Crossing The Finish Line With IMSA

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As Tim called out the other day, we recently went live with a brand new mobile experience for IMSA, and I had the privilege of leading the engineering team on the project here at IK. The scope and timeframe of the project were both ambitious: we delivered a brand-new, content-driven mobile app with live streaming audio and video, realtime in-race scoring results, custom push notifications and more, across all major platforms (iOS, Android, and Windows), with custom interfaces for both phone and tablet form factors – all in a development cycle of about twelve weeks. It goes without saying that the fantastic team of engineers here at IK are all rockstars, but without some cutting-edge development tools and great partnerships, this would have been impossible to get across the finish line on time:

  • Xamarin allowed our team to utilize a shared codebase in a single language (C#, which we happen to love) across all of our target platforms, enabling massive code reuse and rapid development of (effectively) six different apps all at once.
  • Working closely with the team at Xamarin enabled us to leverage Xamarin.Forms to unlock even further code-sharing than would have been otherwise possible, building whole sections of the presentation layer in a single, cross-platform XAML-based UI framework.
  • On the server side, our partners at Microsoft’s continued world-class work on Azure made utilizing Mobile App Service (née Azure Mobile Services) a no-brainer. The ability to scale smoothly with live race-day traffic, the persistent uptime in the face of tens of thousands of concurrent users making millions of calls per day, and the ease of implementation across all three platforms, all combined to save us countless hours of development time versus a conventional DIY approach to the server layer.
  • Last but not least, being able to leverage Visual Studio’s best-of-breed suite of developer tools was essential to the truly heroic amounts of productivity and output of our engineering team at crunch time. And Visual Studio Online enabled the Project Management team and myself to organize features and tasks, track bugs, and keep tabs on our progress throughout the hectic pace of a fast development cycle.

The final result of this marriage between cutting-edge cross-platform technology and an awesome team of developers is a brand new app experience that’s available on every major platform, phone or tablet, and this is just the beginning – we have lots of great new features in store for IMSA fans worldwide. I’ll be following up with a couple more technical posts about particular challenges we faced and how we overcame them, and be sure to check out the next IMSA event in Detroit the weekend of May 29-30; I know I’ll be streaming the live coverage from my phone!

IMSA MOBILE APPS – 3 – SCALING WITH AZURE

When taking your presence to mobile, there is always a scalability conversation that quickly occurs. This is especially true when the systems you need to access are on-premise. Your on-premise systems may have never been designed for the user load you would add with mobile apps. Additionally, your on-premise systems may not even be exposed to the internet, introducing a whole set of security complexities that need to be solved. In the case of IMSA, we are relying on services already exposed to the internet, so one less set of issues to manage.

Through our build experiences with Azure projects such as CNN, we knew several considerations would apply. The services referenced below are those supplied directly from IMSA:

  • How many users would concurrently be accessing the services through the mobile apps?
  • What is the latency for the service calls?
  • How much effort is it for the service to generate the data?
  • How often are the services taken down for maintenance? For how long?
  • Will the services change over time as backend systems change?

These are relatively simple questions, but they serve to shape the approach you take to scale. To provide the best possible mobile experience, we envisioned a brokering capability to be served by Azure. All mobile apps across iOS, Android, and Universal Apps would access this brokering layer for data access. This brokering layer is caching data from IMSA services for fast access.

There is immense flexibility in how you shape solutions in Azure for scale, particularly around caching. Ultimately the purpose of data caching is to minimize the number of trips to the backend services. There can be instances where the backend services are so expensive in time and resources to call that the architecture must do everything possible to minimize the user paying the price of waiting for that call to complete. In this case, Azure can be setup to actively keep its cache fresh and minimize the amount of calls to the backend services. Mobile apps would then always have a fast and fluid experience and never feel slow, and a company would not have to worry about putting a massive amount of resources for scaling up their backend services.

Fortunately, this was not the case for us and the IMSA backend services. The backend services are responsive and data is small per service call. Also, it is not expensive for the backend services to produce the data. Even in this case, there is benefit to leveraging Azure. IMSA race events are at key moments in time, and traffic heavily spikes around each event. It is not beneficial to have hardware laying around mostly idle 90%+ of the time waiting for the spike in usage. Additionally, the IMSA services could be taken down briefly for maintenance. Using Azure for brokering calls still has merit because capability can be scaled up and down around the IMSA events. There will be minimal additional load put on the backend services because Azure is doing most of the work of serving data to the mobile apps.

