Tag Archives: microsoft

Hands On ASP.NET Core

I’ve been putting together a quick web application (well, I thought it would be quick) in my spare time (hah!) and I picked ASP.NET Core on Linux as a sensible option given that I like working in C#. Overall it has been a reasonable experience so far and I still love the language. This is the most extensive work I have done so far with ASP.NET Core though and I have a few observations.

It is not a difficult framework to work with but I believe it could be made more approachable. This is largely a matter of documentation though another point of confusion is the transition Microsoft has been making from ASP.NET MVC to Razor Pages. These two frameworks are similar but different, they share a lot of technology but some things work in one but not the other, and sometimes it is not clear whether what you are reading applies just to ASP.NET MVC, or just to Razor Pages, or to both, or to both but with a little tweaking to account for differences. I started with MVC because I am more familiar with it but have shifted to Razor Pages because that seems to be the preferred direction; really I am equally happy with either.

If you are thinking of getting started with ASP.NET Core I recommend you start not with the framework, but with making sure that you are familiar with the following topics:

Dependency injection. If you are puzzling about something in the framework the answer may be “add it to the constructor and it magically works.” This is obvious if you are familiar with it but not otherwise.

Anonymous types. These seem to crop up quite a lot.

Lambdas and the arrow operator =>

LINQ queries

Now, the documentation. Unless you have perhaps found a good and up to date book you will probably start here.

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Now, I do think there are lots of good things about docs.microsoft.com, the fact that it is all on GitHub and open for comment and improvement, the fact that it performs well, and the obvious effort that has gone into many of the topics.

That said, I do not much like this page. My biggest problem with it is that there is no simple link to a comprehensive reference. It is a bunch of little tutorials which may or may not tell you what you need to know. It gets better if you click into one of the topics and I like this page, for example, much better, with the hierarchical list of topics on the left.

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It is still not great though. There is a big emphasis on tutorials, and while I agree that learning through doing is a great way to learn, the problem with the tutorials is that they tend to leave you with lots of questions and no obvious route to answers.

I will give you an example. I decided to use the ASP.NET Identity system in my application, because it saves a ton of tedious work doing registration, password reset, login, and so on, plus it is security-critical code that I would likely get wrong if I did it myself.

The problem you will immediately hit though is that you want to store additional data about users. This could be any kind of data but let’s call it additional profile data. For example, you want to let users upload an image which is then displayed in the application. There are some heavy articles about customizing identity but there is also this one on adding custom user data to an ASP.NET Core web app. It’s great but it does not actually tell you how to retrieve the custom user data in your application. Eventually I figured out a way of doing it. You just have to use dependency injection to get an instance of the UserManager class. So you pop this in the constructor for one of your classes:

UserManager<YourCustomUser> UserManager

and store it in a private variable. Then you can do:

var MyTask = _userManager.GetUserAsync(User);
MyTask.Wait();
var MyUser = MyTask.Result;

or something similar (if it is a synchronous method) and it just works.

Let me add something else. The actual API reference for ASP.NET Core is almost useless. It faithfully documents each class and method while often saying nothing about how or why to use it.

Data access

My application is really forms over data as so many are, so data access plays a big role. There seem to be plenty of tutorials on data access in the ASP.NET Core documentation but I don’t much like them. The problem is Entity Framework. Most of the documentation assumes it. It is not that Entity Framework is bad; it does seem to work well and while there is debate about how well it performs, in many cases it does not matter, and in other cases you can fine-tune it. My problem rather is that what Microsoft calls a “complex data model” is actually the normal case, where you have many-to-many relationships, and dealing with this in Entity Framework soon gets fiddly. I am guilty of lacking patience, but being familiar with SQL it is easier for me just to write the SQL and to know exactly what data is being saved and what data is being retrieved. I have left Entity Framework in place because the Identity system uses it (and it looks non-trivial to replace) but for the rest I have migrated to Dapper which seems ideal. It is not a full-featured ORM and it expects you to write the SQL but does a lot that saves time. My only complaint about Dapper is that (again) the documentation isn’t great but I’ve found it much simpler to grok than the more advanced aspects of Entity Framework.

