Running ASP.NET Core Applications with IIS and Antares (Azure Websites)

I have seen a few articles (including official docs on http://docs.asp.net) about publishing and running  ASP.NET Core applications in IIS (or Azure/Antares). Unfortunately, I was not satisfied by either of them. Yes, they showed steps you need to follow to make things work. Yes, they touched on some aspects of how things work. No, they did not explain what’s really happening, why it’s happening and how the blocks fit together. Hence this post – something I would like to read if I wanted to run my ASP.NET Core application using IIS or Azure.

Before we can get into details we need to understand how things work at a high level. The most important thing is that ASP.NET Core applications are no longer tightly coupled to IIS as it was with previous versions. Rather, IIS is acting now merely as a reverse proxy and the application itself runs as a separate process using the Kestrel HTTP server. Decoupling ASP.NET from IIS was necessary to enable running ASP.NET Core applications on other platforms. It also makes development easier because it allows to avoid the overhead of IIS/IIS Express during development by making it possible to run your application directly using Kestrel. Note that in production environment it is recommended to always run Kestrel behind a reverse proxy like IIS or  NGINX.

Going back to IIS HTTP requests are handled as follows:

  1. IIS receives a request
  2. IIS (ASP.NET Core Module) starts the ASP.NET Core application in a separate process (if the application is not already running) – i.e. the application no longer runs as w3wp.exe but as dotnet.exe or myapp.exe
  3. IIS forwards the  request to the application
  4. Application processes the request and send the response to IIS
  5. IIS forwards the response to the client

Out of these 5 steps, step two is the most interesting, the most complicated and the most fragile. There is a few pieces that need to be aligned to successfully start an ASP.NET Core application from IIS: ASP.NET Core Module, web.config file and application configuration. Let’s take a look at them one by one and discuss their role.

ASP.NET Core Module (sometimes abbreviated to ANCM) is a native IIS module that starts the application and implements reverse proxy functionality. It is installed as part of ASP.NET Core tooling for Visual Studio or can be installed separately – (the Windows (Server Hosting) package from https://www.microsoft.com/net/download.

web.config – tells IIS to use ASP.NET Core Module to process requests. It also tells ASP.NET Core Module what process (application) to start. Note, that you don’t use web.config to configure your application – it is only used by IIS. Here is how a typical web.confing of an ASP.NET Core application looks like:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="utf-8"?>
<configuration>
  <system.webServer>
    <handlers>
      <add name="aspNetCore" path="*" verb="*" modules="AspNetCoreModule" resourceType="Unspecified"/>
    </handlers>
    <aspNetCore processPath="dotnet" arguments=".\HelloWorld.dll" stdoutLogEnabled="false" stdoutLogFile=".\logs\stdout" />
  </system.webServer>
</configuration>

Application configuration – a typical Main method of an ASP.NET Core application looks like this:

var host = new WebHostBuilder()
            .UseKestrel()
            .UseContentRoot(Directory.GetCurrentDirectory())
            .UseIISIntegration()
            .UseStartup<Startup>()
            .Build();

from the perspective of running the application using IIS the lines that are important are UseKestrel and UseIISIntegration.  UseKestrel configures Kestrel as the application web server. This is important from IIS perspective since you can’t use WebListener and IIS together at the moment (https://github.com/aspnet/IISIntegration/issues/8). UseIISIntegration does a bit of magic to fulfill ASP.NET Core Module expectations and registers the IISMiddleware.

With the information above we can now drill into how IIS starts ASP.NET Core applications. When IIS  receives a request for an ASP.NET Core application it passes the request to the ASP.NET Core Module. IIS was configured to do this by the following entry in the the web.config file:

<handlers>
  <add name="aspNetCore" path="*" verb="*" modules="AspNetCoreModule" resourceType="Unspecified"/>
</handlers>

Upon receiving the request the ASP.NET Core Module will attempt to start the application if it is not already running. The name of the process to start and its arguments are specified in web.config  as the processPath and arguments attributes on the aspNetCore element. ASP.NET Core Module also sets a few environment variables for the application process – ASPNETCORE_PORT , ASPNETCORE_APPL_PATH and ASPNETCORE_TOKEN. Here is where the UseIISIntegration magic happens. When the application starts, the code inside UseIISIntegration method tries to read these environment variables and if they are not empty they will be used to configure the url/port the application will listen on. (If the above environment variables are not set UseIISIntegration won’t try to configure anything so that you can use your own settings when running the application directly (i.e. without IIS)). One important detail to pay attention to is where you put the call to UseIISIntegration when configuring your application with WebHostBuilder. You need to make sure that you don’t try to set server urls after you called UseIISIntegration otherwise the url set by UseIISIntegration will get overwritten and your application will be listening on a different port that Asp.NET Core Module expects. As a result things will not work.

