Surviving Azure Functions

Ali Zahid
Ali Zahid
Jul 3 · 5 min read

My year with Azure Functions and how I survived.

Over the last year, I’ve worked a lot with Azure Functions. A new client at my work insisted that we use Azure and our CTO chose Azure Functions.

It was a controversial decision; I didn’t agree with it. The scope of the app required a proper Node app instead of serverless. However, based on the client’s previous experience with their monolithic Java app, they wanted to use microservices. Which is fair, but the use of Azure Functions as micro-services for a stateful app isn’t.

Fortunately (?), you can build a stateful app with Azure Functions. The way Azure Functions apps are architected is different from AWS Lambda or Google Cloud Functions. You create and run an app which contains multiple functions, which can share code, state, and database instances. You can toggle individual functions on and off. Azure offers a lot of bindings and triggers for its different services such as Blob Storage, ServiceBus queue, CosmosDB, and many more.

When I first started building with Azure Functions, the stable runtime version was v1. Which only supported Node v6. I didn’t want to play around with that, so I opted into their v2 beta, which supported Node v8 and came with many core improvements. It wasn’t production ready, but they agreed to support our client, and we went ahead with it.

It’s been a year of challenges and discoveries and learnings. Today, I’ll share some of them with you. Including a TypeScript starter, which I wrote to help you get started with Azure Functions.

How do Azure Functions work

  • You create an app
  • You create functions inside the app
  • Functions can share state and code
  • You bundle all your code into one file
  • Use function.json define entry points for functions to your CommonJS modules exported from the bundle
  • Azure Functions runtime executes the function requested

Challenges

Plans

There are two types of plans for Azure Functions.

  • Consumption — you pay by execution
  • App service — you provision servers, which come in all shapes, sizes, and cost, and run your app on them

On the consumption plan, the function app goes to sleep after 5 minutes of inactivity. There’s no way to change this setting.

You can, however, switch to an App Service Plan. By default, function app doesn’t go to sleep. It also increases the function execution time from 5 minutes to 30, which can be increased by configuration.

The app service plan was necessary for us because of our traffic. However, if you’re using functions right, you should be okay with the consumption plan.

Stability

When I started writing the functions, Azure Function runtime v2 was somewhat unstable. It had some weird bugs which broke our code with every update. When we went to production, we had to lock our runtime version to the last known working and tested release. Every time we wanted to update, we had to regression test everything. Luckily, we had 99% code coverage, and we’d find out instantly if something broke.

However, it’s been months since v2 went to production and is now the default version for all Azure Function apps. It’s fast and stable.

Pipeline

Our structure is a bit complex. We deploy our functions to multiple production apps for different markets and control the behavior with configuration.

So, we had to use VSTS (now called Azure DevOps) for build and release pipelines. The build pipeline builds with yarn build which bundles our code with Webpack, creates an artifact, and uploads it to the internal Azure repo. The release pipeline has many targets for different staging, test, and production environments — each with its own set of environment variables.

That’s a decent CI and CD setup but took a fair bit of time and effort to reach maturity. It would be nice to have temporary apps for pull requests like Heroku does, but we manage.

Application Insights

AppInsights is the Azure APM offering, which we have integrated with our functions. It has some cool things, especially around reporting and viewing requests, dependencies, and exceptions. However, integration is very lacking and often broken. Out of the box, the tracking offers no useful information. Dependencies and exceptions are not part of requests, which makes it difficult to see what happened in a request and what took longer than it should have and what needs fixing.

We found an undocumented way of connecting everything, but that broke sometime last year and never received a fix.

AppInsights is one of our most significant pain points at the moment.

Node support

The latest Azure Function runtime only supports LTS versions of Node, which is v10 right now. Locally, I use the latest version of Node, which is v12. Which means I can’t run functions on my machine during development unless I use NVM or downgrade my version of Node. I’m not a fan of either — only the latest and greatest for me. 🤓

I’ll talk about how to fix this a little further down this post.

Learnings and discoveries

I’ve taken a year’s worth of learnings and put them into a package called Tote.

I think Tote is an excellent starter for Azure Functions. It uses Docker Compose so you can have any version of Node running locally and still be able to run functions. It comes with a lot of cool builtins and helpers. I’m developing it fairly actively and bring improvements to it all the time.

Features

Tote comes with a Func class, which you override and bootstrap to create your function. It includes several helpers for input validation (with joi) and usage, returning data, and error handling.

Tote uses another package called tote-lib which has all the helpers in it.

Both packages are well documented and should help you get started with your function apps.

Potential improvements

  • AppInsights integration
  • Better name?
  • More abstraction into tote-lib so your function app code is lighter and minimal

It has been fun shipping code to millions of users across the world built with beta tech. We defied every rational thought and still ended up with a highly performant product.

I had never used Azure before this project, but it was easy and quick to learn. We utilize a lot of the platform’s offerings, including Functions, CosmosDB, ServiceBus, Blob Storage, App Services, and more.

Next, I should write about how to deploy your Tote app to Azure with Azure DevOps. The pipelines are tricky to set up but easy once you get the hang of things.

Ali Zahid

Written by

Ali Zahid

I build cool things at designplox.com

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