The blogs of Black Marble staff

Build Invites

Today I started sending out emails inviting people to join in with Build Bites 2016. I'm hoping to make this year even bigger and better than last!!!

Using MSDeploy to deploy to nested virtual applications in Azure Web Apps

Azure provides many ways to scale and structure web site and virtual applications. I recently needed to deploy the following structure where each service endpoint was its own Visual Studio Web Application Project built as a MSDeploy Package


To do this in the Azure Portal in …

  1. Created a Web App for the site This pointed to the disk location site\wwwoot, I disabled the folder as an application as there is not application running at this level 
  2. Created a virtual directory api point to \site\wwroot\api, again disabling this folder as an application 
  3. Created a virtual application for each of my services, each with their own folder


I knew from past experience I could use MSDeploy to deploy to the root site or the api virtual directory. However I found when I tried to deploy to any of the service virtual applications I got an error that the web site could not be created. Now I would not expect MSDEPLOY to create a directory so I knew something was wrong at the Azure end.

The fix in the end was simple, it seems the folder service folders e.g \site\wwwroot\api\service1 had not been created by the Azure Portal when I created the virtual directory. I FTP’d onto the web application and create the folder \site\wwwroot\api\service1  once this was done MSDEPlOY worked perfectly, and I could build the structure I wanted. 

Running Pester PowerShell tests in the VSTS hosted build service

Updated 22 Mar 2016 This task is available in the VSTS Marketplace

If you are using Pester to unit test your PowerShell code then there is a good chance you will want to include it in your automated build process. To do this, you need to get Pester installed on your build machine. The usual options would be

If you own the build agent VM then any of these options are good, you can even write the NuGet restore into your build process itself. However there is a problem, both the first two options need administrative access as they put the Pester module in the $PSModules folder (under ‘Program Files’); so these can’t be used on VSTS’s hosted build system, where your are not an administrator

So this means you are left with copying the module (and associated functions folder) to some local working folder and running it manually; but do you really want to have to store the Pester module in your source repo?

My solution was to write a vNext build tasks to deploy the Pester files and run the Pester tests.


The task takes two parameters

  • The root folder to look for test scripts with the naming convention  *.tests.ps1. Defaults to $(Build.SourcesDirectory)\*
  • The results file name, defaults to $(Build.SourcesDirectory)\Test-Pester.XML

The Pester task does not in itself upload the test results, it just throws and error if tests fails. It relies on the standard test results upload task. Add this task and set

  • it to look for nUnit format files
  • it already defaults to the correct file name pattern.
  • IMPORTANT: As the Pester task will stop the build on an error you need to set the ‘Always run’ to make sure the results are published.


Once all this is added to your build you can see your Pester test results in the build summary



You can find the task in my vNextBuild repo

A vNext build task to get artifacts from a different TFS server

With the advent of TFS 2015.2 RC (and the associated VSTS release) we have seen the short term removal of the ‘External TFS Build’ option for the Release Management artifacts source. This causes me a bit of a problem as I wanted to try out the new on premises vNext based Release Management features on 2015.2, but don’t want to place the RC on my production server (though there is go live support). Also the ability to get artifacts from an on premises TFS instance when using VSTS open up a number of scenarios, something I know some of my clients had been investigating.

To get around this blocker I have written a vNext build task that does the getting of a build artifact from the UNC drop. It supports both XAML and vNext builds. Thus replacing the built in artifact linking features.


To use the new task

  • Get the task from my vNextBuild repo (build using the instructions on the repo’s wiki) and install it on your TFS 2015.2 instance (also use the notes on the repo’s wiki).
  • In your build, disable the auto getting of the artifacts for the environment (though in some scenarios you might choose to use both the built in linking and my custom task)


  • Add the new task to your environment’s release process, the parameters are
    • TFS Uri – the Uri of the TFS server inc. The TPC name
    • Team Project – the project containing the source build
    • Build Definition name – name of the build (can be XAML or vNext)
    • Artifact name – the name of the build artifact (seems to be ‘drop’ if a XAML build)
    • Build Number – default is to get the latest successful completed build, but you can pass a specific build number
    • Username/Password – if you don’t want to use default credentials (the user the build agent is running as), these are the ones used. These are passed as ‘basic auth’ so can be used against an on prem TFS (if basic auth is enabled in IIS)  or VSTS (with alternate credentials enabled).



