This is a subject that I have been wanting to write about for a while now and I am happy to say that I finally found the time while in an airplane*. I think I first discussed this question a few months ago with Wouter de Kort at the start of this year (2019.) Since then he has written an interesting blog post on how to structure your DTAP streets in Azure DevOps. His advice is to structure your environments as a pipeline that allows your code only to flow from source control to production, via other environments. Very sound advice, but next to that I wonder, do you need all those environments?

Traditionally a lot of us have been creating a number of environments, and for reasons. One for developers to deploy to and test their own work. One for testers to execute automated tests and do exploratory testing. And only when a release is of sufficient quality, it is promoted to the next environment: acceptance. Here the release is validated one final time in a production-like-environment, before it is pushed to production. The value that an acceptance environment is supposed to add, is that it is as production-like as possible. Often connected to other live systems to test integrations, whereas a test environment might be connected to stubs or not connected at all.

Drawbacks of multiple environments

However, creating and maintaining all these environments also comes with drawbacks:

  • It’s easy to see that your costs increase with the number of environments. Not necessarily in setting the environment up and maintaining it (since that is all done through IaC, right?) But still, we have to pay for the resource we use, and that can be serious money
  • Since our code and the value it delivers can only flow through production after it has gone through all the other environments, the number of environments has impact on how quickly we can deliver our code to production.

All these drawbacks are a plea for limiting the number of environments to as few as possible. Now with that in mind, do you really need an acceptance environment? I am going to argue that you might not. Especially when I hear things like: “Let’s go to acceptance quickly, so we do not have to wait another two days before we can go to production,” I die a little on the inside.

Why you might not need acceptance

So let’s go over some reasons for having an acceptance environment and seeing if we can make these redundant.

No wait, we do need an acceptance environment where our customer can explore the new features and accept their working, before we release them to all users.

While I hope that you involve your customer and other stakeholders before you have a finalized product, there can be value in customers having approve the release of features to users explicitly. However, is it really necessary to do this from an acceptance environment? Have you considered using feature toggles? This way you can release your code to the production environment and allow only your customer access to this new feature. Only after he approves, you open the feature up to more users. In other words, if we can ensure that shipping the new binaries to production, does not automatically entail the release of new features, we do not need an acceptance environment for final feature acceptance by the client. More information on feature flags (also called feature toggles), can be found here.

We need a production-like environment to do final tests

Trust me, there is no place like home. And for your code, production is home. The only way to truly validate your code and the value it should bring, is by running in it in production. An acceptance environment, even if more integrated with other systems and with more realistic data than production, does not compare to production. You cannot fully predict what your users will do with your features, estimate the impact of real world usage or foresee all deviating scenario’s. Here again, if you are using feature flags, that would be a much better approach to progressively open up a new feature to more and more users. And if issues show up, just stop the roll out for a bit or even reverse it, while you are shipping a fix.

Now, do you think you can go without an acceptance environment? And if not, please let me know why not and I might just add a counter argument.

Now, while I do realize that the above does not hold for every organization and every development team, I would definitely recommend to keep challenging yourself on the number of environments you need and if you can reduce that number.

 

(*) An airplane, where there is absolutly nothing else to do, is an environment I bet we all find inspiring!

In an earlier post on provisioning a Let’s encrypt SSL certificate to a Web App, I touched upon the subject of creating an RBAC Role Assignment using an ARM template. In that post I said that I wasn’t able to provision an Role Assignment to a just single resource (opposed to a whole Resourcegroup.) This week I found out that this was due to an error on my side. The template for provisioning an Authorizaton Rule for just a single resource, differs from that for provisioning a Rule for a whole Resourcegroup.

Here the correct JSON for provisioning an Role Assignment to a single resource:

As Ohad correctly points out in the comments the appServiceContributerRoleGuid, should be a unique Guid generated by you. It does not refer back to a Guid of any predefined role.

In contrast, below find the JSON for provisioning an Authorizaton Rule for a Resourcegroup as a whole. To provision a roleAssignment for a single resource, we do not need to set a more specific scope, but completely leave it out. Instead the roleAssignment has to be nested within the resource it applies to. This is visible when comparing the type, name and scope properties of both definitions.

If you have been reading my previous two posts (part I & part II) on this subject, you might have noticed that neither solution I presented is perfect. Both solutions still suffer from storing secrets for local development in source control. Also combining configuration from multiple sources, can be be difficult. Luckily, in the newest versions of the .NET Framework and .NET Core there is a solution available that allows you to store your local development secrets outside of source control: user secrets.

