Top reasons .Net is amazing for prototyping

The other day someone told me .net was slow to get something built, and to be fair to the person I can see why he would have thought that. Most of his interaction with .net projects have been on complex with large enterprise applications that often have integrated multiple other applications.

However, I would maintain that .net is a framework that is actually really fast to develop on and that what he had perceived as being slow was the complexities of a project rather than the actual coding time.

In fact, I would say it’s so fast to get something built in it, it actually becomes the fastest thing to develop a prototype in. Here are my top reasons why.

ASP.NET Core

ASP.NET Core inherits all the best bits from the ASP.NET Framework that came before it, giving the framework almost 20 years of refinement since its original release in 2002. The days of WebForms in the original ASP.NET are now long behind us and we now have the choice of building web applications with either MVC or Razor Pages.

Razor provides the perfect combination of a view language providing helpers to render your html without limiting what can be done on the front end. How you code your HTML is still completely up to you, the helpers just provide features like binding that make it even faster to do.

Another great thing about .Net core over that which came before it, is its platform independent. Rather than being confined to just Windows, you can run it on Mac or Linux too.

Great starter templates

What kicks of a great prototype project is starting with great templates, and ASP.NET Core has a bunch.

As already mentioned, you can build a Web Application with either Razor Pages or MVC, but the templates also provide you with the base for building an API, Angular App, React.js or React.js and Redux or you can simply create an Empty application.

My preference is to go for MVC as it’s what I’m the most familiar with and a key thing for rapidly building a prototype is that you develop rapidly. The idea is to focus on creating something new and unique, not learn how to develop in a new framework.

The MVC Web Application gives you a base site to work with a few pages already set up, bootstrap and jQuery are already included so you start right at the point of working on your logic rather than spending time doing setup.

SQL Server and EF Core

I’ve always been a bit of a database guy. I’m not sure why, but its a topic that has always just made sense to me, and despite being a topic that can get quite complex, the reasons behind it being complex always feel logical.

When it comes to building a prototype though there are two aspects which make storage with .net core super simple.

Firstly, Entity Framework Core (EF Core) means you don’t really need to know any SQL or spend any time writing it. It helps if you do, but at a minimum all you need to be doing is creating a model in your code, adding a few lines for a DB context that tells EF.Core that a model is a table and how they relate. Then turn on migrations and you’re done. When you run the application, the DB gets created for you and each time you change your model, you just add another migration and the next time the application runs the application the DB schema gets updated.

Querying your DB is done by writing LINQ queries against your entity framework model, allowing you to have next to no understanding of SQL and how the DB works. Everything is just done by magic for you.

The second part is SQL Server and its different versions. Often when you think of SQL Server you think of the big DB engine with its many many components that you install on a server or your local machine but there’s two others which are even more important. LocalDB and Azure SQL.

LocalDB is an option that can be installed as part of Visual Studio. No separate application is needed or services to be running in the background. It is essentially the minimum required to start the DB engine to be used for development purposes. In practical terms this means when you start your application EF.Core can run off a LocalDB which didn’t require any setup, but as far as your application in concerned it is no different than working with any other version of SQL Server.

Azure SQL as the name implies is SQL Server on Azure. The only thing I really need to say about this is that you can swap LocalDB and Azure SQL with ease. They may be different but as far as your prototype is concerned, they are the same.

Scaffolding

The only thing quicker than writing code is having someone else do it for you. So we’ve created our application from a template, added a model which generated our database and now its time to create some pages. Well the good news is it’s still not time to write much code because Visual Studio can scaffold out pages based on our model for us!

Adding a controller to our project in Visual Studio gives us some options on what should be generated for us, one of which is MVC Controller with views, using Entity Framework. What that means is given a model it will create controllers and views for listing items, creating them, editing them and deleting them. No coding by us required!

Now it’s unlikely that is exactly what you’re after, but it’s generally a good starting place and deleting code you don’t need is far quicker then writing it.

Azure

Lastly there is Azure. You may have spotted a theme to all these points and that is they all remove any effort required to do any setup and instead focus on building your own logic, and this point is no different.

I remember a time, when if I wanted a server to put an application on, I had to request it, and then wait a while. What I would get back would either be a server that already had resources running on it, or a blank server that would need applications installed on it. e.g. SQL Server or .Net Framework. IIS wouldn’t have been configured and it would be a number of hours before my application would be running.

