Seven Ways of Running IPython / Jupyter Notebooks

We’re looking at using IPython notebooks for a MOOC on something or other, so here’s a quick review of the different ways I think we can provide access to them. Please let me know via the comments if there are other models…

[NOTE: I try to keep this post updated as more services/examples become available…]

User Desktop – Native App

Download a version of a scientific python distribution such as Anaconda (python 2.7 & 3) or Enthought Canopy (python 2.7) and run the notebook from within that. Runs cross platform, requires user admin privileges to install application. For Mac users, there’s a handy looking standalone app, Pineapple. (I’m not sure if there’s a Windows equivalent? For now, here’s a recipe for rolling your own standalone Jupyter notebook on Windows.)

There does look to be a cross-platform, standalone electron app in development – nteract – but the implication is that you currently need to do some compilation yourself to get it to work….

In the context of a MOOC, this approach would require participants to download and install the python distribution on a desktop or laptop computer. This approach will not work on a tablet.

In terms of supporting the ability to open a notebook directly by double clicking on a notebook file, this nbopen looks like it may do the trick?

Delivery/use costs: none.
Publisher demands: notebook development.
Maintenance: dependence on distribution provider.
Support issues: installation of 3rd party software.
Custom branding/styling/extensions: can be installed after running a config script.

Browser Extension

The CoLaboratory (about) Chrome extension allows you to run IPython notebooks within the Chrome browser without the need to install any other software. Notebooks are saved to/opened from Google Drive. Python 2.7(?). Requires Google Chrome (cross-platform), Google Account (for Google Drive integration). This approach does not support the installation of arbitrary third party python libraries – only libraries compiled into the extension will work.

In the context of a MOOC, this approach would require participants to download and install Chrome and the CoLaboratory extension. This approach will not work on a tablet.
Delivery/use costs: none.
Publisher demands: notebook development.
Maintenance: dependence on extension publisher; (code available to fork).
Support issues: installation of 3rd party software.
Custom branding/styling/extensions: not supported(?)

iOS App – NO LONGER AVAILABLE

As of March 2015 – no longer available from appstore
An iOS app, Computable (blog) makes notebooks available on an iPad. The app is free to preview notebooks bundled with the app, but requires a $10 in-app purchase to run your own notebooks. Integrated with Dropbox. Source code not available. Other reports of demos – but again, no code – available, such as: IPython notebook on iPhone. I don’t know if this approach supports the installation of arbitrary third party python libraries; that is, I don’t know if only libraries compiled into the application will work.

In the context of a MOOC, this approach would require participants to download and install the app and then pay the $10 fee. A Dropbox account is also required(?). This approach will only work on an iOS device.
Delivery/use costs: $10 to student.
Publisher demands: notebook development.
Maintenance: dependence on app publisher.
Support issues: installation of 3rd party software.
Custom branding/styling/extensions: not supported(?)

User Desktop – Virtual Machine

Run an IPython server within a virtual machine on the user’s desktop, exposing the notebook via a browser. Requires a virtual machine runner (eg VirtualBox, VMWare), port forwarding; some mechanism for starting up the VM and auto-running the notebook server. Devops tools may be used to deploy VMs either locally or in the cloud (eg JiffyLab (about Jiffylab); the OU course TM351 (in production) is currently exploring the use of VMs managed using vagrant to deliver IPython notebooks along with a range of other services).

Pre-defined IPython notebook VM examples: docker: ipython/notebook; Chef: IPython notebook cookbook.

In the context of a MOOC, this approach would require participants to download and install a virtual machine runner and the virtual machine image. This approach will not work on a tablet.
Delivery/use costs: none.
Publisher demands: development of VM image.
Maintenance: tracking VM runner compatability.
Support issues: installation of 3rd party software; installation of VM; port forwarding conflicts, locating the notebook server address.
Custom branding/styling/extensions: yes.

In the Cloud – Managed Services

Open a notebook running on a managed IPython notebook server such as WakariAuthorea or SageMathCloud. Several of the bigger players also make notebooks available as part of a wider “studio” offering, such as the IBM DataScientist Workbench (review) or Microsoft Azure Machine Learning (review).  Kaggle also hosts Python and R notebooks for working with Kaggle datasets. Free plans typically available, often requiring personal account on managed service, internet connection.

In the context of a MOOC, this approach would require participants to have access to a network connection and create an account on a provider service. This approach will work on any device.
Deliver/use costs: Notebooks created under free plans will be public.
Custom branding/styling/extensions: no – branding may be associated with provider; provider identified extensions may be offered as part of hosted service.

In the Cloud – Ad Hoc tmp Notebooks

Nature recently did a splash on IPython notebooks (Interactive notebooks: Sharing the code) that included a demo notebook for readers to experiment with: IPython interactive demo.

The system uses a ‘temporary notebook’ server described here: Instant Temporary IPython Notebooks (code: Jupyter tmpnb). The server spawns temporary notebooks that can be used to run particular activities. Other example use cases include the provision of notebooks at conferences/workshops for demo purposes, hour of code demos etc. (tmpnb also provides the basis for the try.jupyter.org demo service.)