User secrets are contained in a JSON file that is stored in your user profile and which contents can be applied to your runtime App Settings. Adding user secrets to you project is done by rightclicking on the project and selecting manage user secrets:

The first time you do this, an unique GUID is generated for the project which links this specific project to an unique file in your users folder. After this, the file is automatically opened up for editting. Here you can provide overrides for app settings:

When starting the project now, these user secrets are loaded using config builders and available as AppSettings. So let’s take a closer look at these config builders.

Config builders

Config builders are new in .NET Framework 4.7.1 and .NET Core 2.0 and allow for pulling settings from one ore more other sources than just your app.config. Config builders support a number of different sources like user secrets, environment variables and Azure Key Vault (full list on MSDN). Even better: you can create your own config builder, to pull in configuration from your own configuration management system / keychain

The way config builders are used, differs between .NET Core and the Full Framework. In this example, I will be using the full framework. In the full framework config builders are added to your app.settings file. If you have added user secrets to your project, you will find an UserSecretsConfigBuilder in your Web.config already:

Important: If you add or edit this configuration by hand, do make sure that the configBuilders section is BEFORE the appSettings section.

Config builders and Azure KeyVault

Now let’s make this more realistic. When running locally, user secrets are fine. However, when running in Azure we want to use our Key Vault in combination with Manged Identity again. The full example is on GitHub and as in my previous posts, this example is based on first deploying an ARM template to set up the required infrastructure. With this in place, we can have our application read secrets from KeyVault on startup automatically.

Important: Your managed identity will need both list and get access to your Key vault. If not, you will get hard to debug errors.

As a first step, we have to install the config builder for Key Vault by adding the NuGET package Microsoft.Configuration.ConfigurationBuilders.Azure. After that, add an Web.config transformation for the Release configuration as follow:

Now we just have to deploy and enjoy the result:

Happy coding!

In my previous post (secret management part 1: using azurekey vault and azure managed identity) I showed an example of storing secrets (keys, passwords or certificates) in an Azure Key Vault and how to retrieve them securely. Now, this approach has one downside and that is this indirection via the Key Vault.

In the previous implementation, service X creates an key to access it and we store it in the Key Vault. After that, service Y that needs the key, authenticates to the Azure Active Directory to access the Key Vault, retrieve the secret and use it to access service X. Why can’t we just access service X, after authenticating to the Azure Active Directory, as shown below?

In this approach we completely removed the need for Azure Key Vault, reducing the amount of hassle. Another benefit is that we are no longer creating extra secrets, which means we can also not loose them. Just another security benefit. Now let’s build an example and see how this works.

Infrastructure

Again we start by creating an ARM Template to deploy our infrastructure. This time we are using a feature of the Azure SQL DB Server to have an AAD identity be appointed as an administrator on that server, in the following snippet.

We are using the same approach as earlier, but now to set the objectId for the AAD admin of the Azure SQL DB Server. One thing that is also important is that the property for ‘login’ is just a placeholder of the principals name. Since we do not know it, we can set it to anything we want. If we would ever change the user through the portal (which we shouldn’t), this property will reflect the actual username.

Again, the full template can be found on GitHub.

Code

With the infrastructure in place, let’s write some passwordless code to have our App Service access the created Azure SQL DB:

First we request a token and specify a specific resource “https://database.windows.net/” as the type of resource we want to use the token for. Next we start building a connection string, just as we would do normally. However, we leave out anything related to authentication. Next (and this is only available in .NET Framework 4.6.1 or higher), just before opening the SQL Connection we set the acquired token on the connection object. From there on, we can again work normally as ever before.

Again, it’s that simple! The code is, yet again available on GitHub.

Supported services

Unfortunately, you can not use this approach for every service you will want to call and are dependent on the service supporting this approach. A full list of services that support token based application authentication are listed on MSDN. Also, you can support this way of authentication on your own services. Especially when you are moving to a microservices architecture, this can save you a lot of work and management of secrets.

Last week I received a follow-up question from a fellow developer about a presentation I did regarding Azure Key Vault and Azure Managed Identity. In this presentation I claimed, and quickly showed, how you can use these two offerings to store all the passwords, keys and certificates you need for your ASP.NET application in a secure storage (the Key Vault) and also avoid the problem of just getting another, new password to access that Key Vault.

I have written a small ASP.NET application that reads just one very secure secret from an Azure Key Vault and displays it on the screen. Let’s dive into the infrastructure and code to make this work!

