Handling Configuration Changes in Windows Azure Applications

While finalizing StarterSTS 1.5, I had a closer look at lifetime and configuration management in Windows Azure.

(this is no new information – just some bits and pieces compiled at one single place – plus a bit of reality check)

When dealing with lifetime management (and especially configuration changes), there are two mechanisms in Windows Azure – a RoleEntryPoint derived class and a couple of events on the RoleEnvironment class. You can find good documentation about RoleEntryPoint here. The RoleEnvironment class features two events that deal with configuration changes – Changing and Changed.

Whenever a configuration change gets pushed out by the fabric controller (either changes in the settings section or the instance count of a role) the Changing event fires. The event handler receives an instance of the RoleEnvironmentChangingEventArgs type. This contains a collection of type RoleEnvironmentChange. This in turn is a base class for two other classes that detail the two types of possible configuration changes I mentioned above: RoleEnvironmentConfigurationSettingsChange (configuration settings) and RoleEnvironmentTopologyChange (instance count). The two respective classes contain information about which configuration setting and which role has been changed. Furthermore the Changing event can trigger a role recycle (aka reboot) by setting EventArgs.Cancel to true.

So your typical job in the Changing event handler is to figure if your application can handle these configuration changes at runtime, or if you rather want a clean restart. Prior to the SDK 1.3 VS Templates – the following code was generated to reboot if any configuration settings have changed:

private void RoleEnvironmentChanging(object sender, RoleEnvironmentChangingEventArgs e)
// If a configuration setting is changing
    if (e.Changes.Any(change => change is
// Set e.Cancel to true to restart this role instance
        e.Cancel = true;

This is a little drastic as a default since most applications will work just fine with changed configuration – maybe that’s the reason this code has gone away in the 1.3 SDK templates (more).

The Changed event gets fired after the configuration changes have been applied. Again the changes will get passed in just like in the Changing event. But from this point on RoleEnvironment.GetConfigurationSettingValue() will return the new values. You can still decide to recycle if some change was so drastic that you need a restart. You can use RoleEnvironment.RequestRecycle() for that (more).

As a rule of thumb: When you always use GetConfigurationSettingValue to read from configuration (and there is no bigger state involved) – you typically don’t need to recycle.

In the case of StarterSTS, I had to abstract away the physical configuration system and read the actual configuration (either from web.config or the Azure service configuration) at startup. I then cache the configuration settings in memory. This means I indeed need to take action when configuration changes – so in my case I simply clear the cache, and the new config values get read on the next access to my internal configuration object. No downtime – nice!

A very natural place to hook up the RoleEnvironment lifetime events is the RoleEntryPoint derived class. But with the move to the full IIS model in 1.3 – the RoleEntryPoint methods get executed in a different AppDomain (even in a different process) – see here.. You might no be able to call into your application code to e.g. clear a cache. Keep that in mind! In this case you need to handle these events from e.g. global.asax.

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