When the task runs it should drop artifacts in the same location as the standard mechanism, so can be picked up by any other tasks on the release pipeline using a path similar to $(System.DefaultWorkingDirectory)\SABS.Master.CI\drop


The task in its current form does not provide any linking of artifacts to the build reports, or allow the selection of build versions when the release is created. This removing audit trail features.

However, it does provide a means to get a pair of TFS servers working together, so can certainly enable some R&D scenarios while we await 2015.2 to RTM and/or the ‘official’ linking of External TFS builds as artifacts

Azure - A really Useful Seminar


Last week I had the delight of helping present a really useful seminar at the University of Hull alongside Peter Roberts. Here is a similar blogpost he has written where he also walks through how you can use azure and a MySQL database to store high scores of a video game.

Overall the presentation was a success with a fair few people turning up and seemingly enjoying and looking forward to perusing azure in their own ventures

We were also asked by Rob Miles to run a cloud workshop later in the semester which we are now looking into :D


Running a SaaS service at scale

Brian Harry has done a couple of very interesting posts (post 1 and post 2) on the recent outages of the VSTS service. Whether you use VSTS or not they make interesting reading for anyone who is involved in running SaaS based systems, or anything at scale.

From the posts the obvious reading is you cannot under estimate the importance of

  • in production montoring
  • having an response plan
  • doing a proper root cause analysis
  • and putting steps in place to stop the problem happening again

Well worth a read

Repost: What I learnt extending my VSTS Release Process to on-premises Lab Management Network Isolated Environments

This a a repost of a guest article first posted on the Microsoft UK Developers Blog: How to extend a VSTS release process to on-premises

Note that since I write the original post there have been some changes on VSTS and the release to TFS 2015.2 RC1. These mean there is no longer an option to pull build artifacts from the an external TFS server as part of a release; so invalidating some of the options this post discusses. I have struck out the outdated sections. The rest of the post is still valid, especially the section on where to update configuration settings. The release of TFS 2015.2 RC1 actually makes many of options easier as you don’t have to bridge between on premises TFS and VSTS as both build and release features are on the same server.



Visual Studio Team Services (VSTS) provides a completely new version of Release Management, replacing the version shipped with TFS 2013/2015. This new system is based on the same cross platform agent model as the new vNext build system shipped with TFS 2015 (and also available on VSTS). At present this new Release Management system is only available on VSTS, but the features timeline suggest we should see it on-premises in the upcoming update 2015.2.

You might immediately think that as this feature is only available in VSTS at present, that you cannot use this new release management system with on-premises services, but this would not be true. The Release Management team have provided an excellent blog post on running an agent connected to your VSTS instance inside your on-premises network to enable hybrid scenarios.

This works well for deploying to domain connected targets, especially if you are using Azure Active Directory Sync to sync your corporate domain and AAD to provide a directory backed VSTS instance. In this case you can use a single corporate domain account to connect to VSTS and to the domain services you wish to deploy to from the on-premises agent.

However, I make extensive use of TFS Lab Management to provide isolated dev/test environments (linked to an on-premises TFS 2015.1 instance). If I want to deploy to these VMs it adds complexity in how I need to manage authentication; as I don’t want to have to place a VSTS build agent in each transiently created dev/test lab. One because it is complex and two because there is a cost to having more than one self provisioned vNext build agent.

It is fair to say that deploying to an on-premises Lab Management environment from a VSTS instance is an edge case, but the same basic process will be needed when the new Release Management features become available on-premises.

Now, I would be the first to say that there is a good case to look at a move away from Lab Management to using Azure Dev Labs which are currently in preview, but Dev Labs needs fuller Azure Resource Manager support before we can replicate the network isolated Lab Management environments I need.

The Example

So at this time, I still need to be able to use the new Release Management with my current Lab Management network isolated labs, but this raises some issues of authentication and just what is running where. So let us work through an example; say I want to deploy a SQL DB via a DACPAC and a web site via MSDeploy on the infrastructure shown below.



Both the target SQL and Web servers live inside the Lab Management isolated network on the proj.local domain, but have DHCP assigned addresses on the corporate LAN in the form vslm-[guid] (managed by Lab Management), so I can access them from the build agent with appropriate credentials (a login for the proj.local domain within the network isolated lab).

The first step is to install a VSTS build agent linked to my VSTS instance, once this is done we can start to create our release pipeline. The first stage is to get the artifacts we need to deploy i.e. the output of builds. These could be XAML or vNext build on the VSTS instance, or from the on-premises TFS instance or a Jenkins build. Remember a single release can deploy any number of artifacts (builds) e.g. the output of a number of builds. It is this fact that makes this setup not as strange as it initially appears. We are just using VSTS Release Management to orchestrate a deployment to on-premises systems.