In the context of a MOOC, this approach would require participants to have access to a network connection. Notebooks will be temporary and cannot be persisted. This approach would be ideal for one off activities. This approach will work on any device. My assumption is that we would not be able direct participants to the current 3rd party provider of this service without prior agreement.
Delivery/use costs: server provision for running notebooks.
Publisher demands: management of cloud services if self-hosted.
Maintenance: tracking VM runner compatability.
Support issues:
Custom branding/styling/extensions: no.

In the Cloud – Github Spawned Notebooks

Project Binder is “[a] system for deploying a collection of Jupyter notebooks and their dependencies as live, interactive notebooks, straight from GitHub repositories, across one or more nodes of a Kubernetes cluster”. Users provide Github repository details to the binder service and a notebook server is launched in a docker container that then references the notebooks on Github. Additional services, such as PostgreSQL, can also be linked in. Note that the user does not need to be the owner of the Github repository – it is simply used as the source for the notebooks. It’s also possible to run the MyBinder notebooks using an R kernel.

Delivery/use costs: server provision for running notebooks.
Publisher demands: management of cloud services if self-hosted.
Maintenance:
Support issues:
Custom branding/styling/extensions: no (unless you host the notebook runner)

In the Cloud – Hosted VMs

Another virtual machine approach, but participants fire up a prebuilt virtual machine in the cloud. Examples include: Yhat Sciencebox. Another example is the notebookcloud, a semi-managed service built around Google authentication and user’s personal AWS credentials; ((forked) legacy code). (From the docs: NotebookCloud is service that allows you to launch and control IPython Notebook servers on Amazon EC2 from your browser. This enables you to host your own Python programming environment, on your own Amazon virtual machine, and access it from any modern web browser.)

In the context of a MOOC, this approach would require participants to have access to a network connection and create an account on a provider service. This approach will work on any device.
Delivery/use costs: participant pays machine, storage and bandwidth costs according to usage.
Publisher demands: management of cloud services if self-hosted. Alternatively, we could host a version of NotebookCloud.
Maintenance: potential reliance on 3rd party VM configuration.
Support issues: account creation, VM management.
Custom branding/styling/extensions: no – branding may be associated with provider; provider identified extensions may be offered as part of hosted service.

Hosted MultiUser Systems

IPython and IPython Notebooks are under active development and it looks as if future releases will support multi-user services, for example JupyterHub: A multi-user server for Jupyter notebooks.

Docker Containers

Another take on virtualisation, IPython notebooks can be launched within docker containers within a lightweight virtual machine either on the desktop or in the cloud. For example, see Kiteflying Around Containers – A Better Alternative to Course VMs? for an example of launching a notebook on the desktop (currently (June, 2015) Mac/Linux only) or in the cloud, see this for a related example: Getting Started With Personal App Containers in the Cloud.

Delivery/use costs: participant pays machine, storage and bandwidth costs on cloud hsot according to usage; desktop use is free.
Publisher demands: management of cloud services if self-hosted. Application code is self-contained and can represent a managed distribution.
Maintenance: potential reliance on 3rd party defined containers.
Support issues: account creation, docker management.
Custom branding/styling/extensions: yes, within a custom container.

Summary

In order to make interactive use of IPython notebooks within a course, we need to make notebooks available, and provide a way of running them. A wide variety of models that support the running of notebooks exists. We can distinguish: where does the notebook server run; where does it load pre-existing notebooks from; where does it save notebooks to.

Running a notebook server incurs a resource cost in terms of installation, maintenance, (remote) access (eg managing multiple instances, port availability etc when offering a hosted service), any financial costs associated with running the service. Who covers the costs and meets any load issues depends on the solution adopted.

As far as usage goes, notebooks are accessed via a web browser and as such are accessible on any device. However, if a server runs locally rather than on a remote host, there are device dependencies to contend with that rule out some solutions on some platforms (VM can’t run on iOS; iOS app won’t run on Windows machine etc).

In an online course environment, we may be able separate concerns and suggest a variety of ways of running notebooks to participants, leaving it up to each participant to find a way of running the notebooks that works for them. Duty of care might then extend only insofar as making notebooks available that will run on all the platforms we have recommended.

In terms of pedagogy, we might distinguish between notebooks as used:

  1. to run essentially standalone exercises, and which we might treat as disposable (a model which the tmpnb solution fits beautifully because no persistence of state is required); this exercises might be pre-prepared notebooks made available to participants, or user created notebooks that users create as a scratch pad to run through a particular set of activities described elsewhere;
  2. for activities where the participant may want to save a work in progress and return to it at a later date (which requires persistence of state on a per user basis); this might be in the context of a notebook we provide to the students, or one they have created and are working on themselves;
  3. for activities where participants create their own notebooks and wish to preserve them.

From the OU perspective, we should probably take a view on the extent to which we develop solutions that work across one or more contexts, such as MOOCs delivered ex- of OU provisioned services (eg FutureLean); MOOCs delivered via an OU context (eg OpenLearn); courses delivered to OU fee paying students via OU systems.

There may be opportunities to develop solutions that work to support the delivery of OU courses, as well as OU MOOCs, and that are further licensable to other institutions, eg to support their own course delivery or MOOC delivery, or appropriate for release as open software in support of the wider community.