Sunday, 13 January 2013

PaaS offerings and AppHarbor

This may sound a little obvious, but writing the code for web apps is often the easy part for developers - because that's what developers are good at. I believe developers should be free to focus on writing the code and adding business value. In reality, the developers often get involved with the headaches that come from deploying, load balancing, scaling and monitoring the apps. But with more and more Platform as a Service (PaaS) offerings popping up, it seems like our lives as developers are beginning to get a little easier.

Our technical director at work (Adam Bird) made me aware of around 12 months ago. Adam likes Ruby and had been using Heroku, which was a big hit with Ruby developers because it was an easy-to-use PaaS offering. AppHarbor has been called the 'Heroku for .Net'. It runs on Amazon's AWS infrastructure and is designed to take the pain out of quickly and safely deploying, scaling and managing any .NET web application. Appharbour also offers an impressive add-on feature catalog, allowing developers to easily integrate and configure a wide array of database, queuing, monitoring, indexing and email services with their applications.

Integration with AppHarbor can be achieved using various repository hosting services (e.g. BitBucket, GitHub and Codeplex). Developers can use Git, Mercurial or TFS when deploying code to AppHarbor; integrating deployment in the developer's workflow by letting developers use the tools they love.

My experiences

I've been really impressed with what AppHarbor are offering and was surprised at how easy (and low cost) it was to get an application I had running on an virtual machine elsewhere ported over. One of the biggest selling points for me is integration with GitHub and BitBucket. If you are migrating apps over you need to bear in mind certain limitations too (see below). AppHarbor offer a free tier for you to play around with, and a lot of the add-ons do too. I'd strongly recommend you give it a try.

I've listed what I liked most below, followed by some potential issues/warnings I came across.


  • Low start-up costs
  • Your first deploy can take just a manner of minutes
  • Automatically deploy code from GitHub (or any of the other supported repository hosting services)
  • Support for compiling and running project tests; if the tests fail the app isn't deployed
  • Reverting to a previous app version is easily achieved through the control panel
  • Ability to integrate popular application monitoring add-ons (like New Relic) very easily

Potential issues/warnings...

  • If you are sharing forms auth cookies across apps hosted elsewhere you'll need to implement your own version of form auth and not rely on the .Net libraries (see AppHarbor blog)
  • File system access should be avoided due to the way Appharbor scales your app - put files in a shared data store
  • AppHarbor building and running tests is not going to work for larger projects with complicated tests
  • During my time playing around I've had a handful of intermittent yellow screens of death appear whilst using their control panel (not my own app) - which has made me question their stability

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