Scott Hanselman says that if you’re using XCopy for deploying web applications, you’re doing it wrong. He is talking, of course, about the web deployment features of Visual Studio 2010, which constitute Microsoft’s attempts to solve a problem that is a lot less trivial than it looks.
It’s a bit of a strong statement, and I’m not sure that I agree with it. For the past four years or so, I’ve used a variant of XCopy deployment that I’ve found to be very effective. I put each release of the website into a separate folder, numbered after the version reported by Subversion, Mercurial, CruiseControl or TeamCity, depending on which of the above I’m using, and I just switch the directory in IIS, or on Linux it’s just a case of changing a symlink. This all but eliminates downtime for the vast majority of upgrades, as well as allowing you to roll back in seconds to any previous version that you still have available if things go pear shaped.
I’d like to see how Web Deploy handles upgrades like this. My experience of software upgrades is that they are rarely that seamless and usually involve several seconds of downtime, though having said that, if your website is so busy that half a minute of downtime is a serious problem, the chances are that you have failover servers that you can bring in while you upgrade.
A more serious issue, however, is rollback. Some of the sites I work on are pretty high profile, and the ability to roll back in seconds if things don’t work out is a deal breaker as far as I’m concerned. That’s why I’ve found the XCopy/IIS settings switchover approach to be such a winner.
I am not impressed with the approach that Visual Studio 2010 adopts to managing web.config files, however. This approach sets your connection strings etc at build time, which can be pretty painful since you have to have different builds for development, integration, test, production and so on, and once you start branching and merging, and have to have separate connection strings for separate branches, it can completely blow up in your face if you’re not careful. No, configuration is a deployment time operation and needs to be treated as such. The best place for your configuration settings is outside your application root, in a common location easily accessible to every version of your site.
Finally, one last tip. Never deploy on a Friday. There are two reasons for this: first, it’s the end of the week, you’re tired, you just want to go home, and you’re much more likely to make a mistake than on a Monday when you’re fresh. Second, if something does go wrong, it will really, really, really ruin your weekend.