The problem we have is that though our release now has artifacts, we now need to run some commands on the VM running the vNext Build Agent to do the actual deployment. VSTS provides a number of deployment tasks to help in this area. Unfortunately, at the time of writing, the list of deployment tasks in VSTS are somewhat Azure focused, so not that much use to me.


This will change over time as more tasks get released, you can see what is being developed on the VSO Agent Task GitHub Repo (and of course you could install versions from this repo if you wish).

So for now I need to use my own scripts, as we are on a Windows based system (not Linux or Mac) this means some PowerShell scripts.

The next choice becomes ‘do I run the script on the Build Agent VM or remotely on the target VM’ (within the network isolated environment). The answer is the age-old consultants answer ‘it depends’. In the case of both DACPAC and MSDeploy deployments, there is the option to do remote deployment i.e. run the deployment command on the Build Agent VM and it remotely connects to the target VMs in the network isolated environment. The problem with this way of working is that I would need to open more ports on the SQL and Web VMs to allow the remote connections; I did not want to do this.

The alternative is to use PowerShell remoting, in this model I trigger the script on the Build Agent VM, but it uses PowerShell remoting to run the command on the target VM. For this I only need to enable remote PowerShell on the target VMs, this is done by running the following command and follow prompts on each target VM to set up the required services and open the correct ports on the target VMs firewall.

winrm -qc 

This is something we are starting to do as standard to allow remote management via PowerShell on all our VMs.

So at this point it all seems fairly straight forward, run a couple of remote PowerShell scripts and all is good, but no. There is a problem.

A key feature of Release Management is that you can provide different configurations for different environments e.g. the DB connection string is different for the QA lab as opposed to production. These values are stored securely in Release Management and applied as needed.


The way these variables are presented is as environment variables on the Build Agent VM, hence they can accessed from PowerShell in the form env:$__DOMAIN__. IT IS IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER that they are not presented on any target VMs in the isolated lab network environment, or to these VMs via PowerShell remoting.

So if we are intending to use remote PowerShell execution for our deployments we can’t just access settings environment variables as part of the scripts being run remotely; we would have to pass the environment variable in as PowerShell command line arguments.

This works OK for the DACPAC deployment as we only need to pass in a few, fixed arguments e.g. The PowerShell script arguments when passing the arguments for the package name, target server and DB name using the Release Management variables in their $(variable) form become:


However, for the MSDeploy deploy there is no simple fixed list of parameters. This is because as well as parameters like package names, we need to modify the setparameters.xml file at deployment time to inject values for our web.config from the release management system.

The solution I have adopted is do not try to pass this potentially long list of arguments into a script to be run remotely, the command line argument just becomes hard to edit without making errors, and needs to be updated each time we add an extra variable.

The alternative is to update the setparameters.xml file on the Build Agent VM before we attempt to run it remotely. To this end I have written a custom build task to handle the process which can found on my GitHub repo. This updates a named setparameters.xml file using token replacement based on environment variables set by Release Management. If you would rather automatically find a number of setparmeters.xml files using wildcards (because you are deploying many sites/services) and update them all with a single set of tokens, have a look at Colin Dembovsky’s build task which does just that.

So given this technique my release steps become:

1. Get the artifacts from the builds to the Build Agent VM.

2. Update the setparameters.xml file using environment variables on the Build Agent VM.

3. Copy the downloaded (and modified) artifacts to all the target machines in the environment.

4. On the SQL VM run the sqlpackage.exe command to deploy the DACPAC using remote PowerShell execution.

5. On the Web VM run the MSDeploy command using remote PowerShell execution.


The PowerShell I run in the final two tasks are just simple wrappers around the underlying commands. The key fact is that because they are scripts it allows remote execution. The targeting of the execution is done by associating each task with a target machine group, and filtering either by name or in my case role, to target specific VMs.


In my machine group I have defined both my SQL and Web VMs using the names on the corporate LAN. Assigning a role to each to make targeting easier. Note that it is here, in the machine group definition, that I provide the credentials required to access the VMs in my Network Isolated environment i.e. a proj.local set of credentials.


Once I get all these settings in place I am able to build a product on my VSTS build system (or my on-premises TFS instance) and using this VSTS connected, but on-premises located; Build Agent deploy my DB and web site to a Lab Management network isolated test environment.

