Maarten Balliauw {blog}

Web development, NuGet, Microsoft Azure, PHP, ...


Book review: Microsoft Windows Azure Development Cookbook

Microsoft Windows Azure Development CookbookOver the past few months, I’ve been doing technical reviewing for a great Windows Azure book: the Windows Azure Development Cookbook published by Packt. During this review I had no idea who the author of the book was but after publishing it seems the author is no one less than my fellow Windows Azure MVP Neil Mackenzie! If you read his blog you should know you should immediately buy this book.

Why? Well, Neil usually goes both broad and deep: all required context for understanding a recipe is given and the recipe itself goes deep enough to know most of the ins and outs of a specific feature of Windows Azure. Well written, to the point and clear to every reader both novice and expert.

The book is one of a series of cookbooks published by Packt. They are intended to provide “recipes” showing how to implement specific techniques in a particular technology. They don’t cover getting started scenarios, but do cover some basic techniques, some more advanced techniques and usually one or two expert techniques. From the cookbooks I’ve read, this approach works and should get you up to speed real quick. And that’s no different with this one.

Here’s a chapter overview:

  1. Controlling Access in the Windows Azure Platform
  2. Handling Blobs in Windows Azure
  3. Going NoSQL with Windows Azure Tables
  4. Disconnecting with Windows Azure Queues
  5. Developing Hosted Services for Windows Azure
  6. Digging into Windows Azure Diagnostics
  7. Managing Hosted Services with the Service Management API
  8. Using SQL Azure
  9. Looking at the Windows Azure AppFabric

An interesting sample chapter on the Service Management API can be found here.

Oh and before I forget: Neil, congratulations on your book!  It was a pleasure doing the reviewing!

Book review: Refactoring with Visual Studio 2010

refactoring-with-microsoft-visual-studio-2010Yet again, Packt Publishing has sent me a book for review. For once, one without the typical orange/black cover but instead a classy white/black cover: Refactoring with Visual Studio 2010 by Peter Ritchie.

Since my book shelf is quite heavy on the Packt side (really, almost have their complete collection I guess, they keep sending me books), I was a bit in doubt if I should write yet another review for one of their books as I think I’m starting to sound like a Packt marketing guy. After reading it though, I thought that this book deserves some credit!

I’m going to skip the official wording on what the book is all about: the title suggest refactoring with Visual Studio 2010, but that title covers only 5% of the book’s contents. This is also reflected in the book: it describes a refactoring, in 8 out of 10 cases followed by a sentence “that this refactoring is not supported in Visual Studio 2010”. However, all refactorings are clearly explained with practical, easy to grasp sample code.

So this book is partially about refactoring and a little bit about Visual Studio 2010. However, the main content that makes this book valuable to me is that it covers a lot of design patterns, software design principles and object-oriented concepts. As an example, check the sample 'Chapter 6 "Improving Class Quality'. It talks about the single responsibility principle and starts refactoring an ugly, tight coupled class into a nice, easy to maintain class with lots of practical tips and sample code.

My recommendation for anyone: must read! Not for the VS2010 refactoring part, but for the design patterns & object-oriented principles clearly explained in the book.

Book review: PHP 5 E-commerce Development

9645_MockupCoverOnce again, Packt Publishing has asked me to do a book review on one of their latest books, "PHP 5 E-commerce Development” by Michael Peacock. The book promises the following:

  • Build a flexible e-commerce framework using PHP, which can be extended and modified for the purposes of any e-commerce site
  • Enable customer retention and more business by creating rich user experiences
  • Develop a suitable structure for your framework and create a registry to store core objects
  • Promote your e-commerce site using techniques with APIs such as Google Products or Amazon web services, SEO, marketing, and customer satisfaction

All of this is true, but…

  1. The book does not make use of an existing framework. There are tons of them out there, so why re-invent the wheel to do specific tasks if someone already did that and tested and fine-tuned it.
  2. The book does make use of a custom, application-specific framework. However, the design of the framework is not clean enough in my opinion. It is based on MVC, yet it does have some portions of code that are sitting in the wrong place… SQL code in the controllers, no real abstraction of the data layer, …
  3. Inexperienced PHP developers will not learn the best-practices from this book.

Not all is negative of course! The writing style is good and provides an easy read. Next to that, all concepts and pitfalls that go with building an online commerce site are well explained. Still, my advise on this book would not be “buy it”.

