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Windows Containers and .NET Framework applications: DevOps with Kubernetes

Simon Waight
Programmer who loves playing with the new toys, particularly in the cloud space! 🌩
Originally published at blog.siliconvalve.com on ・10 min read

In my previous two posts on .NET Framework applications and Windows Containers I took a look at the rationale and approach for bringing these applications to containers before using a sample application (MVC Music Store) to show what is involved with containerising an application.

In this post I am going to take the next step – take our containerised ASP.NET web application and deploy it to Kubernetes whilst making sure the build and deployment process is centralised and repeatable.

Setting up Kubernetes

I’m going to use Azure Kubernetes Service (AKS) for this post, so to start I am going to create a new AKS cluster with a Windows Node Pool. Even though I’ve selected an Azure managed service there is nothing stopping you from using a similar approach to deploying to Kubernetes either on your own infrastructure or in another cloud.

Let’s start by creating a new AKS cluster using the following commands.

You will be prompted for a strong Windows password for the specified admin user. If you receive an error with “Invalid adminPassword” then you haven’t met the security standards set via policy and will need to increase complexity or length of the Windows admin user’s password.

# Only required if AKS creation fails due to Service Principal 
# not existing or unable to be created automatically.
az ad sp create-for-rbac \
    --skip-assignment \
    --name myAksServicePrincipal

# Create new cluster with 2 system (Linux)
# nodes (you will be prompted for a password)
az aks create \
    --resource-group myResourceGroup \
    --name myAKSCluster \
    --node-count 2 \
    --enable-addons monitoring \
    --generate-ssh-keys \
    --location myAzureRegion \
    --windows-admin-username windowsAdminUser \
    --vm-set-type VirtualMachineScaleSets \
    --network-plugin azure \
    --service-principal myAppIdFromAdCreate \
    --client-secret myAppPasswordFromAdCreate

# Add Windows Node Pool with 2 nodes
az aks nodepool add \
    --resource-group myResourceGroup \
    --cluster-name myAKSCluster \
    --os-type Windows \
    --name winnp \
    --node-count 2
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At this point we now have a 4 node Kubernetes cluster – two nodes running Linux and two nodes running Windows.

As a final piece let’s export the kubeconfig that we will use later for depoying our solution’s Container to AKS from GitHub Actions.

az aks get-credentials \
    --resource-group myResourceGroup \
    --name myAKSCluster \
    --admin \
    --file akscreds.txt
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The local file “akscreds.txt” now contains the data you’ll need to configure a deployment into AKS. Protect this data as it is the keys to your Kubernetes castle (hint: once you’ve used it later to configure the deployment you should delete the file).

Configuring our connection string

In the previous post we used the new Microsoft.Configuration.ConfigurationBuilders.Environment extensions available for .NET 4.7.1+ to allow us to supply the database connection for our sample ASP.NET web application via Windows environment variables.

In Kubernetes we can supply these environment variables via a few methods to container instances. As we are dealing with sensitive information we’ll use Kubernetes Secrets which are managed centrally within any cluster. Let’s go ahead and add our MusicStoreEntities environment variable to our cluster.

Secret values must be supplied as base64 encoded strings. This means we have to encode our connection string before we create a Secret with it. On Windows we can do this use the following PowerShell snippet.

[Convert]::ToBase64String([System.Text.Encoding]::UTF8.GetBytes("YOUR_CONNECTION_STRING"))
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This will output the connection string as a base64 encoded value. Copy the value as we will use it the next step.

Next, use your favourite text editor (VS Code, right 😉) to create a new file called “musicstoreentities-secret.yml” that will look similar to the below. Replace the “connstring” entry with the base64 encoded connection string you just created, then save the file.

Now we have this file we can go ahead and create the secret in our cluster. Exactly how you do this will depend on how (or where) your Kubernetes setup is hosted. You can use the Kubernetes command line tool (kubectl) to add the secret, but that requires setup first which I won’t cover here.

In my instance I’m using features in AKS that allow me to add the secret via the Azure Portal so I don’t need to have kubectl installed or configured (I could also do it via Azure Cloud Shell *with* kubectl… but that’s another story 😉).

How to add a Secret to Kubernetes in Azure Kubernetes Service in the Azure Portal.

Creating a new Kubernetes Secret using the Azure Portal.

OK, so we should now have everything we need in our Kubernetes setup so we can deploy and run our application!

Back to the Dock(er)yard

Let’s return to our updated Visual Studio Solution and review the Dockerfile that was added by the Visual Studio Container tools.

This is a very succinct Dockerfile 😎. There is no definition in this file that tells the executing builder how to actually perform steps like NuGet restore or execute MSBuild – these are all defined outside of this context because the assumption is that Visual Studio will run and that the resulting build output lives in “obj\Docker\publish”.

The problem we have is that it works very well when you are building using Visual Studio, but not when you try to use this in a Continuous Integration scenario where Visual Studio may not be installed on the build host (this is a good thing BTW – not having VS on your build host).

We can fix this, but it requires some manual work as we cannot get Visual Studio to generate a full file for us. The resulting Docker file is shown below and also sits in the sample GitHub repository.

The above Dockerfile is a multi-stage Docker file and it’s worth exploring it a bit. Our initial build and compilation takes place on the sdk:48 base image (tagged as “build”). This image contains the full .NET Framework SDK which includes tooling such as MS Build.

Once the application has been succcessfully compiled we then use a new base image (aspnet:4.8 – tagged as “runtime”) to which our build output is copied. This new base image does not contain the full SDK. Both from an image size and security standpoint this is a win – we don’t have unnecessary files on our runtime host which is great.