There is no reason why I cannot add more tasks to this release pipeline to perform more actions such as run tests (remember the network isolated environment already has TFS Test Agents installed, but they are pointing to the on-premises TFS instance) or to deploy to other environments.


As I said before, this is an edge case, but I hope it shows how flexible the new build and release systems can be for both TFS and VSTS.

Release Manager 2015 stalls at the ‘uploading components’ step and error log shows XML load errors

Whilst seting up a Release Management 2015.1 server we came across a strange problem. The installation appears to go OK. We were able to install the server and from the client created a simple vNext release pipeline and run it. However, the release stalled on the ‘Upload Components’ step.

Looking in event log of the VM running the Release Management server we could see many many errors all complaining about invalid XML, all in the general form


Message: Object reference not set to an instance of an object.: \r\n\r\n   at Microsoft.TeamFoundation.Release.Data.Model.SystemSettings.LoadXml(Int32 id)


Note: The assembly that it complaining about varied, but all Release Management Deploayer related.

We tried a reinstall on a new server VM, but got the same results.

Turns out issue was due to the service account that the Release Management server was running as; this was the only thing common between the two server VM instances. We swapped to use ‘Network Server’ and everything lept into life. All we could assume was that some group policy or similar settings on the service account was placing some restriction on assembly or assembly config file loading.

vNext Build editor filePath control always returns a path even if you did not set a value

You can use the filePath type in a vNext VSTS/TFS task as shown below 

     "name": "settingsFile",
     "type": "filePath",
     "label": "Settings File",
     "defaultValue": "",
     "required": false,
     "helpMarkDown": "Path to single settings files to use (as opposed to files in project folders)",

to present a file picker dialog in the build editor that allows the build editor to pick a file or folder in the build’s source repository


While doing some task development recently I found that this control did not behave as I had expected

  • If a value is explicitally set then the full local path to selected file or folder (on the build agent) is returned e.g. c:\agent\_work\3\s\yourfolder\yourfile.txt – just as expected
  • If you do not set a value, or set a value then remove your setting when you edit a build, then you don’t get an empty string, as I had expected. You get the path to the BUILD_SOURCESDIRECTORY e.g. c:\agent\_work\3\s – makes sense when you think about it.

So, if as in my case, you wanted to have specific behaviour only when this values was set to something other than the repo root you need to add some guard code

if ($settingsFile -eq $Env:BUILD_SOURCESDIRECTORY )
    $settingsFile = ""

Once I did this my task behaved as a needed, only running the code when the user had set an explicit value for the settings file.

A VSTS vNext build task to run StyleCop

Updated 22 Mar 2016 This tasks is available in the VSTS Marketplace

I have previously posted on how a PowerShell script can be used to run StyleCop as part of vNext VSTS/TFS build. Now I have more experience with vNext tasks it seemed a good time to convert this PowerShell script into a true task that can deploy StyleCop and making it far easier to expose the various parameters StyleCop allows.

To this end I have written a new StyleCop task that can be found in my vNext Build Repo, this has been built to use the release of StyleCop (so you don’t need to install StyleCop in the build machine, so it works well on VSTS).

To use this task:

  1. Clone the repo
  2. Build the tasks using Gulp
  3. Upload the task you require to your VSTS or TFS instance

Once this is done you can add the task to your build. You probably won’t need to set any parameters as long as you have settings.stylecop files to define your StyleCop ruleset in the same folders as your .CSPROJ files (or are happy default rulesets).

If you do want to set parameters your options are:

  • TreatStyleCopViolationsErrorsAsWarnings - Treat StyleCop violations errors as warnings, if set to False any StyleCop violations will cause the build to fail (default false).

And on the advanced panel

  • MaximumViolationCount - Maximum violations before analysis stops (default 1000)
  • ShowOutput - Sets the flag so StyleCop scanner outputs progress to the console (default false)
  • CacheResults - Cache analysis results for reuse (default false)
  • ForceFullAnalysis - Force complete re-analysis (default true)
  • AdditionalAddInPath - Path to any custom rule sets folder, the directory cannot be a sub directory of current directory at runtime as this is automatically scanned. This folder must contain your custom DLL and the Stylecop.dll and Stylecop.csharp.cs else you will get load errors
  • SettingsFile - Path to single settings files to use for all analysis (as opposed to settings.stylecop files in project folders)




When you run the build with the new task you sould expect to see a summary of the StyleCop run on the right