The approach we took for IMSA relied on a combination of HTTP output caching (via ETag) and Azure Redis Cache all within Azure Mobile Services. Basically, when a mobile app makes a request from an Azure service for the first time, no ETag is present because our services did not already generate it. However, we have the URL and parameters passed in, which forms a unique key to the requested data. Redis cache is checked to see if the data is present. If the data is present and is not expired, then the cached data from Redis is returned. If the data is not present or is expired in Redis, then Azure makes the request into the backend IMSA services, puts the response into the cache, and returns it to the calling mobile app. An ETag is generated with each response, so if the mobile app requests the same data again that ETag is supplied. This is informing our Azure services that the calling mobile app has data already, but is not sure if the data is still valid. The benefit of supplying the ETag is that we can check whether or not the ETag has expired, meaning the related data in cache has expired. If it has not expired, an HTTP 304 is returned which is much lighter weight response than if the cached data was returned.

There is a downside to this approach. When simultaneous requests are made for the exact same data (based on the URL and the parameters passed in) at the exact same moment, each request could do the full trip to the backend IMSA services. If IMSA had millions of users during each event, we would prevent this by doing data locking within Redis, but they do not so the extra engineering to prevent this is not warranted.

Through this technique, we have set ourselves up to be prepared for tens of thousands of new users at each event without bringing the IMSA services to their knees.

IMSA Mobile Apps – 2 – Planning For Maximizing Code Re-Use Across iOS, Android, and Universal Apps

While we were busy thinking through the interaction design elements of new IMSA mobile apps, we knew we were going to have to build six apps (iOS, Android, Universal Apps for phone and tablet). The app architecture we chose to follow for this is Model-View-ViewModel (or MVVM). Our mission was to maximize the amount of code sharing across all implementations of the app. The more code sharing we could do, the less code we would have to develop for each platform. Less code means less time to develop and less to test, making the aggressive schedule more achievable.

The Model layer contains the business logic and data that will drive the IMSA app. Data would be served through a scalable cloud infrastructure being constructed for the mobile apps. Regardless of mobile OS, the business logic and data will remain the same. How we access the data in the cloud and retrieve would also remain the same. These layers are devoid of any user interface elements are a logical candidate for re-use across all the mobile operating systems. Perfect – one layer to write one. But we want more.

We were suspicious that the View layer would be so unique across mobile operating systems that the ViewModel layer would not be re-usable. The ViewModel layer is responsible for binding the Model layer (the business logic) to a View (the user interface). Remember we are talking about code sharing across iOS, Android, and Universal Apps – this have to be do so different that writing a consistent and shareable ViewModel layer would not be possible – right? Wrong! After some initial prototyping we were pleasantly surprised. The path we have chosen is going to allow us to use the same code in the ViewModel layer across all operating systems.

From our early calculations, thanks to Visual Studio and Xamarin, we are predicting to see about 75% code re-use (of the non-generated code) across all the implementations! Excellent news for the developers and project manager. We’ll dive into code examples in an upcoming blog, but next we’ll discuss our approach with Azure.  Also, this video has additional information for code re-use with Xamarin.

IMSA Mobile Apps – 1 – Architecture Design Session

The IMSA Mobile Apps project is currently in flight and we are actively working on building this cross platform/cross OS solution. This article is the first in a series of blogs discussing the details of the project, and we’ll be actively trying to catch up to the current day as we are busy building towards the Laguna Seca race.

Back in the first week of December 2014 we flew out to Florida to visit the IMSA team with Microsoft in Daytona Beach. Microsoft was hosting an Architecture Design Session, or ADS for short, to flesh out features of the solution. It became quickly apparent that the solution was layered and complex. Many features discussed have become part of longer product roadmap as IMSA is committed to providing the best experience possible to their fans. Also, it should be noted as in all ideation sessions, some ideas discussed are put deep down in the feature backlog.

I am certain that some would ask why IMSA involved Microsoft. This is a mobile app – what does Microsoft know about building mobile apps across iOS and Android? Well, it turns out quite a lot. From past projects, we already knew the tooling we get with Visual Studio and Xamarin allows us to build amazing mobile apps across all platforms and OS’s. The other side of the coin is the plumbing we get to integrate into cloud infrastructure. This app needed to scale across the huge IMSA fan base during live events. From past projects we knew how effective we could be building scalable mobile apps with Azure. So to IMSA and to us, involving Microsoft made perfect sense.

