Category Archives: VSTS

Multiple Workstreams Git Branching Strategy and VSTS Build/Release

After moving from Subversion to Git we struggled to adapt our old branching strategy, which was to do all work in trunk and then cherry pick bunches of commits into a release branch for QA/deployment. Git prefers to merge whole branches at a time, while cherry pick is supported it results in a different commit being made in the target branch and gets messy very quickly.

For most projects we just moved to a more sprint-based approach using gitflow or gitlab flow, did work in feature branches, pull request into master when dev complete, then master is deployed to test site, when a sprint worth of work is complete, either deploy straight from master or a release branch.

However, a few projects didn’t suit this because we always have a number of workstreams on the go at the same time: a few may need to be deployed to test together, but then end up going live one at a time in another order. Feature flags and automated tests are great but sometimes bad code just gets into master, and having this go live would be a nightmare. I concluded:

  • Work must remain in feature branch until it is GO LIVE READY:
    • Code reviewed by another dev
    • Automated tests pass
    • Manual QA pass
    • Approved by product owner

So we can set branch policy on master to require a few people to approve, and a working pull request build which runs unit tests. With that in mind we now have master is basically live, and feature branches in various states. How to test them?

  • Deploy one branch at a time to test site. Impractical if multiple workstreams need to be visible at once.
  • Set up an environment for each branch ready to test. A lot of effort and potentially cost.
  • Merge the “ready” branches into a copy of master then deploy this to the test site.

Option 3 was the only option for some projects. But the thought of maintaining a ‘qa’ branch by manually merging the correct features into it sounds terrible. So we automated it.

In VSTS we have a Build that is manually triggered, it checks out the latest master branch then runs this powershell:

git fetch origin
git reset
git config --global user.name GitTask
git config --global user.email gittask@notused.com
git checkout -b uat/$(Build.BuildNumber)
git merge --no-ff $(branches)
if ($LastExitCode -ne 0) {
  throw "Merge Failed"
}
git push --set-upstream origin uat/$(Build.BuildNumber)

There is a build variable which lists the branches ready to be tested e.g. “origin/feature/123 origin/feature/245 origin/bugfix/123”. This is manually edited when a new branch needs to be included for test, then a build queued. This is doing an ‘octopus merge’ i.e. merging multiple branches into one.

It checks this into a branch named based on the build number e.g. uat/{date}-{count} or whatever you like. This is so you can manually interrogate the result of the merge (and what has been deployed) and also to split the merge from the actual build. To enable the script to “git push” I had to edit the repository security and enable ‘Create branch’ and ‘Contribute’ permission for the ‘Project Collection Build Service’.

Then there is a normal Build which compiles the code and generates an artefact (web deploy package in our case) which is set to trigger on uat/* as well as master (the same build generates the artefact from master branch which is deployed to live).

Then we have a Release which picks up this build (also filtered on branch uat/*) and deploys it to the QA site.

So if a developer updates any of the branches in QA they only have to queue the automerge build.

Once a particular change is approved and the pull request closed, this triggers the build from master, which triggers the start of a deployment pipeline to deploy to staging and then live (with manual approval steps).

This has worked pretty well so far, and solved the problem of multiple workstreams for us. I would only suggest something like this if you have tried to work in a normal git branching strategy and it isn’t working out. As it could come back and bit us if we let the feature branches get too large, the merge might continually fail, or we might get lazy at closing pull requests, etc. But I thought I’d share in case this helps anyone with a similar issue.

Deploying Sitecore Unicorn Items to Azure Web App using VSTS Build and Release

For years we have been using Unicorn to manage and deploy our developer-owned Sitecore items using TeamCity. Nowadays, we have moved to using VSTS for source code, build and release management, and Microsoft Azure for web app hosting. We struggled to set up a process akin to our TeamCity deployment process and Darren Guy’s epic blog series only covers Octopus Deploy.

I won’t go into setting up Unicorn as this is covered in the documentation. I will assume you have got it saving serialized files into source control and just outline the solution we have used to deploy the items.

We decided to put the Unicorn files into /App_Data/Unicorn so it is beneath the Webroot so can be deployed to, but protected from the public.

1. Configure the build to include Unicorn files

We used a Copy Files step to copy the Unicorn folder from source control into the artefact staging directory. This means the files are available at Release time. We’re copying it into a new folder “UnicornWWW” in the location under the website path that we want to deploy the items to (App_Data/Unicorn).

We also zip this folder up into a Unicorn.zip which contains the path within the website inside the zip, and delete the temporary folder as we don’t need it anymore.

Now the UnicornWWW.zip is a build artefact available at release time. You can check by going to the completed build summary page and checking the Artefacts tab, where the file should be listed.

2. Deploy the Unicorn files

This was tricky as we want to not only deploy the new files but also delete any old ones that have been removed from source control. We already had an Azure App Service Deploy step to deploy our web deploy package to the web app. What we did was add a post deployment script to this step which removes the Unicorn folder:


Then we have a follow up deployment which deploys the UnicornWWW.zip directly to the web app. As it has the App_Data/Unicorn folder inside it, the Unicorn files are deployed to the right place and the previous version have been deleted beforehand.

I believe it should be possible to do a manual msdeploy call inside a Powershell script where you could target a subfolder and do ‘sync’ to delete existing files, much like we do with TeamCity, but we haven’t got that working quite yet as not sure how the publish credentials would be taken out of the service principal setup that connects VSTS and Azure – it “just works” when you use the Azure App Service Deploy task so for now this is what we are sticking with.

3. Sync the Unicorn files

First we need a copy of the Unicorn Powershell API scripts available to the release agent. To do this we go back to the build and add a step to copy the Unicorn Tools PSAPI folder from the nuget package location into the build artefact folder:


We then use a Powershell step which runs on the Release agent, which triggers Unicorn sync using the Unicorn Powershell API. This is based on the sample.ps1 from the PSAPI folder. Here we specify the environment URL + /unicorn.aspx and the shared secret that is configured as per Unicorn.UI.config.


The URL and secret can be made environment variables and then you have a fully automated deployment of Unicorn items to your Azure web app environment!