Book review: Zend Framework 1.8 Web Application Development

Zend Framework 1.8 Web Application Development My book shelf is starting to look a lot like the warehouse of Packt Publishing: I’ve received yet another book from them. Different from all previous reviews I did: this one is a PHP book, titled “Zend Framework 1.8 Web Application Development” by Keith Pope.

A chapter overview:

  • Chapter 1: Creating a Basic MVC Application
  • Chapter 2: The Zend Framework MVC Architecture
  • Chapter 3: Storefront Basic Setup
  • Chapter 4: Storefront Models (great chapter!)
  • Chapter 5: Implementing the Catalog
  • Chapter 6: Implementing User Accounts
  • Chapter 7: The Shopping Cart
  • Chapter 8: Authentication and Authorization
  • Chapter 9: The Administration Area
  • Chapter 10: Storefront Roundup
  • Chapter 11: Storefront Optimization
  • Chapter 12: Testing the Storefront

Let’s also state the obvious: Zend Framework evolves much faster than publishers. The framework is now at 1.9.6, while the book covers 1.8.0. Do not let this stop you from reading this book! Let me explain why…

  1. The book covers all concepts and components in the Zend Framework in a full-blown application that is built up from scratch.
  2. Next to that, Keith Pope focuses a lot on the application design, using interfaces, unit testing, mocking, dependency injection, … Want to learn a lot about good application design? Then this is the number one reason to read this book!

These 2 points actually summarize the whole book. Great read, great content and a must-read for everyone who is not completely sure about his application design skills. Congratulations, Keith!

Book review: Beginning ASP.NET MVC 1.0

image It sure looks like August 2009 is the month in which I found multiple books on my doormat for review. Last week I did ASP.NET 3.5 CMS Development, this time I’ll be reviewing a competitor to my own book on ASP.NET MVC, ASP.NET MVC 1.0 Quickly: Simone Chiaretta and Keyvan Nayyeri’s “Beginning ASP.NET MVC 1.0”.

Let’s start with the “official book overview”, which I usually copy-paste from Amazon. This book will learn you:

  • The intricacies of the Model View Controller (MVC) pattern and its many benefits
  • The fundamentals of ASP.NET MVC and its advantages over ASP.NET Web Forms
  • Various elements in ASP.NET MVC including model, view, controller, action filters, and routing
  • Unit testing concepts, Test-Driven Development (TDD), and the relationship between unit testing and the MVC pattern
  • How to unit test an ASP.NET MVC application
  • Details about authentication, authorization, caching, and form validation in ASP.NET MVC
  • The ins and outs of AJAX and client-side development in ASP.NET MVC
  • Ways to extend ASP.NET MVC

After doing some reading over the weekend, I can say this book is great! It follows a different path than most of the ASP.NET MVC books out there today: of course it offers the basic introduction to ASP.NET MVC, it talks about models, controllers, views, …, however: it also covers more advanced topics like dependency injection (using NInject).

Near the end of the book, some case studies are discussed: first a blog engine is built from ground up. The second case study is about building a photo gallery application.

If you need a book which gives you the basics and some more advanced topics, Beginning ASP.NET MVC 1.0 is really for you. I liked reading it, and Simone and Keyvan have done a great job in explaining all there is to the great ASP.NET MVC framework. Looking forward to read more books by these guys! And to make sure my own sales figures do not drop: if you are a fan of a quick-start book on ASP.NET MVC, go buy ASP.NET MVC 1.0 Quickly :-)

Oh and by the way, a sample chapter is also available at the publisher’s site.

Book review: ASP.NET 3.5 CMS Development

ASP.NET 3.5 CMS Development From time to time, the people at Packt Publishing send me a free book, fresh of the presses, and ask nicely if I want to read it and write a review on my blog. Last week, I received their fresh ASP.NET 3.5 CMS Development book, written by Curt Christianson and Jeff Cochran, both Microsoft MVP (ASP.NET and IIS).

According to the website, the book aims at learning people how to build a CMS. Now, I know from writing my ASP.NET MVC 1.0 Quickly book that these texts are written mostly by marketing people.

This step-by-step tutorial shows the reader how to build an ASP.NET Content Management System from scratch. You will first learn the basics of a content management system and how to set up the tools you need to build your site. Then, you start building your site, setting up users, and adding content to your site. You will be able to edit the content of your site and also manage its layout all by yourself. Towards the end, you will learn to manage your site from a single point and will have all the information you need to extend your site to make it more powerful.