In the ADS, some of the interesting features starting popping up:

The app would need to change shape depending on whether or not a race is live or not. We thought treating the app almost like the NFL Now app would be interesting. There could be something interesting always to watch on our app, regardless if an event is live or not.

IMSA radio is a live audio stream. The app would need to deliver this feed just like other integrated audio content on your device. So turning on IMSA radio, putting your headphones on, and then your device in your pocket should be as natural as playing music.

Using the device’s GPS, if the race fan is at the event the app should respond differently than if the person were elsewhere. When you are at an event, what you are interested in is different than when you are not.

Telemetry information from the cars. It would be just awesome to watch your favorite car at the event or at home and see all the g-forces they are pulling when they are flying around the corners.

IMSA services to content and structured information are not scalability to a mobile play. A cloud infrastructure would need to be placed in front of the IMSA services so content could be cached and served more quickly.

 

After the ADS we went home and decomposed all the features while looking at the schedule. We needed to pick a race event to target deployment. We had a lot of homework to determine our approach. In this next blog we will be discussing how we were planning on maximizing code re-use across all platforms and OS’s.

Supporting iOS 6.1 and iOS 7 (Xamarin.iOS)

As a developer it’s always way more fun to play with the new “toys” a new framework or OS provides. The issue we usually run into is at what point are we able to start using the new functionality in applications we develop. With Apple and iOS, the adoption rate of new versions is so high and so quick that you only really need to worry about supporting the 2 latest versions. With that said, if you’re starting something brand new you’ll probably just want to build against the newest version, but if you’ve got an existing application that you want to function in both versions you’ll need to do some work.

1st: If you don’t have Xcode 5, copy the iPhoneOS6.1.sdk and the iPhoneSimulator6.1.sdk folders from your existing Xcode 4.6.3 installation somewhere else so you can still dev for iOS 6. The simulator SDK can also be downloaded after the upgrade, but this is faster since you already have it on your machine. The SDKs are located under /Applications/Xcode.app/Contents/Developer/Platforms. In Finder choose Go => Go to Folder to get to the desired directories. Copy both of these folders somewhere else for use later.

  • iPhoneOS6.1.sdk is located here /Applications/Xcode.app/Contents/Developer/Platforms/iPhoneOS.platform/Developer/SDKs/
  • iPhoneSimulator6.1.sdk is located here /Applications/Xcode.app/Contents/Developer/Platforms/iPhoneSimulator.platform/Developer/SDKs/

NOTE: If you’ve already upgraded to Xcode 5 you’ll need to download the Xcode 4.6.3 installer from the Apple Developer site located here. Once downloaded, open the .dmg file and right-click on the Xcode icon, choose “Show Package Contents” and then follow the same directory structure to get to the SDK folders.

2nd: In order to support iOS 7 make sure you are upgraded to OS X 10.8.5 and Xcode 5.

3rd: With Xcode 5 installed copy the iPhoneOS6.1.sdk and iPhoneSimulator6.1.sdk folders back to the directories you copied them out of. You should notice 7.0 versions of each SDK now in those directories as well.

4th: In Xamarin Studio under the iOS Build view in your project options, you’ll now notice that you have the ability to specifiy 6.1 as the SDK version as well as 7.0. Under the iOS Application view is the more important Deployment Target property. Set this to 6.1 in order for the application to still be deployable. Otherwise only iOS 7 devices will be able to get it from the app store. Making this change will allow it to be deployable for both versions, but you still have one more thing.

5th & Last: Apple made some drastic changes with how certain properties work, how the NavigationController’s title bar and the iOS status bar look and work, and a bunch of other things. You’ll need to add version specific code to handle/fix these changes. I created a VersionHelper static class to do the comparison logic for me. There are definitely other ways to accomplish this but here it is:

public static class VersionHelper
{
	private static Version _systemVersion;
	public static bool CurrentVersionIsGreaterThanOrEqualTo( Version versionToCompareAgainst )
	{
		if ( _systemVersion == null )
		{
			_systemVersion = new Version( UIDevice.CurrentDevice.SystemVersion );
		}

		return _systemVersion >= versionToCompareAgainst;
	}
}

With that you should be good to go.