Storing our Container Images

Once built we need a location to store our Container Images. In most cases these Images are held in private Container Registries, and for this post I am going to use Azure Container Registry (ACR) as my storage location. You can choose to use any Docker-compatible Registry you like though as long as GitHub Actions can publish to it.

az acr create --name myContainerRegistry \
              --resource-group myResourceGroup \
              --sku Basic \
              --admin-enabled true \
              --location myAzureRegion
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Once the Container Registry is provisioned I then need to attach it to my AKS cluster. This will enable AKS to pull images from the ACR instance without the need for pull secrets.

az aks update \
   --resource-group myResourceGroup \
   --name myAKSCluster \
   --attach-acr $(az acr show --name myContainerRegistry --resource-group myResourceGroup --query "id" -o tsv)
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Building our Container Image with GitHub Actions

Thankfully the task of building and pushing our Container is not that difficult, particularly if we select ‘windows-latest’ as our build host in GitHub Actions. Windows Server 2019 (‘windows-latest at time of writing) contains all the necessary Docker binaries we need to build a Windows Container, so we don’t need to spend time specialising the host which is great.

The below Gist contains the contents of the GitHub Action that does exactly what we need. You can find the actual GitHub Action definition in the ‘deploy-to-k8s’ branch of the repository on GitHub.

In order to get this Action functional we need to define a few GitHub Actions Secrets which are only made available to the build agent when the Action executes. Secrets are a great way to hide information from others not authorised to access upstream services (such as our Container Registry) or from those who may troubleshoot failures looking at logs (Secrets are not captured in logs).

Our Secrets are as follows:

  • ACR_USER: Azure Container Registry user (Username on Access Keys blade in Azure Portal – typically same as Registry name).
  • ACR_INSTANCE: Azure Container Registry name.
  • ACR_SECRET: Azure Container Registry Password or Password2 value.
  • IMAGE_NAME: Used as the Docker image name. Doesn’t necessarily have to be a secret, but might be useful to obfuscate the image name. This also ends up as the ‘repository name’ in Azure Container Registry.
  • KUBECONFIG: grab the contents of the ‘akscreds.txt’ file and paste it into this. We’ll use this later to deploy to Kubernetes.

Azure Container Registry Access Keys blade. This is where you copy most of the Secrets from.

GitHub Repository Secrets

Deploying to Kubernetes

The last piece of the puzzle is taking our freshly minted Container Image and deploying it to Kubernetes. We have a couple of ways to do this – either by defining some YAML and deploying the Image using kubectl, or we can look at using Helm. For this post I am going to use Helm. You’ll need toinstall the Windows release of Helm first before you can work with it on your local developer machine.

Once Helm is installed, open the MVC Music Store project in Windows Explorer and in the root folder create a new sub-folder called ‘charts’. Open this folder at a command-line and issue the following command to create a Helm Chart scaffold.

helm create mvcmusicstoreweb
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A series of files and folders will be created and we only need to make a few minor changes to the scaffolded files to be able to use them.

Edit the Chart.yaml file and update it as follows. We should auto-update some values in this file and the values.yaml file, but for the purpose of this blog post we’ll go with static values. Key items of note below are the name, description and appVersion attributes.

Then we need to make some modifications the the values.yaml file as well. Key entries to update or add here include the nameOverride, fullnameOverride, requests (cpu and memory) and the nodeSelector to ensure the workload is scheduled onto a Windows Container host.

The final piece of the puzzle is to make sure that our environment variable containing our database connection string (MusicStoreEntities) is populated from a Kubernetes Secret.

In order to make this happen we need to edit the templates\deployment.yaml Helm file and add the env section (lines 36 - 41) that tells Kubernetes to create an environment variable and pull the value from a named Secret (dbconnection) which we created earlier in this post.

We also need to build and deploy the Helm Chart somewhere. For my purposes I am going to use Azure Container Registry’s inbuilt Helm Chart support for storing built Charts and then add a stage to my GitHub Action that builds the Chart for me.

You can find the ‘build-and-push-helm-chart step in theAction on GitHub and which is reproduced in full below.. Note that we don’t need to install Helm on the build host as the Windows 2019 hosts used by GitHub Actions already have it deployed.

Now if we submit this GitHub Action we should see a new Windows Container image built, published to Azure Container Registry, followed by a new Helm Chart being created and published, also to Azure Container Registry. Finally, the Helm Chart is then used to tell Kubernetes to either deploy or update the Image running on the cluster. You can view this successful run on GitHub.

Screenshot of GitHub Action showing successful stages.

You can see the Image build takes 11 minutes. That’s not a trivial amount of time, but I am using the free running tier in GitHub Actions, so it’s likely you could speed this up. Having said this, you may not run this process on every check-in and may wish to use it only for PR-merges into a deployment branch (for example!)

Once these steps are completed we should find that we have a new Service in AKS called ‘mvcmusicstore’ and that it has a LoadBalancer type with an External IP address.

Services and ingresses view in Azure Kubernetes Service blade in the Azure Portal. Our new Service is at the bottom.

If we click on that IP address we get…

MVC Music Store sample application running on Kubernetes!

… the sweet taste of success!!

Whew! 🤓

So we made it through – taking an existing ASP.NET Web Application and moving it into Windows Containers and then showing how we can deploy it to Kubernetes, while ensuring it can still connect to its database.

While this has been a fairly simple application to move, a lot of concepts are the same, even for complex applications. Most work will likely go into bringing the .NET release up to a supported version (3.5+), along with making sure any third party libraries work as expected.

I hope you’ve learned about modernisation of .NET applications using Windows Containers in this series of posts, and until next time…

Happy Days! 😎

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