One thing I do like about Entity Framework is data migrations. Like most developers I have a local database and another one online and code-first data migrations save a lot of work creating database tables and keeping the schema in sync. Dapper does not have this.

StackOverflow

Of course it is true that no matter what is your question, someone has asked it before, and often the best place to find the answer is on StackOverflow. Big appreciation for the folk who take the time to answer questions there, though I’d add that it is not a place from which to copy code, it is a place to understand a solution. Out of date information is a problem, as it is in Microsoft’s own documentation.

Finally

I think ASP.NET Core is a great framework (or frameworks) but not as approachable as it could be. Documenting it in the best way is not an easy problem to solve, and every developer comes with different skills and requirements. Perhaps Microsoft could get someone suitable to write a nice book aimed at intermediate coders, and one that does not assume you want to use Entity Framework. Then offer it as a free download and/or publish it online as part of the documentation, and keep it up to date as new versions appear.

Annoying Azure capacity problems in UK West region

I have a test setup of Windows Virtual Desktop (WVD) and was experimenting with adding an additional VM. At least, I tried to. My WVD virtual network is in the UK West region. And when I try to create a VM I get the message: Your subscription doesn’t support virtual machine creation in UK West. Choose a different location.

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This was annoying because my WVD virtual network is in UK West, so no, another region would not do. If you click Learn More you get this page which says that if you get this message and still want to deploy a VM in the region, you have to raise a support case.

I am guessing but I presume this is a capacity problem and that Microsoft is discouraging VM creation in the region. The problem for the customer is that such things are opaque; there is nowhere you can see which Azure regions are running close to capacity.

Microsoft posts another strong set of results, does not know how to invest its profits

Microsoft has announced its quarterly financial statements, reporting revenue of $33.1 billion, up 14% on the same period last year (though fractionally down on the previous quarter).

It does not know how to invest the money it is making. It returned $7.9 billion to shareholders via dividends and buybacks.

What’s notable? The fastest-growing business is Azure, with revenue up by 59%, followed by Dynamics 365 up by 41%.

Office 365 commercial revenue up by 25%, Dynamics 365 up by 41%.

Microsoft notes that it is achieving “higher average revenue per user” on Office 365, indicating some success in adding premium features.

LinkedIn is performing well, revenue up by 25%.

Xbox hardware revenue is down by 34%, but gaming revenue overall down by only 7%. The next hope for gaming will be when the next generation of Xbox appears, Project “Scarlett”, expected this time next year.

In Windows. business revenue is up in both “commercial revenue” (Microsoft 365 and other license sales) and OEM Pro revenue (PCs with Windows 10 Pro installed). However consumer Windows is down 7%. Microsoft says “pressure in the entry level category”, but my guess is that home PCs are just not being replaced and that Chromebooks and iPads are eating into laptop sales.

Quarter ending Sept 30th 2019 vs quarter ending Sept 30th 2018, $millions

Segment Revenue Change Operating income Change
Productivity and Business Processes 11077 +1306 4782 +901
Intelligent Cloud 10845 +2278 3889 +958
More Personal Computing 11133 +387 4015 +872

The segments break down as:

Productivity and Business Processes: Office, Office 365, Dynamics 365 and on-premises Dynamics, LinkedIn

Intelligent Cloud: Server products, Azure cloud services

More Personal Computing: Consumer including Windows, Xbox; Bing search; Surface hardware

Saving documents in Office 365 desktop applications

Those readers who also follow The Register may have noticed that I am writing more for that publication now, though be assured that I will still post here from time to time. My most recent piece is on saving documents in Office and reflects a longstanding annoyance that in applications like Word and Excel Microsoft mostly bypasses the standard Windows file save dialog in favour of its own Backstage,  now supplemented by an additional dialog which the team says  will help us “save your files to the cloud more easily.”

