26 June 2011

A Cool 'Feature Toggle' Feature

Recently we gave our Feature Toggles the possibility to be overridden at runtime. For a web application I found this extension quite useful and its implementation was easy and straightforward. This is the configuration for toggles that are always on or off:

    <toggle name="aFeature" enabled="true" />
    <toggle name="anotherFeature" enabled="false" />

If I want that the toggle can be overridden at runtime I just add one additional attribute:

    <toggle name="aFeature" enabled="true" allowHttpOverride="true"/>
    <toggle name="anotherFeature" enabled="false" allowHttpOverride="true"/>

Now if a visit a page, say www.atombrenner.de/test,  I can modify the url to be www.atombrenner.de/test?aFeature=off and now for the complete request the toggle is off. For workflows that cover more than one page request we use cookies. Just create a new cookie with your favorite cookie manager (I like the 'Edit this cookie' plugin for Google Chrome very much).


The name of the cookie must be the name of the toggle you want to override. Allowed values are: 0, 1, off, on, false, true. If both a query string value and a cookie value is given, the query string parameter wins.

If find this feature extremely useful because it allows you to toggle very quickly the feature on or off, without the need for recompiling or reconfiguring. This enables you

  • to always test that your app is still stable when the new feature is turned off
  • to give testers or managers a quick preview of the feature during development
  • to provide external partners a preview of the feature in the live environment, so they can test and accept features before it goes public.

Exception Logging Antipatterns

Here are some logging antipatterns I have seen again and again in real life production code. If your application has one global exception handler, catching and logging should be done only in this central place. If you want to provide additional information throw a new exception and attach the original exception. I assume that the logging framework is capable of dumping an exception recursively, that means with all inner exceptions and their stacktraces.

Catch Log Throw
catch (Exception ex)

No additionally info is added. The global exception handler will log this error anyway, therefore the logging is redundant and blows up your log. The correct solution is to not catch the exception at all.

Catch Log Throw Other

catch (Exception ex)
    _logger.WriteError(ex, "information");
    throw new InvalidOperationException("information"); // same information
Same as Catch Log Throw, but now you have two totally unrelated log entries. Solution: use the InnerException mechanism to create a new exception and don't log the old one:
throw new InvalidOperationException("information", ex);

Log Un-thrown Exceptions
catch (Exception ex)
    var myException = new MyException("information");
    throw myException;

In this case an un-thrown exception is logged. This could cause problems, because the exception is not fully initialized until it was thrown. For example the Stacktrace property would be null. Solution: don't log, just attach the original exception ex to MyException:
throw new MyException("information", ex);

Non Atomic Logging
catch (Exception ex)
    _logger.WriteError("Some information");
    _logger.WriteError("More information");

Several log messages are created for one cause. In the log they appear unrelated and can be mixed with other log message. Solution: Combine the information into one atomic write to the logging system: _logger.WriteError(ex, "Some information and more information");

Expensive Log Messages
    [...] // some code
This one is really dangerous for your performance. An expensive log message is generated all the time even if the logging system is configured to ignore it. If you have expensive message, put the generation into an if block side by side with the logging statement:
if (_logger.ShouldWrite(LogLevel.Information))
    // do expensive logging here


13 June 2011

Disable ASP.NET Development Server

I always forget how to stop the ASP.NET Development server from starting when I attach to the IIS for debugging, so here is the way to do it:
  1. Select the web or WCF project. Press F4 to show the property window. If only an empty window appears, repeat the process.
  2. Set the first property to "False".
If your solution contain projects that start the ASP.NET Development Server you will enjoy my macro that sets this property solution wide:
Sub TurnOffAspNetDebugging()

    REM The dynamic property CSharpProjects returns all projects
    REM recursively. "Solution.Projects" would return only the top
    REM level projects. Use VBProjects if you are using VB :-).          
    Dim projects = CType(DTE.GetObject("CSharpProjects"), Projects)

    For Each p As Project In projects
        For Each prop In p.Properties
            If prop.Name = "WebApplication.StartWebServerOnDebug" Then
                prop.Value = False                
            End If
End Sub

Update: This solution no longer works for VS2012. An addin with the same functionality is available on GitHub: https://github.com/algra/VSTools 

12 June 2011

Feature Toggle or Feature Branch

I'm working in company that releases every two weeks with the goal to do weekly releases and eventually daily releases. We introduced Feature Toggles for the development of features that overlap a release without destroying Continuous Integration.

Recently I noticed that people start using Feature Toggles for features that take only a few hours to implement. In this case the effort to setup, configure and test the Feature Toggle is easily more than 50 percent of implementation effort. It would be much more efficient to create a branch and merge it one or two days later back to the trunk. The cost for having no continuous integration is less than the cost for using a toggle in this case.

Why are people doing this? One answer could be that they are entrapped by the possibility to dynamically turn features on or off. Another is process thinking: because there was a process that enforced feature branches for feature development it is believed that you now must use Feature Toggles. Another company specific reason is that we had feature branches coupled with a heavyweight process (including the setup of a complete cloned environment with automatic builds, databases, dozens of service, ...) that was so painful that everybody shivers when hearing the word Feature Branch.

Make sure that you are using feature toggles and feature branches for the right things. A lightweight feature branch needs much less brainpower than implementing of a toggle for the modification of an legacy feature.