApiKey az &lt;PackagePath&gt;

For me this is as follows:

nuget push -Source MyFeed -ApiKey az .\Feydra.Custom.1.0.0.30.nupkg

You will then be prompted for a username and password which you should use the personal access token for both.

Refresh the feed on the website and you should see you package added to it, ready to be included in a release pipeline.

Config file transforms with Azure Devops

For a long time now our primary CI setup has been based around Team City and Octopus deploy, but as reliable as it is there are things I don't like about it:

  1. It's not a SASS setup meaning there's a VM to occassionaly think about and updates to install. While Octopus is now availiable as a SASS option, Team City is not and moving Octopus will only solve half the problem.
  2. That VM they both sit on every so often gets and issue with it's hard disk being full.
  3. It's complicated to recommend the same setup to clients. You end up having to go through multiple things they need to buy which then require some installation and ongoing maintenance. Ideally we would have a setup thats easy for them to replicate and own themselves with minimal maintenance.

So when we took over a site recently that typically came with no existing CI setup in place, I decided to take a look at using Azure Devops instead. You can use Azure Devops with Octopus Deploy but as it claims to be able to manage releases as well as builds we went for doing the whole thing just in Azure Devops.

Getting a build set up was relatively straight forward so I'm going to skip past that bit, but in short we ended up with a build that will create a web deploy package and publish it as an artifact. Typical msbuild type stuff.

File transforms and variable substitution

The first real tricky point came with replacing variables in config files during a release to each envrionment. We were using the IIS Web App Deploy task to deploy the application to IIS on a VM (no new Azure Web App Services in this setup :( as I said we took over the site and this was just to get automated deploys of what they already have). A simple starting point with this is some built in functionality for XML Variable Substituion in the IIS Web App Deploy task.

Quite simply you can add all your varibles to the variable list, set the scope for which envrionment you want it to apply to and the during the deploy they are replaced in your config. Unlike some tag replacement tools I've used in the past this one actually uses the name of the connecting string or app setting you need to set, so if you need to set a connection string named web, the variable name will be web.

This is also where my problem stated. The description for what XML variable substitution does is:

This was a Sitecore solution and for Sitecore most of your config settings are in Sitecores own Sitecore section of the config file. So in other words the connection string will get updated but the rest won't.

Parameter and SetParameter XML files

My next issue was trying to find a solution is actually quite hard. Searching for this problem either gave me a lot of results for setups using ARM templates (as I said, this was a solution we took over and that kind of change is not on the agenda), or you just get the easy bit above. Searching for Sitecore and Azure Devops also leads you to a lot of results on a cloud infrastructure setup (again not what we're doing here, at least in the short term). Everything that was coming up felt far more complicated than the solution should be.

However the documentation on the XML variable substitution did have one interesting sentance.

A parameters.xml file isn't something I've used before which makes this sentance a bit cryptic. The first half says I can do what I want with an xml file, but the second half says I'll need something else to actually do it.

After a bit of research this all comes back to web deploy. When you do a build that outputs a web deploy package, you get 5 files.

A zip file containing the actual site, a command file which has the script to do the deploy and a set parameters file which is used to set config variables during the deploy. The others aren't so imporant.

To have different config set on different envrionments you just need to edit the set parameters file. But first you need to have the parameter in the set parameters file so that you can actually change it and this is where the parameters.xml file comes in.

Creating the parameter files

Add a file called parameters.xml file to the root of your project and then add parameters as follows.

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="utf-8" ?>
<parameters>
<parameter name="DataFolderLocation" defaultvalue="#{dataFolder}">
  <parameterEntry kind="XmlFile" scope="App_Config\\Include\\Z.Project\\DataFolder\.config$" match="/configuration/sitecore/sc.variable[@name='dataFolder']/patch:attribute/text()" />
</parameter>
</parameters>

Some important parts:

default value - The value that the config setting will get set to

scope - The path to the file containing the setting

match - An XPath expression for find the part of the config file to update

Once you have this the build will start producing a SetParameters.xml file containing the extra parameters.

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="utf-8"?>
<parameters>
<setParameter name="IIS Web Application Name" value="Default Web Site/SiteCore.Website_deploy" />
<setParameter name="DataFolderLocation" value="#{dataFolder}" />
</parameters>

Note: I've set the value to be something I intend to replace in the release process.

Replacing the tokens

With our SetParameters.xml file now contining all the config we need to update, we need a step in the release process that will replace all the tokens with the correct values.

To do this I used a replaced tokens task https://marketplace.visualstudio.com/items?itemName=qetza.replacetokens

Config options need to be set for:

Root Directory - Path to the folder containing the SetParameters.xml file

Target files - A list of files to have replacements done in. In our case this was SiteCore.Website.SetParameters.xml

Token prefix - The prefix on tokens to be search for. Ours was #{

Token suffix - The suffix to denote the end of a token. Ours was }

Lastly in the IIS Web App Deploy step the SetParameters file needed to be selected and the new variables added to the variable list in Azure Devops. The variable names need to be called the bit between your prefix and suffix. i.e. #{datafolder} would be called datafolder.

If you don't set the variables then the log's will show warning for each one it couldn't find.

2019-09-24T17:17:21.6950466Z ##[section]Starting: Replace tokens in SiteCore.Website.SetParameters.xml
2019-09-24T17:17:23.9831695Z ==============================================================================
2019-09-24T17:17:23.9831783Z Task         : Replace Tokens
2019-09-24T17:17:23.9831816Z Description  : Replace tokens in files
2019-09-24T17:17:23.9831861Z Version      : 3.2.1
2019-09-24T17:17:23.9831891Z Author       : Guillaume Rouchon
2019-09-24T17:17:23.9831921Z Help         : v3.2.1 - [More Information](https://github.com/qetza/vsts-replacetokens-task#readme)
2019-09-24T17:17:23.9831952Z ==============================================================================
2019-09-24T17:17:27.2703037Z replacing tokens in: C:\azagent\A1\_work\r1\a\PublishBuildArtifacts\SiteCore.Website.SetParameters.xml
2019-09-24T17:17:27.3133832Z ##[warning]variable not found: dataFolder
2019-09-24T17:17:27.3179775Z ##[section]Finishing: Replace tokens in SiteCore.Website.SetParameters.xml

With all this set our config has it's variables configured within Azure Devops for each environment,