Infrastructure

Whenever we want our code to run in Azure, we need to have some infrastructure it runs on. For a web application, your infrastructure will often contain an Azure App Service Plan and an Azure App Service. We are going to create these using an ARM template. We use the same ARM template to also create the Key Vault and provide an identity to our App Service. The ARM template that delivers these components can be found on GitHub. Deploying this template, would result in the following:

The Azure subscription you are deploying this infrastructure to, is backed by an Azure Active Directory. This directory is the basis for all identity & access management within the subscription. This relation also links the Key  Vault to that same AAD. This relation allows us to create access policies on the Key Vault that describe what operations (if any) any user in that directory can perform on the Key Vault.

Applications can also be registered in an AAD and we can thus give them access to the Key Vault. However, how would an application authenticate itself to the AAD? This is where Managed Identity comes in. Managed Identity will create an service principal (application) in that same Active Directory that is backing the subscription. At runtime your Azure App Service will be provided with environment variables that allow you to authenticate without the use of passwords.

For more information about ARM templates, see the information on MSDN. However there are two important parts of my template that I want to share. First the part that enables the Managed Identity on the App Service:

Secondly, we have to give this identity, that is yet to be created, access to the Key Vault. We do this by specifying an access policy on the KeyVault. Be sure to declare a ‘DependsOn’ the App Service, so you will only reference the identity after it is created:

Here I am using some magic (that I just copy/pasted from MSDN) to refer back to my earlier deployed app service managed identity and retrieve the principalId and use that to create an access policy for that identity.

That is all, so let’s deploy the templates. Normally you would set up continuous deployment using Azure Pipelines, but for this quick demo I used Powershell:

Now with the infrastructure in place, let’s add the password that we want to protect to the Key Vault. There are many, many ways to do this but let’s use Powershell again:

Do not be alarmed if you get an access denied error. This is most likely because you still have to give yourself access to the Key Vault. By default no-one has access, not even the subscription owners. Let’s fix that with the following command:

Code

With the infrastructure in place, let’s write the application that access this secret. I have created a simple, ASP.NET MVC application and edited the Home view to contain the following main body. Again the code is also on GitHub:

Now to supply the requested values, I have added the following code to the HomeController:

First I check if we are running in an Azure App Service with Managed Identity enabled. This looks a bit hacky, but it is actually the recommended approach. Next, if running as an MI, I use the AzureSErviceTokenProvider (NuGet package: Microsoft.Azure.Services.AppAuthentication) to retrieve an AAD token. In turn I use that token to instantiate an KeyVaultClient (NuGet package: Microsoft.Azure.KeyVault) and use it to retrieve the secret.

That’s it!

Want to know more?

I hope to write two more blogs on this subject soon. One about using system to system authentication and authorization and not storing extra secrets into KeyVault and one about Config Builders, a new development for .NET Core 2.0 and .NET Framework 4.71 or higher.

Over the last couple of months I have been coaching a number of PHP teams to help them improve their software engineering practices. The main goals were to improve the quality of the product, ease of delivery and the overall maintainability of the code. If there is one thing that defines maintainable code, in my opinion, it is the existence of unit tests. However, one of the things that proved more difficult than one might expect is to start writing proper unit tests in an existing PHP solution.

In this instance, the teams were using the Laravel framework. However, standard Laravel practices limited the testability of the code created by the teams. I have worked with these teams to make their code more testable to two ends:

  • Improve overall testability by introducing new class design patterns
  • Reduce the duration of tests. Prior to this approach, a lot of tests were implemented as end-to-end, interface based tests. And boy, are they slow!

After a number of weeks, we saw the first results coming in, so all of this worked out nicely.

The goal of this post is to share the issues found that were preventing the team from proper unit testing and how we got around them.

Issue 1: instantiating a class in a unit test

The first thing we ran into was the fact that it was impossible to instantiate any class from a unit test. There were two reasons for this. The first was that there was actual work done in the constructor of almost every class: calling a method on another class and/or hitting the database.

Next to this, dependencies for any class were not passed in via the constructor, but were created in the constructor using a standard Laravel pattern. The good news here is that Laravel actually provides you with a dependency container. The bad news is, that it was often used like this:

This calls a global, static method app() to get the dependency container and then instantiates a class by type. Having this code in the constructor makes it completely impossible to new the class up from a unit test.

In short, we couldn’t instantiate classes in a unit test due to:

  • Doing work in a constructor
  • Instantiating dependencies ourselves

Solution: Let the constructor only gather dependencies

First of all, calling methods or the database was quite easy to refactoring out of the constructors. Also, this is a thing that can easily be avoided when creating new classes.