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Admittedly the new dialog is small and neat relative to the cluttered Backstage but it is not very flexible and if you use multiple sub-folders to organize our files you will be clicking More save options half the time, defeating the point.

There is also a suspicion that rather than helping us with something most of us do not need help with, Microsoft is trying to promote OneDrive – which it is entitled to do, but it is an annoyance if the software you have paid for is being used as a surreptitious marketing tool.

Microsoft earnings: strong quarter, but Xbox revenue dives

Microsoft has announced its quarterly financial statements, reporting revenue of $33.7 billion, up 12% on the same period last year.

The company stated that Azure revenue is up 64% year on year. Azure has overtaken the other two segments and is now the biggest, by a small amount. In addition, Azure gross margin has improved by 6% year on year.

Office 365 revenue is up 31% year on year.

Gaming was a black spot, declining 10% year on year – though Xbox Live monthly active users is at a record 65 million. The main problem is a 48% decline in the volume of Xbox consoles sold.

Quarter ending June 30th 2019 vs quarter ending June 30th 2018, $millions

Segment Revenue Change Operating income Change
Productivity and Business Processes 11047 +1379 4344 +878
Intelligent Cloud 11391 +1785 4502 +601
More Personal Computing 11279 +468 3559 +547

The segments break down as:

Productivity and Business Processes: Office, Office 365, Dynamics 365 and on-premises Dynamics, LinkedIn

Intelligent Cloud: Server products, Azure cloud services

More Personal Computing: Consumer including Windows, Xbox; Bing search; Surface hardware

Chromium and Microsoft annoyances : Dynamics CRM issues like broken downloads, Chromium team “won’t fix”

Microsoft Dynamics CRM (which exists in both cloud-hosted and on-premises versions) is not working well with Chromium, the open source browser engine used by Google Chrome.

I discovered one obvious issue using Edge Preview, which is based on Chromium. If you download a file, for example using a Word template, Microsoft Office does not recognise it. It turns out to have single quotes around it. I imagine the quotes are there to allow for document names which include spaces, but it should use double quotes. Chromium (and Chrome) used to work OK with single quotes but now does not. It’s causing quite a bit of grief for CRM users in businesses that have standardised on Chrome.

You can read all the details here. Here’s a user report by Troy Siegert, whose organization frequently downloads files from Dynamics:

This week when the Chrome beta build went mainstream, my 30 users suddenly had Windows 10 unable to determine what to do with the files they were so dutifully downloading and trying to look at. Instead of *Report.pdf* the file was named *’Report.pdf’* and of course Windows 10 has no idea what a *.pdf’* file is or what to do with it, so it started asking users questions for which they weren’t prepared and that they didn’t understand. Some of them got confused and tried to associate .xlsx files with Adobe and then became unhappy when Adobe was throwing up messages about corrupt files.

Google’s Abdul Syed responds:

For any server operators running into this issue, the way to fix for this is to use double quotes around any quoted string in the Content-Disposition header (And, more generally, in any HTTP header).

Translation: fix your stuff, don’t expect us to fix our stuff. And in fact the issue has been marked WontFix (Closed).

There was actually a bit of a battle about this. The original commit here (Oct 2018) was reverted here (Feb 12 2019) and unreverted here (Feb 19 2019). In other words, the Chromium team knew it broke downloads for Dynamics CRM users but were not willing to compromise.

I am in two minds about this one. Dynamics CRM is sloppy in places and part of me favours giving Microsoft’s team a kick to make them fix thing that should have been fixed years back.

On the other hand, Mozilla Firefox works fine with the CRM single quotes and you cannot help wondering if Google’s attitude would be different were it a Google application that is impacted.