Filled with plenty of code snippets and screen images to keep you on track as well as numerous additional samples to show you all the exciting alternatives to explore, this book prepares you for all the challenges you can face in development. 

Ok, it is true: this book will show you how to build a content management system in ASP.NET 3.5. However, if you are a developer working with ASP.NET for several years and the CMS part is the reason you are buying this book, you will be a bit disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, the book is good for another audience: if you are making your first steps in ASP.NET development and want to learn how things like datasources, n-tier development, membership provider, extensibility, … work, by example, this book is actually pretty good at that. Curt and Jeff managed to squeeze in about all commonly used ASP.NET features using only one example application that is built from ground up.

Conclusion: probably not the book for experienced developers, but an ideal “large, example-driven tutorial” for beginning development with ASP.NET 3.5.

Book review: Learning Ext JS

learning-ext-js For a project at one of our customers, we’re building a rich web application using the Coolite web controls in ASP.NET MVC. Coolite is a great product, wrapping all Ext JS widgets in an ASP.NET control. Upon ordering a license for both, we received two free copies of Packt’s “Learning Ext JS”, providing better insight in what’s going on behind the curtains of Coolite.

I only spent one evening reading this book and must admit: it’s really great at getting you started quickly with Ext JS. You’re working with grids, windows and your own grid column renderers, creating a nice looking application which enables you to  manage your DVD collection. As a plus, almost every example features a character or quote from the best movie ever (as an ICT-er): Office Space. This makes it a nice read (at least for me).

The people at Coolite actually did a great job providing this book with their license, as you get a better view of what they do when wrapping Ext JS widgets. If you’re not buying Coolite or a commercial Ext JS license, there’s always Packt’s website offering this book for purchase, too. Nice read!

Announcing my book: ASP.NET MVC 1.0 Quickly

ASP.NET MVC 1.0 Quickly It’s been quite a job, but there it is: Packt just announced my very first book on their site. It is titled “ASP.NET MVC 1.0 Quickly”, covering all aspects ASP.NET MVC offers in a to-the-point manner with hands-on examples. The book walks through the main concepts of the MVC framework to help existing ASP.NET developers to move on to a higher level. It includes clear instructions and lots of code examples. It takes a simple approach, thereby allowing you to work with all facets of web application development. Some keywords: Model-view-controller, ASP.NET MVC architecture and components, unit testing, mocking, AJAX using MS Ajax and jQuery, reference application and resources.

That’s it for the marketing part: let’s do a retrospective on the writing process itself. Oh and yes, those are my glasses on the cover. Photo was taken on the beach near Bray-Dunes (France).

When did you have the idea of writing a book?

I'm not sure about that. I've been blogging a lot on ASP.NET MVC last year, wrote an article for .NET magazine, did some presentations, ... It occurred to me that I had a lot of material which I could bundle. Together with that, my project manager jokingly said something like: "When will you write your first book? With all that blogging." So I did start bundling stories. First of all, I overlooked the whole ASP.NET MVC technology (preview 2 at that moment) and decided there were enough topics to talk about. A draft table of contents was built quite quick, but I gave up on writing. Too much information, not enough time, ...

A few weeks later, it must have been around the beginning of May, 2008, I did start writing a first chapter, thinking I'ld see how the writing itself would turn out, if it fit in my schedule, ... It worked out quite well, each 10-20 days gave me a new chapter. I also started looking for a publisher when I was finished with chapter 6 or so. Having reviewed some books for Packt, I contacted them with a proposal for my book.

After having a look at the other 6 upcoming books (here and here), we decided we could go for it, focusing on a hands-on book which rapidly guides you into the wonderful world of ASP.NET MVC.

How was your experience of writing your book?

Looking back, it was an interesting experience. I decided to write in English, which is not my native language. That was actually quite a hard one: writing in English is no problem, but writing a good, solid and interesting piece of text is just not that easy when writing longer texts than the average blog post. Another thing is that I tortured myself writing about a product that was not even beta yet! I started writing with ASP.NET MVC preview 3, updated it all to preview 4, 5, beta, release candidate, ... Lots of changes in the ASP.NET MVC API or concepts meant lots of changes to make in chapters I already wrote. Luckily, I survived :-)

I only contacted a publisher when I had finished 60% of my book. If you are considering writing: don't do this! Contact a publisher at a very early stage: they normally give you lots of advice upfront, which I only received after contacting them. Advice earlier along the way is always better, so that's something I would definately do different.

