If you have read any of my blogs before, or know me only a little bit, you know I am a huge fan of ARM templates for Azure Resource Manager. However, every now and then I run into some piece of infrastructure that I would like to set up for my application only to find out that it is not supported by ARM templates. Examples are Cosmos DB databases and collections. Having to createIfNotExists() these was always a pain to code and also mixes the responsibility of resource allocation up with business logic. But no more as part of all the #MSBuild news, the following came in!

As of right now, you can specify the creation of an CosmosDB database and collection, using ARM templates. To create a CosmosDB database for use with the SQL API, you can now use the following template:

After setting up a database, it is time to add a few containers. In this case I already provisioned throughput at the database level, so I can add as many containers as I need without additional cost. But, let’s start with just one:

I cannot just create the container and specify the, now mandatory, PartitionKey but also specify custom indexing policies. Putting this together with the template that I already had for creating a CosmosDB account, I can now automatically create all the dependencies for my application using the following ARM template:

I hope you enjoy CosmosDB database and collection support just as much as I do, happy coding!

Following up on my previous post on this subject (https://www.henrybeen.nl/add-a-ssl-certificate-to-your-azure-web-app-using-an-arm-template/), I am sharing a minimal, still complete, working example of an ARM template that can be used to provision the following:

  • An App Service Plan
  • An App Service, with:
    • A custom domain name
    • The Lets Encrypt Site extension installed
    • All configuration of the Lets Encrypt Site extension prefilled
  • An Authorization Rule for an Service Principal to install certificates

The ARM template can be found at: https://github.com/henrybeen/ARM-template-AppService-LetsEncrypt

To use this to create a Web App with an Lets Encrypt certificate and to automatically renew that, you have to do the following:

  • Pre-create a new Service Principal in your Azure Service Direction and obtain the objectId, clientId and a clientSecret for that Service Principal
  • Fill in the parameters.json file with a discriminator to make the names of your resources unique, the obtained objectId, clientId and clientSecret, a self-choosen GUID to use as the authorizationRule nameand a customHostname
  • Create a CNAME record pointing from that domain name to the follwing url: {discriminator}-appservice.azurewebsites.net
  • Roll out the template
  • Open up the Lets Encrypt extension, find all settings prefilled and request a certificate!

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 response to a comment / question on an earlier blog, I have taken a quick look at applying Azure Policy to Azure Management Groups. Azure Management Groups are a relatively new concept that was introduce to ease the management of authorizations on multiple subscriptions, by providing a means to group them. For such a group, RBAC roles and assignments can be created, to manage authorizations for a group of subscriptions at once. This saves a lot of time when managing multiple subscriptions, but also reduces the risk of mistakes or oversight of a single assignment. A real win.

Now, Azure Policies can also be defined in and assigned to management groups it is claimed here. However, how to do that is not documented yet (to my knowledge and limited Goo– Bing skills), nor was it visible in the portal. So after creating a management group in the portal (which I had not done before), I I turned to Powershell and wrote the following to try and do a Policy assignment to a Management Group:

Which gave me the following error:

Which makes sense: you can only assign a policy to (a resourcegroup in) a subscription, if that is also the subscription the policy definition is saved into. So on to find out, how to define a policy within a resource group. To do that, I first wanted to retrieve an existing policy from the portal, so I navigated to Azure Policy page in the portal and stumbled onto the following screen:

And from here on, I could just assign a policy to a management group, if I had one in that group already… After switching to defining a policy, I noticed that I now could also save a policy definition to a management group.

So the conclusion is: yes, you can assign Azure Policies to Management Groups just like you can to a resource group or subscription, iff you already have at least one management group!

Further reading

Now, denying unwanted configurations is fine and can be a great help, but would it not be much better if we could automatically fix unwanted configurations when they are deployed? Yes.., this has pros and cons. Automagically correcting errors is not always the best way forward, as there is not really a learning curve for the team member deploying the unwanted configuration. On the other hand, if you can fix it automatically, why not? Just weigh your options on a I guess.

