Monday, February 9, 2009

You might be a great hacker if you...

A number of years ago I was doing some mentoring at a California state agency that shall remain nameless. I got my butt up in time to be into their office at 8am. (Ok, I'll be honest, usually I got up in time. I was late on a few occasions.) I led them down the path of learning ASP.NET from scratch. Together we built a great product that is still in use today on a highly trafficked web site. Some time late in the mentoring project a student came up to me and asked the strangest question. He wanted to know how I learned everything I was teaching them. He wanted to take the same classes.

The guy was an amazing engineer. He was methodical, had great documentation, dotted all his i's and crossed all this t's. But he wasn't a great hacker. He was a bit slow, and didn't have much creativity. It was around that time I started paying more attention to traits of great hackers, before Paul coined the term. The bastard! At that time I was really just looking for people that learned quickly and could get things done faster than the rest. Some day maybe I'll figure out how to be all witty and important and coin terms.

So, here we go, in no particular order – except the first one, which is the obvious transition from my enticing story above:

  • started off as a script kiddie

    A typical scenario looks something like the following, though could occur in any area (not just video games):

    1. Play Quake 2
    2. Get stupidly good at Quake 2
    3. Get bored with Quake 2
    4. Figure out how to cheat by writing scripts to rocket jump or speed hack
    5. Realize what you just did was coding, and it's fun and amazingly rewarding
    6. Change all direction in life (yes, even when you're 12 years old) so you can do more coding

  • often forget to shave

    "Wait a minute, you mean people do their own laundry?" Yes, you are exceptionally lazy. That's ok. You have more important things to do in life than worry about how you smell/look.

  • have ever worked on a project for 24 hours straight

    "Hold on! You don't work without sleep until a problem is solved?" And no, last minute procrastination doesn't count, and neither do production outages. Everyone's been there. I'm talking about all night sessions working to solve a problem that could have been done over a few normal working days

  • instantly quiet a room when you speak

    You don't talk much. You spend most of your time listening to others. You find idle chit chat to be boring and have quantitatively determined it's a waste of time. Maybe it's because you don't have much to say. But, what I think is more likely is that you only say things that are relevant and important. Thus, when you speak, the room listens. A room full of strangers doesn't count. They won't know you only say important things until you've trained them that way.

  • have ever gone to visit a friend and proceeded to ignore them because you must finish that stupid puzzle they had on their coffee table before putting it down

    See photo at top of post.

  • get asked to help debug other people's code

    There's a certain amount of pride a developer has over their code. No matter how logical it is to call someone in for help, it's always the last thing we do. If you're the guy people call for help, you're on the right track.

  • are naturally good at video games

    Ever pick up a game, and within minutes beat or come really close to beating, someone who's been playing it for months? This is a sure fire sign of your analytical and problem solving skills. Come to think of it, I think I'm going to start adding this to my interview process.

  • use every operating system in existence

    Sure, you think Windows sucks, but you use it because you play games on it and deep inside you know it doesn't really suck much worse than the competition. You know Linux is the best (DUH!) but you play with FreeBSD. You have OSX running on your laptop because those big icons and MacBooks are sexy. But really, it's more about curiosity than anything.

  • make a habit of picking up a new technology over the weekend

    Lego Mindstorms, anyone? Oooh, how about Adobe AIR or Microsoft Azure or iPhone development. You catch my drift.

  • are extremely critical of everything

    You find fault in everything from your takeout food to web sites to world economic systems. The world is an imperfect mess that needs to be cleaned up. And, of course, you could do it with a weekend and your new favorite development platform (that you haven't used yet)!

This is all I could come up with in the time I set aside for this blog post. So what do you all think? What am I missing? I'll update the post with your ideas as they come in, if they don't suck.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Abstracting Away Azure: How to Run Outside of the Cloud

I had a lot of fun over our holiday break this December working on prototype projects for up and coming technologies. One of those projects dealt with Windows Azure, or, the Azure Services Platform. Azure is basically a cloud application hosting environment put together by Microsoft. The idea is, you build your web apps in .NET and publish them to the nebulous cloud. Once in the cloud they scale and perform well and you don't have to deal with any of the headaches of managing things at the OS/System level.

But with the recent economic news out of Redmond I've been wondering about the future of its more experimental CTP/Alpha/Omega/Whatever-They-Call-It projects such as Azure. If you're not familiar with the project, I suggest you venture on over and check it out now.

Unlike other cloud hosting platforms out there, with Azure you don't have to maintain the operating system. Not only do you get the benefits of cloud computing, but you don't even need a system administrator to run the thing. Of course, the fact that you don't have control of the operating system has its drawbacks.

With Azure you can't run unmanaged code, you're stuck in Medium trust, and you can only build a port 80/443 HTTP application. If you want to run memcached or Velocity or streaming media codecs, well, you can't. If you want to host a game server that communicates with UDP or some non-http protocol, you can't do that either. But, for most custom web applications, everything you need is there. They host a "database" for you, a queue service, you can run background services, and you even get a shared logging service.

All of the services they provide seem to work as advertised and are promised to be extremely scalable. But, one thing they don't talk about (and I can't say I blame them) is how you might run your applications if they're not hosted in the cloud. In our company this just isn't acceptable. If we put out a game and our hosting provider ceases to exist, or no longer meets our needs, we had better be able to move to a new hosting provider! So, I'll give you some tips based on my experiences building prototype Azure applications on how you can easily easily design your applications to run outside of the cloud.

