Highlights from Build 2015

The Build 2015 conference has just taken place in San Francisco.

Like last year, this has been another huge event for Microsoft, and a big deal for the people who build solutions using their technologies.

There have been way more interesting things happening than I can possibly cover in one article, but I have decided to cover the three most important to me:

.NET, Windows and Azure.

An exciting future for .NET and Open Source

The future of .NET is the continued push to an open source .NET Core, which is at the centre of both the latest ASP.NET runtime and the Universal Windows app platform. In the future, this will expand and include other application types. In my opinion, they’ve picked the right place to start.

Applications running on the CoreCLR can be developed and deployed on cloud and server-based infrastructures running different operating systems including Windows, Linux and OS X. I have been watching the development efforts on GitHub for a while now, and I’ve set it up on my own machines running both Windows and Linux. It sure is a sight to see.

As well as the core runtime itself going open source, other technologies like Roslyn have enabled products that many wouldn’t have guessed would see the light of day. Having an open source compiler platform has enabled Visual Studio Code – a new cross platform text editor with Intellisense – to be built.

I was lucky enough to see Visual Studio Code before it was announced, and it changed the way I thought about collaboration with Mac users instantly. I’ll have more on this new text editor soon.

Visual Studio Code

With the RC of Visual Studio 2015 there have been some big improvements in the languages supported including both the more traditional C# and Visual Basic, and (my personal favourite) F#.

The Visual F# improvements in ‘every day’ activities are dramatic for anyone who has been using the language. This is all thanks to the new open source attitude, and the amazing community around F# who have helped to develop the Visual F# tools on GitHub.

This new world of cross-platform and open source .NET technology is going to enable some amazing scenarios for .NET developers like myself.

Windows 10’s application platform takes shape

The aforementioned Universal Windows app platform is really taking shape now. Gone are the days of very prescriptive (and maybe too forward-looking) design patterns of Windows 8, and in is the ‘do what’s right for your applications‘ model that has been working well for some for a while.

Universal Windows apps scale from the smallest phones and Internet of Things devices up to the large screens of the Xbox One and the Surface Hub. The most ‘universal’ of these apps are built with just one binary which includes a scalable UI. This allows you to even have the ‘desktop’ app experience when used on a landscape 5.7 inch phone, or when plugged into an external screen using an amazing new Continuum for Phones feature.

For app developers there are some interesting (and controversial) new ways for software venders to build for Windows. The biggest of which are the bridges from Android and iOS. These two are extremely important for the phone and work especially well for iOS games which don’t rely too heavily on the operating specific UI elements. Combined with the bridges for ‘classic windows’ apps and websites using Microsoft Edge, the Store should get a lot more apps on this Windows 10 wave of releases.

From a user’s view, Windows 10 has really rounded out, with the latest Insider Preview feeling a lot more polished than any of the previous builds. Seeing HoloLens run standard Windows Universal apps was a big deal too.

I’ll have more thoughts on these in the future as the Insider Preview continues, and more information for HoloLoens is released at E3.

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h3>Microsoft <3 Docker and other Azure improvements

Azure, and the Microsoft Cloud in general, continue to amaze me. Microsoft has managed to embrace this new way of building (and selling) software in at breakneck speed. Additional services were added throughout the platform all the way from storage and networking, to analytics and machine learning. Way too many for this article.

Two of the biggest highlights were the ability to run the complete Azure Stack locally, and Azure’s new Data Lake features too, something which Amazon has had a lot of success with.

Microsoft <3 Docker

For me though, the most interesting changes were around Docker support across Windows and Azure. Docker has been on my radar for a while, but I have yet to use it in production. I have plans to do so in the not too distant future.

String Hashing in F#

I recently wrote a small program to convert some strings into a ‘unique enough‘ hash which could be used as a short reference.

Whenever I’m trying to come up with an idea of how to handle these kinds of functions, I tend to turn to my favourite language, F#. This allows me to do rapid prototyping in a very functional way.

Below is the prototype version of this hashing program:

open System
open System.Text
open System.Security.Cryptography

let encode (alpha:string, number:int) =

    let b = alpha.Length

    let rec enc (s:string, n:int) =
        match n with
        | x when x <= 0 -> s
        | _ -> enc (s + alpha.[n % b].ToString(), n / b)

    match number with
    | 0 -> alpha.[0].ToString()
    | _ -> enc ("", number)

let md5Int (input:string) =

    let clean (str:string) =
        str.ToLowerInvariant()
           .Trim()

    let computeHash (str:string) =
        let bytes = Encoding.Unicode.GetBytes(str)
        use crypto = new MD5CryptoServiceProvider()
        crypto.ComputeHash(bytes)

    let convert (bytes:byte[]) =
        let i = BitConverter.ToInt32(bytes, 0)
        Math.Abs(i)

    convert (computeHash (clean input))

let hash (input:string) =

    let a = "ABCDFGHJKLMNPQRSTVWXYZ0123456789"
    let i = md5Int input

    encode(a, i)

Once I have this program created, it’s very easy to use in F# Interactive like so:

> hash "Here is a test string!";;
val it : string = "1W2ALLB"
> hash "The hash is much smaller, which is great.";;
val it : string = "5DAF5T"
>

Running JAR applications on Windows without installing the Java Virtual Machine

As part of my Open University course, I’m required to use a piece of open source software called Aladin Sky Atlas. This is maintained by Centre de données astronomiques de Strasbourg.

The program itself is actually pretty cool – it’s an interactive sky atlas, which allows you to view astronomical images along with information from the SIMBAD database and other sources.

The only problem with this program is that it uses Java, something I tend to avoid whenever possible. Installing Java on my Surface Pro 2 would mean I’d have more critical patches to install than I already do, and would open me up to a whole new attack vector. It’s not something I’d want to run on a tablet computer either.

(ノಠ益ಠ)ノ “Eww, Java!”

I originally tried using Hyper-V with a virtual machine running CentOS. This is a nice clean way of having ‘nothing running’ until it’s actually needed, but it’s quite an overhead to run a whole Linux operating system just to host a single app. Especially when battery life is a concern.

When searching around for a solution, I stumbled upon a really cool project that I’d never seen before. The IKVM.NET project includes a number of components for Java & .NET interoperability, but for this task I’m mostly interested in the Java Virtual Machine implementation.

By downloading the Windows binary of IKVM.NET, I’ve been able to run the application on my Windows 8.1 machine without requiring the JVM (or any other software) to be installed at all. This is a pretty fantastic achievement.

First I put the binaries into my apps folder (similar to my Vim setup), then I set up an alias to the executable using PowerShell.

# There's usually much more than this in my profile!
$SCRIPTSPATH  =  "C:\Users\Julian\Scripts"

Set-Alias ikvm   "$SCRIPTSPATH\Apps\ikvm\ikvm.exe"
Set-Alias ikvmc  "$SCRIPTSPATH\Apps\ikvm\ikvmc.exe"

# ikvmc.exe is cool too! have a look

After creating an alias in PowerShell I can just run it whenever I need.

PS> ikvm -jar aladin.jar

Obviously you could always set up a Windows Shortcut that does a similar thing, but that’s boring. Using PowerShell really suites me, as I often run applications this way.

Aladin Sky Atlas running on Windows without Java installed

The software doesn’t exactly look pretty, but these open source projects rarely do. Sometimes it looks like text hasn’t rendered as expected, but overall I’m really impressed.

If you’re looking to run JAR applications on Windows, without the Java Virtual Machine, then have a look at The IKVM.NET – it might work for your apps too.