Microsoft’s Pipelines for Azure Kubernetes Service: fixing COPY failed

I like to try new technology when I can so following the Build conference I decided to deploy a Hello World app to Azure Kubernetes Service (AKS). I made a one-node AKS cluster in no time. I built a .NET Core app in Visual Studio deployed to a Linux Docker container, no problem. I pushed the container into ACR (Azure Container Registry) though it turns out I did not really need to do that. The tricky bit is getting the container deployed to the AKS cluster. There is a thing called Dev Spaces but it does not work in UK South:

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I was contemplating the necessity of building a Helm chart when I tried a thing called Deployment Center (Preview) in the Azure portal.

Click Add Project and it builds a pipeline in Azure DevOps for you.

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It worked but the pipeline failed when building the container.

COPY failed: stat /var/lib/docker/tmp/docker-builder088029891/AKS-Example/AKS-Example.csproj: no such file or directory

I spent some time puzzling over this error. You can view the exact logs of the build failure and I worked out that it is executing the Dockerfile steps:

COPY [“AKS-Example/AKS-Example.csproj”, “AKS-Example/”]

RUN dotnet restore “AKS-Example/AKS-Example.csproj”
COPY . .

This is failing because there the code in my repository is not nested like that. I eventually fixed it by amending the lines to:

COPY [“AKS-Example.csproj”, “AKS-Example/”]
RUN dotnet restore “AKS-Example/AKS-Example.csproj”

COPY . AKS-Example/

Now the pipeline completed and the container was deployed. I had to look at the Load Balancer Azure had generated for me to find the public IP number, but it worked.

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Now the Dockerfile has a different path for local development than when deployed which is annoying. I found I could fix this by changing a step in the Deployment Center wizard:

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Where it says /AKS-Example in Docker build context I replaced it with /. Now the build worked with the original Dockerfile.

I also noticed that the Deployment Center (Preview) used a sample YAML template which is linked directly from GitHub and referred confusingly to deploying sampleapp. It worked but felt a bit of a crude solution.

At this point I realised that I was not really using the latest and greatest, which is the pipeline wizard in Azure Devops. So I deleted everything and tried that.

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This was great but I could not see an equivalent step to the Docker build context. And indeed, the new build failed with the same COPY failed error I got originally. Luckily I knew the workaround and was up and running in no time.

This different approach also has a slightly different shape than the Deployment Center pipeline, using Environments in Azure DevOps.

Currently therefore I have two questions:

  • Why does Azure offer both the Deployment Center (Preview) and the multi-stage pipeline which seem to have overlapping functionality?
  • What is the correct way to modify the generated YAML to fix the path issue?

I suppose it would also be good if the path problem were picked up by the wizard in the first place.

Automatic transcription for journalists: still not viable despite Microsoft push for “Modern journalism”

I am just back from Microsoft’s developer-focused Build event, where some special sessions were laid on for press, on the subject of “Modern journalism.”

Led by Microsoft’s Ben Rudolph, Modern Journalism is described on his public LinkedIn profile as “a new program committed to helping the news industry fight fake news, tell stories that resonate with modern audiences, and succeed financially.”

The sessions appealed to me for one particular reason, which was the promise of automatic transcription. We were given a leaflet which says:

Tired of digging through hours of recordings to find that one quote? When you record a Teams interview, it’s saved to Microsoft Stream. Here you’ll get game-changing AI features: searchable transcript to jump to exact moments a key word or phrase was used.

Before the transcription thing though, we were taken on a tour of OneNote and Word with AI. The latest AI Editor in Word will tighten up your prose and find gaffes like non-inclusive language. There is lack of clarity over the privacy implications (these features work by uploading everything you type to Microsoft) but perhaps it is useful. I make plenty of typographical errors and would welcome help, though I remain sceptical about the extent to which AI can deliver this.

On to transcription though. Just hit record during a voice or video meeting in Teams, Microsoft’s Office 365 collaboration tool, and it gets automatically transcribed.