Creating an iOS Settings Bundle (Xamarin.iOS)

With the investigation I’ve been doing in building an iOS application using Xamarin, I’ve now gotten to the point where I wanted to put some settings into the iOS Setting app for my application. I found this nice thread that gave the 3 easy steps to set up a settings bundle.

It literally is as simple as written, but there were a couple gotchas that I ran into that I wanted to forward along.

  1. The Settings.bundle folder needs to be in the project root, NOT under the Resources folder (where some examples showed it). I’m not sure if this is a new change or not, but I spent some time banging my head against the wall over this one.
  2. If you do not register default values for your settings they’ll return the default for the data type. (ie. null for String, false for bool, etc….). The DefaultValue you specify in the Root.plist file for a setting is the default value the control will show, NOT the value of the setting. Below is an example of registering default values for settings.
  3. NSUserDefaults userDefaults = NSUserDefaults.StandardUserDefaults;
    NSMutableDictionary appDefaults = new NSMutableDictionary(); 
    appDefaults.SetValueForKey( NSObject.FromObject( true ), new NSString( "BooleanSettingKey" ) );
    userDefaults.RegisterDefaults( appDefaults );
    userDefaults.Synchronize();
    

Accessing the value for a setting is a simple as the following:

bool settingValue = NSUserDefaults.StandardUserDefaults.BoolForKey( "BooleanSettingKey");

One last thing that I found in an example solution here was how to listen in your app for when settings have been changed and wanted to pass it along:

NSObject observer = NSNotificationCenter.DefaultCenter.AddObserver( (NSString)"NSUserDefaultsDidChangeNotification", DefaultsChanged ); 
private void DefaultsChanged( NSNotification obj )
{ 	
// Handle the settings changed 
}

The biggest bummer I found in the iOS Settings Bundle is that everything is statically defined. So if you happen to have a collection of items that you want updated from a server, you’ll have to do this on your own inside your application.

Working with UITableView (Xamarin.iOS)

After setting up my solution, my next step was to figure out how to display a list in iOS with the ability to select an item. In WPF, my first thought would be to utilize the ListBox control, bind its ItemsSource to the underlying data, and define an ItemTemplate for how I want each item to look. Not so simple in iOS. There’s a nice list control called the UITableView that provides support for a number of neat things (indexed list, splitting the items into sections/grouping them, selection, etc…). However, to accomplish the most important part, hooking it up to data, you have to define a data source object that you assign to the .Source property of the UITableView. There are a number of ways to accomplish this, but I went with creating a source that inherits from UITableViewSource. Xamarin has a nice guide that I used for guidance (Working with Tables and Cells).

Coming from WPF and MVVM I wanted to make this source reusable rather than following all the examples that were hardcoded to a specific object type. So I decided to create an ObjectTableSource, and since I’m still in the early stages of development I decided to make use of the built-in styles for the cell appearance rather than making a custom cell. With this in mind I needed to make sure that the objects provided to my table source had specific properties for me to utilize so I created an interface called ISupportTableSourceand used that as the .

public interface ISupportTableSource
{
	string Text { get; }
	string DetailText { get; }
	string ImageUri { get; }
}
public class ObjectTableSource : UITableViewSource

When inheriting from UITableViewSource you must override RowsInSection and GetCell. RowsInSection is exactly what it sounds like, you return how many items are in that section. My current version only supports 1 section so it returns the total number of items. GetCell returns the prepared UITableViewCell. The UITableView supports virtualization of its cell controls so in order to get the cell you need to call the DequeueReusableCellmethod on the table view. In versions earlier than iOS 6 this will return null if the cell hasn’t been created yet. In iOS 6 and later you can choose to register a cell type with the UITableView and that will make it so a cell is always returned. However, going this path means that you can’t specify which of the 4 build in styles to use (since it is specified in the constructor only), so I refrained from registering the cell type and handle null. When preparing the cell I also loaded any images on a background thread so the UI is still responsive, but I’ll cover that in another post.

public override int RowsInSection( UITableView tableview, int section )
{
	return _items.Count;
}

public override UITableViewCell GetCell( UITableView tableView, NSIndexPath indexPath )
{
	// if there are no cells to reuse, create a new one
	UITableViewCell cell = tableView.DequeueReusableCell( CellId )
			       ?? new UITableViewCell( _desiredCellStyle, CellId );

