New short paper : “Designing a virtual laboratory for a relational database MOOC” with Vagrant, Debian, etc.

Here’s a short preview of our latest accepted paper (to appear at CSEDU 2015), about the construction of VMs for the Relational Database MOOC using Vagrant, Debian, PostgreSQL (previous post), etc. :

Designing a virtual laboratory for a relational database MOOC

Olivier Berger, J Paul Gibson, Claire Lecocq and Christian Bac

Keywords: Remote Learning, Virtualization, Open Education Resources, MOOC, Vagrant

Abstract: Technical advances in machine and system virtualization are creating opportunities for remote learning to provide significantly better support for active education approaches. Students now, in general, have personal computers that are powerful enough to support virtualization of operating systems and networks. As a conse- quence, it is now possible to provide remote learners with a common, standard, virtual laboratory and learning environment, independent of the different types of physical machines on which they work. This greatly enhances the opportunity for producing re-usable teaching materials that are actually re-used. However, configuring and installing such virtual laboratories is technically challenging for teachers and students. We report on our experience of building a virtual machine (VM) laboratory for a MOOC on relational databases. The architecture of our virtual machine is described in detail, and we evaluate the benefits of using the Vagrant tool for building and delivering the VM.


  • Introduction
    • A brief history of distance learning
    • Virtualization : the challenges
    • The design problem
  • The virtualization requirements
    • Scenario-based requirements
    • Related work on requirements
    • Scalability of existing approaches
  • The MOOC laboratory
    • Exercises and lab tools
    • From requirements to design
  • Making the VM as a Vagrant box
    • Portability issues
    • Delivery through Internet
    • Security
    • Availability of the box sources
  • Validation
    • Reliability Issues with VirtualBox
    • Student feedback and evaluation
  • Future work
    • Laboratory monitoring
    • More modular VMs
  • Conclusions


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Configuring the start of multiple docker container with Vagrant in a portable manner

I’ve mentioned earlier the work that our students did on migrating part of the elements of the Database MOOC lab VM to docker.

While docker seems quite cool, let’s face it, participants to the MOOCs aren’t all using Linux where docker can be available directly. Hence the need to use boot2docker, for instance on Windows.

Then we’re back quite close to the architecture of the Vagrang VM, which relies too on a VirtualBox VM to run a Linux machine (boot2docker does exactly that with a minimal Linux which runs docker).

If VirtualBox is to be kept around, then why not stick to Vagrant also, as it offers a docker provider. This docker provider for Vagrant helps configure basic parameters of docker containers in a Vagrantfile, and basically uses the vagrant up command instead of using docker build + docker run. If on Linux, it only triggers docker, and if not, then it’ll start boot2docker (or any other Linux box) in between.

This somehow offers a unified invocation command, which renders a bit more portable the documentation.

Now, there are some tricks when using this docker provider, in particular for debugging what’s happening inside the VM.

One nice feature is that you can debug on Linux what is to be executed on Windows, by explicitely requiring the start of the intermediary boot2docker VM even if it’s not really needed.

By using a custom secondary Vagrantfile for that VM, it is possible to tune some parameters of that VM (like its graphic memory to allow to start it with a GUI allowing to connect — another alternative is to “ssh -p 2222 docker@localhost” once you know that its password is ‘tcuser’).

I’ve committed an example of such a setup in the moocbdvm project’s Git, which duplicates the docker provisioning files that our students had already published in the dedicated GitHub repo.

Here’s an interesting reference post about Vagrant + docker and multiple containers, btw.

Le MOOC Bases de données relationnelles est lancé

Nous venons de lancer la première édition du MOOC sur les bases de données relationnelles de Télécom SudParis. Au programme, de la théorie (algèbre relationnelle), de la pratique (dans SQLite dans les navigateurs basés sur WebKit, et plus tard dans PostgreSQL dans une box Vagrant basée sur Debian (voir post précédent)), des contenus et logiciels libres (autant que possible) et pas mal de rush pour finaliser tout ça dans le Moodle.

On débute avec plus de 800 inscrits à la fin du premier jour (y compris les 180 étudiants ingénieurs de 2ème année de Télécom SudParis, qui suivront le cours présentiel en parallèle du MOOC, et collaboreront avec les apprenants externes pour les travaux personnels).

Il est toujours possible de s’inscrire : le gros du travail commence en semaine 2 (qui commence lundi 15/09 à 00h00 heure de Paris).

Building a lab VM based on Debian for a MOOC, using Vagrant + VirtualBox

We’ve been busy setting up a Virtual Machine (VM) image to be used by participants of a MOOC that’s opening in early september on Relational Databases at Telecom SudParis.

We’ve chosen to use Vagrant and VirtualBox which are used to build, distribute and run the box, providing scriptability (reproducibility) and making it portable on most operating systems.

The VM itself contains a Debian (jessie) minimal system which runs (in the background) PostgreSQL, Apache + mod_php, phpPgAdmin, and a few applications of our own to play with example databases already populated in PostgreSQL.
Continue reading “Building a lab VM based on Debian for a MOOC, using Vagrant + VirtualBox”