The best way to not instantiate dependencies yourselves, is to leave that to the framework. Instead of hitting the global app() method to obtain the container, we added the needed type as a parameter to the constructor, leaving it up to the Laravel container to provide an instance at runtime (constructor dependency injection.)

Now there is still one issue here and that is we are depending upon a concrete class, not an abstraction. This means, we are violation the Dependency Inversion principle. To fix this, we need to depend on an interface. However, now the Laravel dependency container no longer knows which type to provide to our class when instantiating it, since it cannot instantiate a class. Therefore, we have to configure a binding that maps the interface to the class.

Having done this, we can now change our constructor to look as follows.

At this point we have changed the following:

  • No work in constructors
  • Getting dependencies provided instead of instantiating them ourselves.
  • Depending upon abstractions

Mission accomplished! These things combined now allows to instantiate our test subject in a unit test as follows:

Issue 2: Global static helper methods

Now we can instantiate a TestSubject in a test and start testing it. The second we got to this state, we ran into another problem that was all over the code base: global, static, helper methods. These methods have different sources. They are built-in PHP methods, Laravel helper methods or convenience methods from 3rd parties. However, they all present us with the same problems when it comes to testability:

  • We cannot mock calls to global, static methods. Which means we cannot remove their behavior at runtime and thus cannot isolate our TestSubject and start pulling in real dependencies, dependencies of dependencies, etc…

From here on, I will share (roughly in order of preference) a number of approaches to get around this limitation.

Solution 1: Finding a constructor injection replacement

When starting to investigate these static methods, especially those provided by Laravel, we saw that a lot of them were just short wrapper methods around the Dependency Container. For example, the implementation of a much used view method was this:

For all these convenience methods, it is straightforward to see that we can easily refactor the calling code from this:

To this:

A quick and easy way to remove a decent portion of calls to global functions.

Solution 2: Software engineering tricks

If there is no interface readily available for constructor injection, we can create one ourselves. A common engineering trick is to move unmockable code to a new class. We then inject this to our subject at runtime. At test time however, we can then mock this wrapper and test our subject as much as possible.

As an example, let’s take the following code:

Of course we can test this class by letting it operate on a temporary file, but another approach would be to do this:

Maybe not a thing you would do in this specific instance. But if you have code that is more complex and is executing a single call to a global method, this way you can move that call behind an interface and mock it out while testing:

In my opinion, solution 2 is by far a better approach to take than solutions 3 and 4. However, if you are afraid that adding to much types might clutter your codebase or reduce the performance of your application, there are two more approaches available. Both have drawbacks, so I would only use them if you see no other way.

Solution 3: Leveraging PHP namespace precedence

If refactoring global static calls in you code to a new class is not an option and your code is organized into namespaces, there is another way we can mock calls to built-in PHP methods. In the file with our TestClass, we can add a new method with the same name in a namespace that is closer to the caller.

For example, the following call to file_exists() cannot be mocked out:

As you can see, the class containing the hasFile() method is in a namespace called demo. We can create a new method, also called file_exists() in that same namespace, just before our TestClass. When executing, the methods in the namespace that is the closed to the caller will take precedence.

This means, we mock the call to file_exists() to always return true, as follows:
namespace demo;

 

The main drawback of this approach is that it reduces the readability of your code. Also, relying on method hiding for testing purposes might make your code harder to understand for those that do not grasp all the language details.

Solution 4: Leveraging your frameworks and libraries

Finally, your framework might provide its own means for mocking certain calls. In Laravel for example, there is a construct of Facades that you can also use for mocking purposes. Another example is the Carbon datetime convenience library that provides a global static Carbon::setTestNow() method.

I for one would discourage this, as it would mean that you are writing logic that will become dependent on your framework and will not ever be able to switch to another framework without redoing everything. (However… who has done that even once?)

My other argument is one of taste: I simply do not like adding methods to production code, only to make it testable. And I have seen misuse of methods intended for tests only in production code as well…

However, if you do not share these feelings, the approach is quite nicely detailed here: https://laravel.com/docs/5.6/facades or here: http://laraveldaily.com/carbon-trick-set-now-time-to-whatever-you-want/

Conclusion

I hope that this blog gives you a number of approaches to make your PHP code more (unit)testable. Because we all know that only code that is continued tested in a pipeline, can quickly and easily be shipped fast and often to customers.

Enjoy!

With thanks for proofreading: Wouter de Kort, Alex Lisenkov