	ISupportTableSource item = _items[indexPath.Row];
	if ( !String.IsNullOrEmpty( item.Text ) )
	{
		cell.TextLabel.Text = item.Text;
	}
	if ( !String.IsNullOrEmpty( item.DetailText ) )
	{
		cell.DetailTextLabel.Text = item.DetailText;
	}
	if ( !String.IsNullOrEmpty( item.ImageUri ) )
	{
		cell.ImageView.ShowLoadingAnimation();
		LoadImageAsync( cell, item.ImageUri );
	}
	return cell;
}

The remaining thing for making this usable was to provide a way to notify when an item has been selected. There isn’t any event on the UITableViewSource like I expected, instead I needed to override the RowSelectedmethod and fire my own event providing the object found at the selected row.

public override void RowSelected( UITableView tableView, NSIndexPath indexPath )
{
	ISupportTableSource selectedItem = _items[indexPath.Row];

	// normal iOS behaviour is to remove the blue highlight
	tableView.DeselectRow( indexPath, true );

	OnItemSelected( selectedItem );
}

Beginning Xamarin and Xamarin.iOS

I’ve recently started delving into using Xamarin and Xamarin.iOS to get an understanding of its capabilities and see what I could do with it. After my first little app, I have to say it is really impressive what the people at Xamarin have done!

I’m coming at this from years of experience in C# and WPF/Silverlight/XAML and I wanted to describe my initial findings. For this post I plan to cover the general setup.

Installation

My goal was to have an iPad application that does something similar to a Master-Detail set of views where I could display a collection of images. Because of this I wanted to get a grasp on both Xamarin Studio and the Visual Studio integration so I installed Xamarin for Windows (on my primary dev machine) and Xamarin for OS X (on a Mac Mini we have at our office) from here. NOTE: On Windows 8 run the Xamarin installer as Administrator otherwise it will error out near the end. The installation took a while because it downloaded everything that I needed to develop for iOS (and for Android since I wanted to look into that in the future too.), but once everything was installed I was able to start developing instantly.

The installation guides for Xamarin.iOS, located here, provided excellent instruction for hooking up Visual Studio 2012 to remote debug on the Mac Mini (Section: 6.2. Connecting to the Mac Build Host), and the Xamarin services that were installed made it so that I found and connected to the Mac immediately. On another note, Synergy is an amazing tool to use to share your keyboard and mouse between the 2 devices. You need to make sure both machines are on the same network though in order for it to work (quickly at least).

Solution Setup

With Xamarin installed, I decided to get my feet wet by following Xamarin’s Hello, iPhone guide. (They’ve done a very nice job with their guides covering a nice range of topics.) For someone who has never developed in Xcode (and is pretty much a Mac beginner) this provided a nice tutorial of the tool.

With a general idea of how to get started, I created my solution in VS 2012 and on the Mac I used “Finder” to connect to my machine and open up the solution in Xamarin Studio. I’ve found that if I want to use Xcode’s Interface Builder to design my UI I need to add the iPad View Controller via Xamarin Studio, since adding it in Visual Studio didn’t create the .xib file.

My next step was to set up a core library, since I desire to try Xamarin’s Android functionality in the future, to enable code reuse. Xamarin is currently developing support for referencing Portable Class Libraries (PCLs), but until they’ve got that functioning we have to go more manual routes. I created the PCL to hold my core files (model objects primarily), but went the route of linking to all those files in the iOS project. Once I work on the Android counterpart I’ll be able to update with whether I think it’s the right way to go.

EDIT: With the release of Xamarin.iOS 7.0.1, they’ve apparently fixed the PCL build issue I was running into. So I was able to remove the links to all the files and reference the PCL library instead!

Debugging

It is extremely nice to be able to dev and debug in VS 2012 while connected to the iOS simulator on the Mac. When running into exceptions being thrown, I found that, if it wasn’t immediately apparent as to what the exception was caused by, debugging from Xamarin Studio on the Mac provides better exception information.

I’ll go into more detail on discoveries I ran into in other posts, but overall the development process using Xamarin and Xamarin.iOS has been very interesting and enjoyable. I would definitely recommend it.