The Main Azure Features
  • Table storage
  • Queue services
  • Blob storage
  • Logging
  • Background services (Worker Role)

Abstracting away tables, queues, and blobs is fairly simple but takes a bit of up front planning. You do basically the same thing you'd do if you were building an application on a large team that is designed to work with any data storage back end. At a high level:

In order to maintain the abstraction it's very important that your UI and background services don't interact directly with the Azure services. First off, use DTO entities. If all else fails and your new back end storage isn't compatible with Azure, you can always fall back to re-writing the layer that talks to it and you don't have to change any of your UI code. Do not expose the PartitionKey and RowKey values on your DTO entities. Leave the partitioning scheme as an implementation detail of your Service/Model layer. It will change if you have to move your data into Amazon's SimpleDB, for example. Since Azure Table Storage uses the ADO.NET Entity Framework at the core, there actually isn't much you need to do to the entities in order to make them portable to other Table-like storage systems. Also, the Blob and Queue storage services are quite simple and abstracting their interface is a matter of tens of lines of code.

Create interfaces for the layer that the UI communicates with and use a dependency injection (DI) framework such as StructureMap or Castle to inject your implementations that communicate with Azure.

I use StructureMap on a day to day basis, and I was dissapointed that it didn't work out of the box. I had to make a couple modifications to the source to get it to run under medium trust. First, you need to add an AllowPartiallyTrustedCallersAttribute to the assembly and then remove the security assertion that's asserting the right to read the machine name (you don't have access to the machine name in medium trust). You can download my updated version here (patch and binary):

That's it. With your UI not talking directly to the Azure services you'll have an extra layer of code to maintain, but you'll be thankful if you ever need to pull it out of the cloud.


For all my non-Azure projects I use log4net for logging. It's a simple, flexible, open-source logging engine. You might want to use Enterprise Framework. Whatever. Just like with the storage engines the key to being able to move off of the Azure logging service some day is to not use it in your applications directly. I wrote a little Appender plugin for log4net that writes logs to the Azure RoleManager if the app is loaded into the Azure context. Most of the code is mapping the multitude of log4net log levels to the Azure event log names. Here's the code:

public class AzureRoleManagerAppender
: AppenderSkeleton
public AzureRoleManagerAppender()

public AzureRoleManagerAppender(ILayout layout)
Layout = layout;

protected override void Append(log4net.Core.LoggingEvent loggingEvent)
if (null == Layout)
Layout = new log4net.Layout.SimpleLayout();

var sb = new StringBuilder();
using (var sr = new StringWriter(sb))
Layout.Format(sr, loggingEvent);

if (RoleManager.IsRoleManagerRunning)
RoleManager.WriteToLog(GetEventLogName(loggingEvent), sb.ToString());
System.Diagnostics.Trace.Write(sb.ToString(), GetEventLogName(loggingEvent));

protected virtual string GetEventLogName(LoggingEvent loggingEvent)
if (loggingEvent.Level == Level.Alert)
return "Critical";
else if (loggingEvent.Level == Level.Critical)
return "Critical";
else if (loggingEvent.Level == Level.Debug)
return "Verbose";
else if (loggingEvent.Level == Level.Emergency)
return "Critical";
else if (loggingEvent.Level == Level.Error)
return "Error";
else if (loggingEvent.Level == Level.Fatal)
return "Critical";
else if (loggingEvent.Level == Level.Fine)
return "Information";
else if (loggingEvent.Level == Level.Finer)
return "Information";
else if (loggingEvent.Level == Level.Finest)
return "Information";
else if (loggingEvent.Level == Level.Info)
return "Information";
else if (loggingEvent.Level == Level.Notice)
return "Information";
else if (loggingEvent.Level == Level.Severe)
return "Critical";
else if (loggingEvent.Level == Level.Trace)
return "Verbose";
else if (loggingEvent.Level == Level.Verbose)
return "Verbose";
else if (loggingEvent.Level == Level.Warn)
return "Warning";
return "Information";

Then you just configure log4net as usual, and go on your merry way. Write your logs to log4net rather than to the Azure log manager.

<appender name="azure" type="AzureRoleManagerAppender,MyAssembly">
<layout type="log4net.Layout.PatternLayout">
<conversionPattern value="%logger - %message" />

<level value="ALL" />
<appender-ref ref="azure" />
private ILog _log = LogManager.GetLogger(typeof(WorkerRole));


_log.Info("Starting worker process");

Background Services

Background services (Worker Roles) are basically Windows Services. The key difference, though, is in the behavior of the Start method. In Windows Service land you're expected to exit the Start method when the service has started. In Azure, the Start method is more like a Main and when it exits Azure assumes your service has completed its task and is restarted. I'd just write all your code in your RoleEntryPoint and not worry about any abstraction for the Worker Role. It's simple enough to just refactor and move to a Windows Service model if need be. But, just like in your UI, don't communicate directly with Azure back end services like Table, Queue, and Blob storage.

So there you have it. The basics of abstracting away Azure. I don't think Microsoft plans on canceling this project any time soon, but if they do (or you want to host elsewhere) you'll be ready! I, for one, am really excited about the future potential of Azure and we may even use it here, but we will be designing our applications so they can easily be ported to a different platform just in case.

About the Author

Wow, you made it to the bottom! That means we're destined to be life long friends. Follow Me on Twitter.

I am an entrepreneur and hacker. I'm a Cofounder at RealCrowd. Most recently I was CTO at Hive7, a social gaming startup that sold to Playdom and then Disney. These are my stories.

You can find far too much information about me on linkedin: No, I'm not interested in an amazing Paradox DBA role in the Antarctic with an excellent culture!