ASPNETCORE_TOKEN is a pairing token. IIS middleware added to the pipeline by UseIISIntegration will check each request if it contains this value and will reject requests that don’t. This is to prevent from accepting requests that did not come from IIS.

These are the fundamental blocks needed to run your ASP.NET Core application with IIS and on Azure (Antares). You can now go and set things up as described in some tutorials and actually understand what you are doing and why.

There is, however, a  second level of confusion which happens when you start using Visual Studio and you see additional magic. The first thing that is confusing is web.config. You create a new ASP.NET Core application, open web.config and you see this line instead of what I showed above:

<aspNetCore processPath="%LAUNCHER_PATH%" arguments="%LAUNCHER_ARGS%" stdoutLogEnabled="false" stdoutLogFile=".\logs\stdout" forwardWindowsAuthToken="false"/>

You start wondering what are these %LAUNCHER_*% environment variables, who is supposed to set them and how IIS (or whoever) knows what values to put there. Honestly, I don’t exactly know how these environment variables work but I treat them as placeholders that Visual Studio replaces when you start your application with F5/Ctrl+F5. When you publish your application to run in a production environment you can’t have these placeholders in web.config – no one knows about them and no one is going to replace them or set values (I also don’t think you can just set environment variables with these names and they will be picked up automatically – this is why I call these strings placeholders – they look as if they were environment variables but I don’t think they behave as environment variables). So how does this work then? If you look at your project.json file you will see a "scripts" section looking more or less like this:

"scripts":
{
"postpublish":
"dotnet publish-iis --publish-folder %publish:OutputPath% --framework %publish:FullTargetFramework%"
}

It just tells dotnet to run the publish-iis tool after the application is published. What is publish-iis (or a better question would be “what publish-iis isn’t”)? publish-iis isn’t… doing much. There are a lot of misconceptions about the publish-iis tool but it actually is a very simple tool. It goes to the folder where the application was published (not your project folder) and checks if it contains a web.config file. If it doesn’t it will create one. If it does it will check what kind of application you have (i.e. whether it is targeting full CLR or Core CLR and – for Core CLR – whether it is a portable or standalone application) and will set the values of the processPath and arguments attributes removing %LAUNCHER_PATH% and %LAUNCHER_ARGS% placeholders on the way. Note that publish-iis is not a Visual Studio tool. It’s independent and whether you are using Visual Studio or you publish your application from command line using dotnet publish it will work as long as it is configured as a postpublish script in your project.json. That’s pretty much what publish-iis is.

Troubleshooting

Since there are a few pieces that need to be aligned to run ASP.NET Core application with IIS things tend to go wrong. If you don’t know how these pieces are supposed to work together (i.e. you did not read the first part of this post) you can search the internet, try random hints from stackoverflow and pray and most likely you still won’t be able to make your application work. But now you know know how things are supposed to work so you can be much more effective in troubleshooting problems. I will only focus on the infamous 502.3 Bad Gateway error as this is the most common one. I read about other failures (https://docs.asp.net/en/latest/publishing/iis.html) but so far have not seen any of them. So, if your application does not work with IIS what to do?

  • Make sure ASP.NET Core Module is installed. It will be installed on your dev box because it is installed with Visual Studio Web Tooling but it may not be on the server you are deploying your application to
  • Try running your published application without IIS – in the command prompt go to the folder where the application was published to and run dotnet {myapp}.dll (a portable Core CLR app) or {myapp}.exe (a standalone application or an application targeting full CLR)
  • If above works – make sure dotnet.exe is on the global %PATH%. It might be on the %PATH% for you but IIS is running using a different account which may not have path to dotnet.exe set. Add the path to the folder dotnet.exe lives in (typically C:\Program Files\dotnet) to the global %PATH% environment variable. I had to do iisreset.exe to make the change effective in IIS
  • Check web.config file of the published application – verify it has actual values and not %LAUNCHER_PATH%/%LAUNCHER_ARGS% placeholders. Make sure the processPath  corresponds to the application type (i.e. you can’t start a portable application with {myapp}.exe because there is only {myapp}.dll in the folder)
  • Check event log – ASP.NET Core Module writes to event log and you can find some useful (and some bogus) entries in the event log
  • Turn on logging – you probably noticed stdoutLogFile and stdoutLogEnabled attributes on the aspNetCore element. They are very helpful to diagnose issues – especially issues related to application start up. If you set stdoutLogEnabled to true ASP.NET Core Module will write all the output written by the application to the console to the stdoutLogFile file. Note that the folder configured in the stdoutLogFile attribute must exist, otherwise (at least at the moment) the file won’t be created. In case of Azure/Antares the path should look like:  \\?\%home%\LogFiles\stdout  (the \\?\%home%\LogFiles folder always exists). In fact if you publish your application to Azure/Antares using Visual Studio tooling it will make publish-iis set stdoutLogPath to point to the folder above and you can turn on logging by merely setting stdoutLogEnabled to true.
    Note that std out logging should not be used as a poor man’s file logging. It’s very useful to diagnose startup issues since they often happen before loggers are created and/or configured but if you want to log to a file configure your application to use a real logging and logging framework. (There is also a plan to create a simple file logger https://github.com/aspnet/Logging/issues/441)

