An Azure Reference Architecture

If you're looking for help with C#, .NET, Azure, Architecture, or would simply value an independent opinion then please get in touch here or over on Twitter.

There are an awful lot of services available on Azure but I’ve noticed a pattern emerging in a lot of my work around web apps. At their core they often have a similar architecture, deployment in Azure, and process for build and release.

For context a lot my hands on work over the last 3 years has been as a freelancer developing custom systems for people or on my own side projects (most recently https://www.forcyclistsbycyclists.com). In these situations I’ve found productivity to be super important in a few key ways:

  1. There’s a lot to get done, one or two people, and not much time – so being able to crank out a lot of work quickly and to a good level of quality is key.
  2. Adaptability – if its an externally focused green field system there’s a reasonable chance that there’s a degree of uncertainty over what the right feature set is. I generally expect to have to iterate a few times.
  3. I can’t be wasting time repeating myself or undertaking lengthy manual tasks.

Due to this I generally avoid over complicating my early stage deployment with too much separation – but I *do* make sure I understand where my boundaries and apply principles that support the later distribution of a system in the code.

With that out the way… here’s an architecture I’ve used as a good starting point several times now. And while it continues to evolve and I will vary specific decisions based on need its served me well and so I thought I’d share it here.

I realise there are some elements on here that are not “the latest and greatest” however its rarely productive to be on the bleeding edge. It seems likely, for example, that I’ll adopt the Azure SPA support at some point – but there’s not much in it for me doing that now. Similarly I can imagine giving GitHub Actions ago at some point – but what do I really gain by throwing what I know away today. From the experiments I’ve run I gain no productivity. Judging this stuff is something of a fine line but at the risk of banging this drum too hard: far too many people adopt technology because they see it being pushed and talked about on Twitter or dev.to (etc.) by the vendor, by their DevRel folk and by their community (e.g. MVPs) and by those who have jumped early and are quite possibly (likely!) suffering from a bizarre mix of Stockholm Syndrome and sunk cost fallacy “honestly the grass is so much greener over here… I’m so happy I crawled through the barbed wire”.

Rant over. If you’ve got any questions, want to tell me I’m crazy or question my parentage: catch me over on Twitter.

Architecture

Build & Release

I’ve long been a fan of automating at least all the high value parts of build & release. If you’re able to get it up and running quickly it rapidly pays for itself over the lifetime of a project. And one of the benefits of not CV chasing the latest tech is that most of this stuff is movable from project to project. Once you’ve set up a pipeline for a given set of assets and components its pretty easy to use on your next project. Introduce lots of new components… yeah you’ll have lots of figuring out to do. Consistency is underrated in our industry.

So what do I use and why?

  1. Git repository – I was actually an early adopter of Git. Mostly because I was taking my personal laptop into a disconnected environment on a regular basis when it first started to emege and I’m a frequent committer.

    In this architecture it holds all the assets required to build & deploy my system other than secrets.
  2. Azure DevOps – I use the pipelines to co-ordinate build & release activities both directly using built in tasks, third party tasks and scripts. Why? At the time I started it was free and “good enough”. I’ve slowly moved over to the YAML pipelines. Slowly.
  3. My builds will output four main assets: an ARM template, Docker container, a built single page application, and SQL migration scripts. These get deployed into a an Azure resource group, Azure container registry, blob storage, and a SQL database respectively.

    My migration scripts are applied against a SQL database using DbUp and my ARM templates are generated using Farmer and then used to provision a resource group. I’m fairly new to Farmer but so far its been fantastic – previously I was using Terraform but Farmer just fit a little nicer with my workflow and I like to support the F# community.

Runtime Environment

So what do I actually use to run and host my code?

  1. App Service – I’ve nearly always got an API to host and though I will sometimes use Azure Functions for this I more often use the Web App for Containers support.

    Originally I deployed directly into a “plain” App Service but grew really tired with the ongoing “now this is really how you deploy without locked files” fiasco and the final straw was the bungled .NET Core release.

    Its just easier and more reliable to deploy a container.
  2. Azure DNS – what it says on the tin! Unless there is a good reason to run it elsewhere I prefer to keep things together, keeps things simple.
  3. Azure CDN – gets you a free SSL cert for your single page app, is fairly inexpensive, and helps with load times.
  4. SQL Database – still, I think, the most flexible general purpose and productive data solution. Sure at scale others might be better. Sure sometimes less structured data is better suited to less structured data sources. But when you’re trying to get stuff done there’s a lot to be said for having an atomic, transactional data store. And if I had a tenner for every distributed / none transactional design I’ve seen that dealt only with the happy path I would be a very very wealthy man.

    Oh and “schema-less”. In most cases the question is is the schema explicit or implicit. If its implicit… again a lot of what I’ve seen doesn’t account for much beyodn the happy path.

    SQL might not be cool, and maybe I’m boring (but I’ll take boring and gets shit done), but it goes a long way in a simple to reason about manner.
  5. Storage accounts – in many systems you come across small bits of data that are handy to dump into, say, a blob store (poor mans NoSQL right there!) or table store. I generally find myself using it at some point.
  6. Service Bus – the unsung hero of Azure in my opinion. Its reliable. Does what it says on the tin and is easy to work with. Most applications have some background activity, chatter or async events to deal with and service bus is a great way of handling this. I sometimes pair this (and Azure Functions below) with SignalR.
  7. Azure Functions – great for processing the Service Bus, running code on a schedule and generally providing glue for your system. Again I often find myself with at least a handful of these. I often also use Service Bus queues with Functions to provide a “poor mans admin console”. Basically allow me to kick off administrative events by dropping a message on a queue.
  8. Application Insights – easy way of gathering together logs, metrics, telemetry etc. If something does go wrong or your system is doing something strange the query console is a good way of exploring what the root cause might be.

Code

I’m not going to spend too long talking about how I write the system itself (plenty of that on this blog already). In generally I try and keep things loosely coupled and normally start with a modular monolith – easy to reason about, well supported by tooling, minimal complexity but can grow into something more complex when and if that’s needed.

My current tools of choice is end to end F# with Fable and Saturn / Giraffe on top of ASP.Net Core and Fable Remoting on top of all that. I hopped onto functional programming as:

  1. It seemed a better fit for building web applications and APIs.
  2. I’d grown tired with all the C# ceremony.
  3. Collectively we seem to have decided that traditional OO is not that useful – yet we’re working in languages built for that way of working. And I felt I was holding myself back / being held back.

But if you’re looking to be productive – use what you know.

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  • If you're looking for help with C#, .NET, Azure, Architecture, or would simply value an independent opinion then please get in touch here or over on Twitter.

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