Speaking of advice: when writing was done, the book entered review phase. Different people received the draft version and could provide comments and suggestions. Thanks Stefan, Troy, Vivek, Jerry, Joydip and people at Packt for your time in reviewing my draft version! Reviewer comments really made the book better and required me to do some small rewrites, elaborate more on certain topics.

What tools did you use for writing?

There are some tools that you really need when writing a technical book. One of them is a text editor, in my case Microsoft Word 2007. Together with that, Visual Studio 2008 and regularly updated ASP.NET MVC versions were required. Being scared of losing data, I decided to also use a source control system for sample code ánd for my Word documents. All of these files were stored in a Subversion repository located on my server, being backed up every day to different locations. Doug Mahugh laughed at me when I said I was using Subversion, but it did a great job!

Other tools I used were Paint.NET and MwSnap, both for creating screenshots in my virtual PC running Windows Vista and Visual Studio 2008. I also used Achievo for time tracking purposes, since I was curious how much time this book writing would actually cost me.

How much time did you spend writing?

First of all, this is not going to be 100% accurate. I did track writing and development time during writing, but I already had a lot of material to work with. But here's an overview (numbers in hours):


That is right: writing a book consumes only a little more than 100 hours! But still, I already had lots of material. I'd say to double the number for an accurate timeframe.

Now I hear the next question coming... Here's the answer already: Yes, I have a girlfriend. We are working on our home (planning phase is done, searching a contractor at the moment), visiting family, doing daily stuff, blogging, work, ... It al worked out to fit together, but still: there have been some busy moments on evenings and weekends. Thanks, people around me, for being patient and caring during these busy moments!

Are you getting rich out of this?

Of course, I can grab a couple of beers (for a couple of times), but don't think writing a book will buy you a car... I just felt that I had lots of valuable information that I had to share, and writing a book seemed like the best option to do that. Creating a "to read"-list? Make sure to add ASP.NET MVC 1.0 Quickly to it.

kick it on

Book review: Software Testing with Visual Studio Team System 2008

Software Testing with Visual Studio Team System 2008 Another book review, this time for Packt’s “Software Testing with Visual Studio Team System 2008”. The book introduces you to the main types of testing available in Visual Studio Team System 2008 for both desktop and web applications, and then walks you through deploying, running, and interpreting the results of tests.

The book starts with an overview of why you need testing and then lists all available test types in Visual Studio 2008. It also explains the differences between a stand alone Visual Studio 2008 and a Team Foundation Server backed version. Each chapter thereafter covers one of the test types in detail: unit tests, web tests, advanced web tests, load tests, manual tests, …

Next to these things, more information on how to deploy and run tests on a VSTS build server is provided. And when you work with a VSTS build server, chances are big reporting is enabled. These reports are also covered in detail, showing you how to interpret the data displayed.

I’ve been working with and giving training on Visual Studio 2008 for quite a while now, including a large part on Visual Studio and testing. To be honest, I think this book really covers all aspects of testing in Visual Studio 2008, making it an ideal reference for any development team working with VSTS. Here's the official product page at Packt.

kick it on

Book review: ASP.NET 3.5 Social Networking

image Last week, I found another book from Packt in my letterbox. This time, the title is ASP.NET 3.5 Social Networking, written by Andrew Siemer.

On the back cover, I read that this book shows you how to create a scalable, maintainable social network that can support hundreds of thousands of users, multimedia features and stuff like that. The words scalable and maintainable seem to have triggered me: I started reading ASAP. The first chapter talks about what a social network is and proposes a new social network:, a web site for salt water aquarium fanatics, complete with blogs, forums, personal web sites, …

The book starts by building a framework containing several features such as logging, mail sending, …, all backed-up by a dependency injection framework to enable fast replacement of several components. Afterwards, each feature of the site is described in a separate chapter: what is the feature, how will we store data, what do we need to do in our application to make it work?

A good thing about this book is that it demonstrates several concepts in application design using a sample application that anyone who has used a site like Facebook is familiar with. The concepts demonstrated are some that any application can benefit from: Domain Driven Design, Test Driven Design (TDD), Dependency Injection, Model-View-Presenter, … Next to this, some third-party components like Lucene.NET are demonstrated. This all is very readable and understandable, really a must-read for anyone interested in these concepts!

Bottom line of the story: it has been a while since I was enthousiast about a book, and this one clearly made me enthousiast. Sure, it describes stuff about building a social network, but I think that is only a cover for what this book is really about: building good software that is easy to maintain, test and extend.