Let’s take an example from the database world. Let’s say we have a requirement that says that we want to have an IP address added to the firewall of every single database server in our subscription. The policy that would allow us to specify an IP address to add to the firewall of every database server is as follows:

Quite the JSON. Let’s walk through this step by step. First of all we have the conditions under which this policy must apply, this whenever we are deploying something of type Microsoft.Sql/servers. The effect we are looking for is deployIfNotExists, which will do an additional ARM template deployment when ever the existenceCondition is not fulfilled. This template takes the same form as any nested template, which means we have to respecify all parameters to the template and provide them from the parameters of the policy or using field values.

Managed Identity for template deployment

Every ARM template deployment is done on behalf of an authenticated identity. When using any effect that causes another deployment, you have to create a Managed Identity when assigning the policy. In the policy property roleDefinitionIds you should list all roles that are needed to deploy the defined template. When assigning and executing this policy to a subscription or resourcegroup, Azure will automatically provision a service principal with these roles over the correct scope, which will be used to deploy the specified template.

Field() function and aliases

In the template itself (and also when passing parameters to the template), there is the usage of a function called field. With this function you can reference one or more properties of the resource that is triggering the policy. To see all available fields per resource, use the Get-AzureRmPolicyAlias Powershell command. This will provide a list of all aliases available. To filter this list by namespace, you can use:

Policy in action

After creating and assigning this policy, we can see it in action by creating a SQL Server using the portal. This is just another interface for creating a template deployment. After successfully deploying this template, our policy will be evaluated and the first time it will create the intended firewall rule. We can see this when looking up all deployments to the resource group, which will also list a PolicyDeployment:

Next to that, when looking at the related events for the initial Microsoft.SQLServer deployment, we see that our policy is accepted for deployment after the initial deployment:

In my previous blog post I showed how to audit unwanted Azure resource configurations. Now, listing non-compliant resources is fine and can be a great help, but would it not be much better if we could just prevent unwanted configurations from being deployed?

Deny any deployment not in Europe

Let’s take the example of Azure regions. If you are working for an organization that wants to operate just within Europe, it might be best to just deny any deployment outside of West- and North-Europe. This will help prevent mistakes and help enforce rules within the organization. How would we write such a policy?

Any policyRule still consist out of two parts, an if and an then. First, the if – which acts like a query on our subscription or resourcegroup and determines to which resources the policy will be applied. In this case we want to trigger our policy under the following condition: location != ‘North Europe’ && location != ‘West Europe.’ We write this using JSON, by nesting conditions. This syntax is a bit verbose, but easy to understand. The effect that we want to trigger is a simple deny of any deployment that matches this condition. In JSON, this would look like this:

Creating a policy like this and then applying it to an subscription or resourcegroup, will the Azure Resource Manager instruct to immediately deny any deployment that violates the policy. With the following as a result:

Azure Policy is also evaluated when deploying from Azure Pipelines, where you will also get a meaningfull error when trying to deploy any template that violates a deny policy:

After sliced bread, the next best thing is of course Infrastructure-as-Code. In Azure, this means using ARM templates to deploy your infrastructure automatically in a repeatable fashion. It allows teams to quickly create anything they want in any Azure resourcegroup they have access to. Azure allows you to use RBAC to limit the Resourcegroup(s) a team or individual has access to. But is this secure enough? Yes, .. and no. Yes, can you limit everyone to the resource(groups) they have access to. However, within that group they can still do whatever they please. Wouldn’t it be cool to also be able to limit what a team can do, even within their own resourcegroup?

This is the first of a series of posts on Azure Policy, an Azure offering that allows you to define policies that allow or disallow specific configurations within your Azure subscription. In this post we will see how to define policies that inform us when a situation exists that we might rather not have. To be more concrete: we want to create an audit log entry whenever someone deploys a virtual machine. I am not a big fan of them and I want to know who is using VM’s to get a conversation going about how to move them to PaaS or serverless offerings.

