SQL Server 2005 Express Edition – Part 12 – ClickOnce Deployment and Updates

In the previous
installment
of our series dedicated to SQL Server 2005 Express Edition, we presented
the publishing options of ClickOnce-capable applications (leveraging
functionality built into .NET 2.0 Framework) that involve User Instance-based
databases, by reviewing the interface exposed in the Publish section of the
project Properties window in Visual Basic 2005 Express Edition. In this
article, we will take a closer look at the deployment process, demonstrating the
impact of your selections on its characteristics.

As we mentioned earlier, there are two basic methods (referred to as "install
modes") of making your database application available to clients. The
first one, known as "online only", requires that an original
publishing location remains reachable from a computer where the application is
launched. Once a user clicks on a link to that location (formatted in the URL
or UNC notation), published files are downloaded temporarily to the ClickOnce
cache on a local disk and executed immediately afterwards. (This temporary area
is located within the Documents and
SettingsUserNameLocal SettingsApps2.0
folder, where UserName is the Windows account of a
user that launched the application). This approach considerably simplifies
maintenance in a distributed environment and guarantees that only the latest
code release is used. Its main drawback becomes obvious in scenarios involving
roaming clients, which need to operate when disconnected from a corporate
network. The other method (known as "online or offline" mode)
addresses this dilemma by storing application and data files on the local
computer permanently, according to settings defined in the Application Files
dialog box (invoked by clicking on the Application Files command button in the
Project Properties window). Since these files also reside in a uniquely named
folder within the ClickOnce cache, any potential conflicts with non-compatible
software are avoided. Furthermore, their location is specific to the
application version (which, by default, is automatically increased every time
the corresponding Visual Basic 2005 Express Edition code is published),
eliminating the possibility of clashes between subsequent releases. If you work
with a very large number of online only applications, you should keep in mind
that they are subject to a quota that restricts not only their combined size
but also imposes the limit on each of them (individually, none can exceed 50%
of the total quota). The behavior is controlled (on a per-user basis) by the OnlineAppQuotaInKB entry under the HKEY_CURRENT_USERSoftwareClassesSoftwareMicrosoftWindowsCurrentVersionDeployment
registry key (its DWORD value expresses the cache size in KB), with the default
set to 250MB, which should be sufficient in most scenarios (since data files
are not taken into consideration in this case).

Operating in "online or offline" mode typically implies that, at
some point, you will need to deal with an update to the existing version of
your application. As you might recall, this is configurable via the Application
Updates dialog box, where you can dictate whether the check for a newer release
should occur prior or after the code executes (and enforce the minimum allowed
revision). The former setting is a bit more disruptive, since it not only
introduces a small delay after the application shortcut is selected from the
Start->All Programs menu, but downloads and installs the software as soon as
it becomes available (assuming you accept the default OK option within the
Update Available dialog box). As the result, application assemblies, settings,
and the manifest file get stored in their own directory structure, separately
from its data (although all of them reside within the ClickOnce Cache).

Application updates introduce an additional challenge, which deals with
preserving existing data. While it is possible to customize this process
through coding, it is significantly easier to take advantage of built-in
ClickOnce behavior. According to its rules, when a deployment of a next version
takes place, all existing data files (included in the previous release or created
subsequently by a user) are automatically copied over to folders hosting the
new installation. If deployed data files have not changed between versions
(this is determined by comparing their hash values), data migration is
completed. Otherwise, the new ones are used instead of their older equivalents,
which, in turn, are moved to a subfolder named .pre, in order to avoid data loss (note, however, that
uninstalling an application will automatically remove its data directory).

If this mechanism does not meet your needs (as is frequently the case), you
might want to exclude database files from being copied to the local computer
(by assigning to them Exclude publish status in the Application Files dialog
box of the Publish section in the project Properties dialog box) and employ an
alternative means of making them available to your users. One way to accomplish
this is by scripting the creation of a database (using the "Script
Database as" option in its context sensitive menu within Object Explorer
of SQL Server Management Studio Express Edition) and populating it with the desired
values. The resulting code can then be incorporated into your application. An
upgrade would involve developing a script that modifies the existing database
(rather than replacing it with a newer copy); including a version check, that
triggers its execution.