app_offline

The last thing to mention is app_offline.htm. app_offline.htm is a feature of ASP.NET Core Module where ASP.NET Core Module will monitor your application directory and if it notices the app_offline.htm file (note – at the moment the file must not be empty: https://github.com/aspnet/IISIntegration/issues/174) it will stop your application and will respond to requests with the contents of the app_offline.htm file. This makes application deployment much easier since you no longer need to deal with the problem of locked files that are loaded into the process of a running application. Once you remove the app_offline.htm file from the folder ASP.NET Core Module will start your application on the first request. app_offline.htm is used by the deployment tool (WebDeploy) that ships with Visual Studio (note that in preview1 this tool uses app_offline.htm only when deploying to Azure/Antares but it is supposed to be fixed so that app_offline.htm is used by default when deploying to file system (think: IIS)).

So, these are the basics of running ASP.NET Core application with IIS. The topic is much broader but the details described in this post will hopefully make working with IIS  in the ASP.NET Core world less painful and help those who need to transition from previous versions of ASP.NET.

 

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14 thoughts on “Running ASP.NET Core Applications with IIS and Antares (Azure Websites)

  1. steve says:

    Thank you so much for this article. Felt like I was fumbling around in the dark in this area until after I read this!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Felix says:

    Thank you. I didn’t realize what was changing the placeholders back 🙂

    One aspect of publishing that I can’t find any documentation is Virtual directories. It looks like setting virtual directories in IIS has no effect for ASP.NET Core application. Is there a way to have a pointer to some network share or, better yet, S3 storage location (sorry, I am sure Azure has something similar as well ;)?

    Like

    • moozzyk says:

      Virtual directories don’t work (and never will) but you can create an Application within a site or an application and this will work as if you created a site. I think this is what you are after.

      Thanks,
      Pawel

      Like

      • Felix says:

        Actually, I was trying to do the opposite – to have a virtual directory *within* the application. I am trying to have, say, an image directory that is outside wwwroot. Previously, I would create a virtual directory in IIS (“extimages”) that would point to some physical place, and any URL http://myapp/extimages would resolve to that place. The code would be oblivious to where the images actually are.

        Now that I know that it won’t work in Core, I think I figured out the way. I have app.UseStaticFiles(new StaticFileOptions {
        RequestPath = new PathString(“/extimages”),
        FileProvider = new PhysicalFileProvider(
        Configuration.GetSection(“PhotoPath”).Value)
        });

        and having PhotoPath section in appsettings.json does the same thing. Just knowing that virtual directory is no longer supported turned very helpful. Thanks 🙂

        Like

      • moozzyk says:

        Yes, as explained in the post the application runs as an external process and has no notion of IIS. Virtual directories are IIS concept however so the application is not aware of them. While it might be possible to make IIS serve static files by narrowing what is handled by the Asp.NET Core Module (by changing values of path=”*” verb=”*”) it is (in my opinion) additional complexity and magic that would make the application depend on IIS. Using static files middleware as you did is the recommended approach – it keeps the application configuration in one place.

        Thanks,
        Pawel

        Like

  3. Patrick McKeon says:

    When I try to run a self contained asp.net core app using sqlserver in IIS, I get the following error. It works fine running it from the command line.

    Cannot get a local application data path. Most probably a user profile is not loaded. If LocalDB is executed under IIS, make sure that profile loading is enabled for the current user.

    Like

  4. satish says:

    thanks for the useful info. i have one clarification regarding enabling windows authentication of aspnet core web app hosted in IIS….configuration steps ??

    Like

  5. Terry Davenport says:

    Hello

    Good article I am trying to get my head around this and more to troubleshoot why the site isn’t working.

    I have picked up the troubleshooting of this application that the developer (who has left the company I work for) couldn’t get this running on Azure. HTTP Error 502.5 – Process Failure is displayed when attempting to go to the site. The web.config file has this line . Is someone able to let me know if I should replace the LAUNCHER_PATH and LAUNCHER_ARGS should be replaced with something and if so how I can work out what they should be replaced with.

    Thanks in advance.

    Like

    • moozzyk says:

      As described in the article the LAUNCHER_PATH and LAUNCHER_ARGS values should be replaced by the publish-iis tool that should be configured as a post-publish script in your project.json. If it is not configured nothing replaces the parameters and the Asp.NET Core Module fails to start the process.

      Thanks,
      Pawel

      Like

  6. David says:

    Awesome write up! This helped me immensely. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

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