With Azure you don’t even really need to leave Visual Studio. From the publish dialog box you can create a new App Service and DB, and then publish. All the connection strings are sorted out for you. There are service plans which cost next to nothing, a domain is configured for you and at the end of the publish the website opens and is working. The whole process has taken less than 10 minutes.

What I learnt at Sugcon 2019

This year Sugcon came to London which given that’s where I’m based is awesome for me. In total it was a 3 day conference starting with Sitecore Experience aimed more at marketers than developers. As a developer I only went to the 2 developer days, so for your benefit here’s a summary of everything I saw.

Day 1

Day 1 started with a keynote, sadly life got in the way and I missed the first few hours. I’m told it was good though.

After that the day was split into a mix of sessions in the big room for all and smaller break out sessions where you could pick 1 of 4 to attend.

JSS Immersion – Lessons learned and looking ahead with Anastasiya Flynn

To kick things off I went to a talk on JSS, mostly because JSS is a subject I know very little about. This was something that became even more apparent as the talk went on! At the end of it I came away with an appreciation that I need to invest some time in learning a lot more, but my other take away was a few links on things that will help me out if I ever try some React stuff.

https://www.styled-components.com

https://www.react-spring.io

PAAS It on: Learning’s from a year on Sitecore with Criss Titschinger

Criss works as a dev opps person and over the last year went on the journey of having a Sitecore 8.2 install upgraded to 9 using a fully cloud architecture in Azure.

Overall his experience sounded positive but he did have a few warnings from pain he experienced:

  • Beware of cold start up times with web apps. These can be a real performance hit, especially when Azure decides its going to move your web app instance
  • Web app slots share processing usage so when your warming one up, your live one is taking a hit. If you run on the edge of capacity, this will be an issue
  • Azure search is easy to install but it has a field limitation of 1000 to watch out for
  • Data migration in an upgrade takes a long time the second time. It took 9 days to migrate a years data from mongo! Only do it once.
  • Run your upgrade on clean instances and do the code in visual studio.
  • Web apps need to be on the premium service plan. The others are to weak
  • Use elastic pools for your database to save money. The microservice architecture introduces a LOT of new dbs which are going to cost money in azure resources. Most of the time they also don’t do that much so put them in a pool to share resources
  • Moving to 9 is going to increase hosting charges. Be honest with clients about it.

Day 2

On Day 2 I got to attend from the start so it was a much fuller day for me.

10x your Sitecore development with Mark Cassidy

The day started with a talk on questioning how long it should take to build a Sitecore site. It was a question that never really got answered but the main thing Mark really raised was, do we over engineer what we do and would simpler actually be enough? He went on to show a time lapse video of himself implementing a bootstrap template in Sitecore which took 15 hours.

To build this site he didn’t install any modules (no glass) and used just the standard Sitecore api. As he pointed out, it was all stuff that could be done by a dev with only the basic Sitecore training, which as there’s a short supply of devs in the world, we can potentially make better use of who does what.

Extending and implementing cloud architectures with Rob Habraken

After one talk on cloud the day before I almost gave this one a miss, but I’m glad I didn’t.

Rob gave us some of his learning’s and things to look out for. As the the previous session the theme of Sitecore 9 becoming far more complex came up and he had some interesting takes on it:

  • Use what you need, disable roles that you don’t. I see plenty of Sitecore customers not making use of all the features, and when your in a microservice architecture it does raise the question of why even have this stuff turned on. If you don’t use marketing automation then you don’t need the role running. It’s just costing money to do nothing.
  • Scale down when your not using resource. Unlike a VM web apps can not be turned off so they always cost money. You can delete and recreate, but that’s a pain. Instead set up a pipeline to scale them to the lowest resource setting when not being used.
  • He went on to discuss and show how we can use azure functions and logic apps to implement our code rather than building into the main Sitecore project. However you should be careful overdoing it as it can become complex quickly and it’s easy to end up with a massive unorganised list of individual azure functions.

Automated personalisation with Chris Nash and Niels Kuhnel

Chris and Niels pointed out the flaw in Sitecores reporting on personalised content. How do we know the rate each converts to a goal at? There’s the A/B Test report’s but that’s not quite the same thing.