In general, your choice of deployment strategy will likely depend on the
availability of a network connection (and its bandwidth) between the
application source and a target computer. As we explained earlier, you can
choose between several different methods incorporated into the Publish Wizard
(accessible from the Publish section of the project Properties window):

  • Copying installation files to removable media that is
    subsequently shipped to its destination. In this case, use the first page of
    the wizard to designate a local file system path of a staging directory, whose content
    will be burned onto a CD or DVD. When prompted on the next page how users will
    install the application, select "From a CD-ROM or DVD-ROM" option.
    You will be given a chance to decide whether you want to include a check for
    updates and designate either a file system path or a Web site (local or remote)
    as their source (ensure that this location remains reachable whenever the
    software is launched). If you decided to enable "For CD installations,
    automatically start Setup when CD is inserted" in the Publish Options
    dialog box of the Publish section in the project’s Properties dialog box, the
    destination will include (in addition to application and data content) the autorun.inf
    file. Note that with this approach, the "online only" option is not
    available.
  • Copying installation files to a local or remote file system
    share. This is similar to the first method, since you also have to designate a
    local or remote (in the UNC format) location where installation files will be
    stored. On the second page of the wizard, when asked how users will install the
    application, you need to pick the "From a UNC path or file share"
    entry and provide the same location you specified on the first page (this time,
    the UNC notation is required). In this case, you have the ability to make the
    application available in both "online only" and "online or
    offline" modes.
  • Publishing installation files on the local instance of Internet
    Information Services selected from the Open Web Site dialog box (accessible via
    the first page of the wizard), which offers a graphical interface where you can
    point to a specific virtual directory (and provides the ability to use the Secure
    Sockets Layer protocol, if the Web site supports it). Unlike with two
    previously described methods, the target folder will include the HTML-formatted
    publish.htm (its default name can be altered using the "Deployment web
    page" text box in the Publish Options dialog box), which not only displays
    information regarding software details, but also allows you to install
    prerequisites (assuming you defined them in the Prerequisites dialog box) and
    launch the application. With Web-based deployment, it is possible to make
    applications available in both "online only" and "online or
    offline" modes.
  • Publishing installation files on a remote instance of Internet
    Information Services – similar to the local IIS-based method as far as its
    capabilities are concerned (including support for two deployment modes and SSL
    encryption) but without an interface allowing browsing for a target.
  • Publishing installation files on the local or a remote FTP
    instance – involves configuring such parameters as the target FTP server’s
    name, port, and virtual directory, connection mode (active or passive), and
    authentication information (anonymous login can be used if the server supports
    it). Keep in mind that these settings are applicable strictly to the publishing
    process so you still need to come up with a method that would allow your users
    to obtain the source files (via removable media, a file share, or a Web site),
    which, in turn, allows you to choose between "online only" or
    "online or offline" installation mode.

With the default options, users will be prompted to install missing prerequisites,
such as .NET Framework 2.0, Windows Installer 3.1, or SQL Server 2005 Express Edition
(as defined in the Prerequisites dialog box accessible via the Publish section
of the project’s Properties dialog box) if they are not already present on the
target computer. Note, however, that such actions (unlike application execution
or access to a user instance and its auto attached databases) require
administrative privileges, so plan their deployment accordingly. In addition,
when distributing our sample application, it is important to realize that names
of SQL Server 2005 Express Edition parent instances on the source and target
computers have to match (this is controlled by the connection string defined in
the application’s config file and can be modified to match your needs).

Once the code is executing, it will initiate a user instance on the local
computer, load the database included with the application, and display already
familiar form that contains data grid with records exposed by the vProductAndDescription
view. If you decided to configure automatic updates (as described earlier),
subsequent application launches will be affected by the configuration you
chose. For example, if you picked "Before the application starts"
option, you might be presented with the Update Available dialog box we
mentioned earlier, which gives you an option to install a new version of the
application (assuming there is one available at that point). In addition,
especially when using ClickOnce software deployment via Web-based methods, you
are likely to run into security related issues, caused by insufficient
privileges granted to the executing application. We will take a closer look
into Code Access Security topics that deal with this behavior in our next
article.

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Marcin Policht

Marcin Policht
Marcin Policht
Being a long time reader, I'm proud to join the crowd of technology gurus gathered here. I have a fair share of Microsoft exams behind me, a couple of acronyms after my name - MCSE, MCSD, and MCT, decent familiarity with majority of MS BackOffice products (SMS, SQL, Exchange, IIS), programming and scripting languages (VB, C++, VBScript with wsh) and several years of practical experience with Windows environment administration and engineering. My focus these days is on SQL Server and Windows 2000, and I'll attempt to share the most interesting experiences with these products.

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