Create a policy

Let’s start by writing our policy. The policy as a whole will look like this:

Every policy has a property type, that always has to have the same value. If you are familiar with ARM templates, you might guess that this allows the policy as a whole to be inserted into an ARM template. And this is correct, you can deploy Azure Policies as part of a subscription level ARM template. Next to the type, a name is mandatory and can be chosen freely. The third property describes the policy itself. The displayName and description speak for themselves and can be freely chosen. For the policyRule there are numerous possible approaches, but let’s start with a simple condition under the if property that ensures that this policies effect only triggers when it encounters any resource with a type of Microsoft.Compute/virtualMachines. Again, this relates to the resourcetype also encountered in ARM templates and references a namespace provider. Finaly the effect that we then want to to trigger is only an audit of anything that matches the if expression.

This way we can view the compliance state of the resource this policy is assigned to and also see all events that violate this policy.

Create the policy

Before we can assign this policy to a subscription or resourcegroup, we have to define the policy itself. Let’s go to the portal and open up Azure Policy, then choose Definitions and finally new Policy Definition:

This opens up a new screen, that we fill in as shown here:

Finally, clicking Save at the bottom of the page, registers the policy in the subscription at the top and makes it ready for use.

Assign the policy

Now let’s assign this policy to a scope (a subscription or a specific resourcegroup) that it should apply to. Again we open up Azure Policy and then go to the Assignments tab, where we click Assign Policy:

This opens up a new view:

In this view we must select the scope, including any exclusions if we want those. (Why would you?) Then you can select the Policy to apply, which you can search by name as I did or find in the category Custom left of the search box. After selecting the Policy an assignment name is mandatory and a description is optional. Filling these with a rationale for your policy will decrease the chance that others will simply remove it. Hit assign and put Azure to work on your policy assignment.

Inspect the results

After first assigning our policy, it’s compliance state will be set to Not started, this means that your policy has not been applied to existing resources yet. It will however be evaluated for every new resource that is deployed. Now after a while the compliance state of my policy changed from Not started to Non-compliant, indicating there were one or more resources violating the policy.

This screenshot is taken from the Compliance overview tab, listing all my policies and whether my resources are compliant or not. Clicking on one of the policies, shows the list of resources not meeting the policy:

Here it shows both a VM that existed before this policy was assigned (hbbuild001) and a VM that was created after assigning the policy (sadf…).

Using this overview and the option to drill down to violating resources, it is easy to inspect on what is happening accros your subscriptions and get conversations going when things are happening that are not ideal.

Get notified on a violation

However, visiting these screens regularly to keep tabs on what is happening is probably not feasible in any real organization. It would be far better, if you were notified of any violation of a policy automatically. Luckily, this is possible as well. If you were to click on Events in the previous screenshot, this view will open:

Here you can see all the events surrounding this Policy: it’s creation, but also every violation. Opening up the details from this violation allow you to use this event as a blueprint for creating alerts for any other new violation.

For more

If you are looking for more things to do with Azure Policy, check out the links below. Also, I hope to write another blog on Azure Policy to show how to block or automatically fix deployments that violate your policies.


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.

Today and last Friday I had the opportunity to get one of my favorite, but older topics, out on a beamer again: building database per tenant architectures with one example spanning over 60.000 databases! I was lucky to be invited to both CloudBrew 2018 (Mechelen, Belgium) and CloudCamp Ireland 18 (Dublin) to give this crazy presentation. Since then I have received multiple requests to share my slides, which I did on Slideshare: https://www.slideshare.net/HenryBeen/cloud-brew-cloudcamp

A good number of slides were adapted from the Microsoft WingTips repository, that you can find here: https://github.com/Microsoft/WingtipTicketsSaaS-DbPerTenant

If you attended and want to further discuss the topic, feel free to reach out to me!

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!