Unfortunately I do not use Teams for interviews, though it is possible to use it even for in-person interviews by having a meeting of one and recording it. I am wary though. I normally use an external recording device. Many years ago my device failed one day (I forget whether it was battery or something else) and I used my Tablet PC to record an interview with the game inventor Peter Molyneux. My expectations were not particularly high – I just wanted something good enough that I could transcribe it later. Unfortunately the recording was so poor that you can only make out about one word in ten. This, combined with my written notes and memory, was just about sufficient to write up my piece; but it was not an experiment I felt inclined to repeat – though recording quality has improved since that early disaster.

Still, automatic transcription would be an amazing time-saver. Further, I respect what can be achieved. Nuance Dragon Dictate can give superb results after a bit of training. What about Teams?

Today I put the idea to the test. I took a recorded interview from Build, made with a dedicated device, and uploaded it to Microsoft Stream. I tried uploading an audio file directly, but it would not accept it. I then created a “video” by importing my audio into a one-slide PowerPoint presentation and exporting it as a video. The quality is fine, easily intelligible. Stream chewed on it for maybe 30 minutes, and then my transcript was ready. The subject was the Azure Kubernetes Service. Here is a snippet of what Stream came up with:

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There is an unnecessary annoyance here, which is that you cannot easily select and copy the entire transcript. Notice that it is in short snippets. The best way to get the whole thing is to click the three dots under the video, choose Update Video Details, and then download the caption file.

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Now you get something like this:

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The format is, shall we say, sub-optimal for journalists, though it would not take too long to write a script that would extract the text.

The bigger problem is the actual transcription. The section I have chosen is wrong in an interesting way. Here is part of what was said:

With the KEDA announcement today, what you’re seeing is us working with the ecosystem, in this case Red Hat, to solve some tricky problems around how to autoscale containers.

and here is the transcription:

with
the Kate Announcement. Today, which are seeing is also
actually working with the ecosystem in this case. We had
to sell some tricky problems around how to autoscale containers

Many of the words are correct, but the meaning is scrambled. Red Hat has been transcribed as “we had” losing a critical part of the content.

It is not my intention to rubbish this technology. Automatic transcription is very challenging, especially with specialist content. It is not unreasonable for the system to transcribe KEDA as “Kate”: it is a brand new acronym (Kubernetes-based event-driven autoscaling).

Still, the question I ask myself is whether fixing up the auto transcription will save me any time versus the old-fashioned approach. I use a Word macro that plays back the interview with hot keys to pause and backtrack, editing as I go.

The answer is no. It will take me as long or longer to make sense of the automatic transcription, by comparing it to the original, than to type it from scratch.

This might not always be the case. Perhaps with a more AI-friendly subject the transcription will be good enough to save some time. It could also help to find where in the recording a particular quote appears. So it is not altogether useless.

Transcription is difficult, but there are some simpler matters which Microsoft could improve. Enabling upload of audio files rather than video, and providing a continuous transcript that can easily be copied, for example.

Having a team within Microsoft rooting for journalists strikes me as a good thing in that an internal team may have more influence over the products.

It may be more a matter of some bright spark thinking, hey if we get more journalists using Office 365 that will help to promote the product. A strategy which will be more successful if effort goes into making product fit better with the way journalists actually work.

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One .NET: unification of .NET for Windows and .NET Core, Xamarin too

Microsoft’s forking of the .NET development platform into the Windows-only .NET Framework on one side, and the cross-platform .NET Core on the other, has caused considerable confusion. Which should you target? What is the compatibility story? And where does Mono, the older cross-platform .NET fit in? Xamarin, partly based on Mono, is another piece of the puzzle.

Now Microsoft has announced that .NET 5, coming in November 2020, will unify these diverse .NET versions.

“There will be just one .NET going forward, and you will be able to use it to target Windows, Linux, macOS, iOS, Android, tvOS, watchOS and WebAssembly and more,” says Microsoft’s Rich Turner.

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Following the release of .NET 5.0, the framework will have a major release every November, says Turner, with a long-term support release every two years.

