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.

TOC :

  • 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.

Student project contributions on using docker to build headless virtualised labs for MOOC participants

After having used Vagrant to create Virtual Machines (VMs) ready made for MOOC participants, I’ve been investigating the use of docker for a similar need.

In order to move on, I’ve applied a clever trick by proposing a project to students of ours (3rd year engineering school end-of-classes project of the ASR major).

The project was addressing several needs :

  • a functional need: being able to monitor what happens inside the VMs run on the participant’s side, so that MOOC labs aren’t performed in a black box;
  • a non functional need: investigate the potential benefits of docker, compared to Vagrant.

The students (François Monniot and Alexis Mousset) have worked very well, and we have a few apps in the result, that allow us to assemble a POC in order to complete our evaluation.

In following posts, I will describe some of these components and will present some ideas and maybe results on the technology’s potential. The impatient reader may directly browse their code on GitHub, starting from the dedicated site.

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”