Safely testing my students’ PHP graded labs with docker containers

During the course of Web architecture and applications, our students had to deliver a Silex / Symfony Web app project which I’m grading.

I had initially hacked a Docker container to be able to test that the course’s lab examples and code bases provided would be compatible with PHP 5 even though the nominal environment provided in the lab rooms was PHP 7. As I’m running a recent Debian distro with PHP 7 as the default PHP installation, being able to run PHP 5 in a container is quite handy for me. Yes, PHP 5 is dead, but some students might still have remaining installs of old Ubuntus where PHP5 was the norm. As the course was based on Symfony and Silex and these would run as well on PHP 5 or 7 (provided we configured the right stuff in the composer.json), this was supposed to be perfect.

I’ve used such a container a lot for preparing the labs and it served me well. Most of the time I’ve used it to start the PHP command line interpreter from the current dir to start the embedded Web server with “php -S”, which is the standard way to run programs in dev/tests environment with Silex or Symfony (yes, Symfony requires something like “php -S localthost:8000 -t web/” maybe).

I’ve later discovered an additional benefit of using such a container, when comes the time to grad the work that our students have submitted, and I need to test their code. Of course, it ensures that I may run it even if they used PHP5 and I rely on PHP 7 on my machine. But it also assures that I’m only at risk of trashing stuff in the current directory if sh*t happens. Of course, no student would dare deliver malicious PHP code trying to mess with my files… but better safe than sorry. If the contents of the container is trashed, I’m rather on the safe side.

Of course one may give a grade only by reading the students’ code and not testing, but that would be bad taste. And yes, there are probably ways to escape the container safety net in PHP… but I sould maybe not tempt the smartest students of mine in continuing on this path 😉

If you feel like testing the container, I’ve uploaded the necessary bits to a public repo : https://gitlab.com/olberger/local-php5-sqlite-debian.

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