Some other key announcements:

  • CoreCLR (the .NET Core runtime) and Mono will become drop-in replacements for one another.
  • Java interoperability will be available on all platforms.
  • Objective-C and Swift interoperability will be supported on multiple operating systems.
  • CoreFX will be extended to support static compilation of .NET and support for more operating systems.

A note of caution though. Turner says there are a number of issues still to be resolved. There is room for scepticism about how complete this unification will be.

More details in the official announcement here.

Update: having looked at these plans in a little more detail, it is wrong to say that Microsoft is unifying .NET Framework and .NET Core. Rather, Microsoft is saying that .NET Core is the replacement for .NET Framework for new applications whether on Windows or elsewhere. Certain parts of .NET Framework, including WCF, Web Forms, and Windows Workflow, will never be migrated to .NET 5. .NET Framework 4.8 will still be maintained and is recommended for existing applications.

Microsoft Build and the repositioning of Windows

Microsoft Build is under way in Seattle, with around 6000 attendees here to learn about the company’s latest developer technology. But what is the heart of Microsoft’s platform today? The answer used to be Windows – and this conference was originally the Build Windows event, distinct from the earlier Professional Developer Conference which was run by the Developer Division and had a wider scope.

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Microsoft’s Satya Nadella introduces Build 2019 

  Today though it is not so clear. The draft Build 2019 press release hardly mentions Windows. Here is the summary of topics: 

In his opening keynote, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella outlined the company vision and developer opportunity across Microsoft Azure, Microsoft Dynamics 365 and Power Platform, Microsoft 365, and Microsoft Gaming”

Windows is there of course. Azure uses Hyper-V, the Windows Server hypervisor. A Microsoft 365 license is a bundle of Office 365, InTune device management, and Windows Enterprise. Microsoft Gaming includes PC gaming, and Xbox gets its name from the Windows DirectX hardware accelerated graphics API. But no, this is no longer a conference about developing for Windows, and Microsoft seems happy for its operating system to be less visible. PCs remain the devices on which many of us get most of our work done, but it is not a growth market, and cannot really become one unless by some miracle Microsoft returned to mobile or wearables. That would be hard, especially since the Universal Windows Platform, originally conceived as an app platform for touch and mobile as well as desktop, has drifted away from that concept and become something of uncertain relevance unless you are targeting HoloLens or some other niche.

That said, Windows is still evolving and Build remains the best event to keep track of what is new. In the advance news on which this post is based, several key features were announced.

Windows Subsystem for Linux 2 (WSL) now supports Linux Docker containers as well as faster file I/O. This also integrates nicely with new Visual Studio Code Remote Development Extensions which let you edit and debug code in WSL, in Docker containers, or on any remove machine over SSH.

Windows Terminal is a new application for command lines including PowerShell, Cmd and WSL. It includes rich fonts (with hardware accelerated rendering), multiple tabs, and “theming and customization”.

React Native for Windows is an open source project on GitHub that will let you develop high performance Windows applications.

MSIX Core is the next step in Windows setup technology and lets you install MSIX packages on Windows 7 as well as Windows 10.

.NET 5 has been announced and seems to embrace both Windows Desktop and cross-platform – I will be unpacking the details of how this works shortly. .NET 5 will release in 2020.

Microsoft Edge (on Chromium) has new features announced included an IE mode tab (for running Internet Explorer applications/sites), three levels of privacy (Unrestricted, Balanced and Strict) which claim to control third-party tracking, and Collections which is a feature for collecting and sharing web information and integrates with Office.

Of course there is much more news on what Microsoft now sees as its top priority topics: Azure, AI, Microsoft Search, PowerApps, PowerBI, Cognitive Services, Bot Framework, Mixed reality, IoT and Edge computing, Cosmos DB, Azure Kubernetes Service, GitHub and more.

Windows? Still the best way to run Office, and excellent for developing applications. But this is Microsoft Build, not Build Windows.

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Seattle, Washington the evening before Microsoft Build