They went on to show how they had started measuring the display impressions and click through on personalised content. Then linking the results collected in the reporting db up to a Power BI dashboard.

Sitecore identity: A new Sitecore authentication mechanism with Himadri Chakrabarti

Himadri gave us a look at the new Identity Server framework in Sitecore 9.1:

  • Identity server 4 framework
  • Still uses old asp net membership provider underneath
  • Can work with sub providers like Azure

Measure if you want to go faster with Jeremy Davis

Jeremy was in the situation where a site they were developing would have TV adverts during one of the most watch programs on British TV. Naturally he got scared and went looking for tools to help with performance. He told us about two of them:

  • Sitecore debug tool in experience editor showing the time it takes for components to load.
  • Using Visual Studio debugger to monitor processor usage and memory usage.

Both of these tools are very good at pointing you in the direction of smelly code and the best part is you already have them.

Unfortunately it’s the kind of demo that really doesn’t convert to text to write here.

We released JSS, you’ll never guess what happened next with Adam Weber & Kam Figy

Adam and Kam showed us JSS working with SXA and Sitecore Forms. As mentioned before I don’t know much about JSS but after this talk I’m convinced I definitely need to.

Right now it doesn’t sound like I would make a site using it, but it could definitely be the future of how we build sites.

The stand out thing is being able to keep your Sitecore install unmodified which would essentially lead us to a real SAAS solution where a Sitecore instance could be spun up from the marketplace and then all other functionality added through server-less functions and a headless front end.

Cloud Hosting IaaS vs PaaS

A topic I hear from clients fairly regularly these days is a plan to move to “the cloud”, or we take over a site built by someone else thats hosted in “the cloud”. However in virtually every case it’s an IaaS setup and they don’t really know what the difference between IaaS and PaaS is.

What is IaaS?

So what is infrastructure as a service (IaaS for short)? To put it quite simply, IaaS in the cloud, be that Azure or AWS takes away the burden of managing your own or rented servers.

Anyone who’s worked in a corporate environment can tell you getting some new servers can be a lengthy process. Someone needs to arrange for them to be purchased, placed in a physical location, software installed etc. Even when the management of this has been outsourced to another company, it still remains a lengthy process.

Equally anyone working for a small company can tell you its not much better. There may be a lot less approval processes to jump through, but your on your own trying to buy and set up this kit from somewhere.

IaaS solves this by providing a very very quick service where you request a specific setup and a VM gets created for you ready to go in a couple of minutes. You can pick from a range of locations around the world and when you don’t need it any more you turn it off. There’s no large commitments to keeping a server for 6 months, you pay by the minute scaling up and down as needed.

IaaS is very simple to replace your current setup as its essentially the same thing just with much better management control around it.

What is PaaS?

Platform as a service (PaaS), is what people really mean when they talk about the future and the cloud. If you go to a conference and hear Microsoft talk about Azure, you can be 99% certain its a PaaS service they’re talking about.

To understand it think about the process of getting some office space. You could buy a plot of land, have a building placed on it and turn it into your office. But when the roof leaks you’ll need to arrange for that to be fixed, you’ll need to arrange regular fire alarm tests to make sure everyone remains safe, and when an issue is discovered in the buildings security you’ll need to get that fixed to. You didn’t really want to be a building manager, but that’s what’s happened.

The alternative is to rent some office space and leave the management to somebody else. All you have to do is follow some rules like don’t go on the roof and don’t go in that cupboard where all the fire alarm equipment is.

PaaS is a bit like this, we didn’t really want a box running Windows Server that we need to keep secure and up to date. We just want a SQL Server DB and that traditionally comes with a need to have a server to run it on. Equally for hosting a website we really just want somewhere our sites going to run, in the same way that for office space we just want somewhere for our staff to sit. It’s unlikely that we’re ever going to use these servers for more than one purpose so we don’t really need a generic system that allows us to install a multitude of things.

So with PaaS rather than buying a server your buying a service, which could be a web application, a db or many other things. As this is no longer just buying server space there are a number of restrictions. For example with a web application saving anything on the file system is rules out. Your application is going to be there but part of what makes it possible for all the server updates to be done for you is that at any time your application could be moved to a brand new server, anything not in the package to set it up will be lost.