Just over three years or so ago, the OU’s KMi started experimenting with a service to support researchers that made RStudio – and a linked MySQL database – available as on online service (Open Research Data Processes: KMi Crunch – Hosted RStudio Analytics Environment).
I’m not sure if they’ve also started exploring the provision of other browser accessed applications – Jupyter noteboooks, for example – but developing online personal application delivery models is something I’ve felt the OU should be exploring for a long time – for undergraduate and postgraduate teaching, as well as research.
I don’t know whether KMi have been looking at delivering apps via self-service launching of dockerised/containerised applications, or whether there are any HE or Research Council infrastructure projects looking at supporting this sort of thing, but it seems that other enlightened agencies are… For example, a few weeks ago I came across a tweet from ex-JISC disrupter Dave Flanders mentioning the Australian ResBaz cloud service:
Offering a free service to the Australian academic research community (I’m grateful to the team for providing me with reviewer access:-), early stage researchers can request access (or configure access?) to a named research cluster, and then deploy containers to it:
The containerised applications on offer are initially configured by the ResBaz team – I don’t think there’s a way of pointing to your own Dockerfile/setupconfig/image on Dockerhub – but this means there is an element of support that will help you get set up with an application that you know will run!
The containers you create persist – you can turn them off and on again, as well as deleting them and creating new ones – which means you can save project and data files within the container. There’s also an option to export the container, supports portability, I guess.
The platform itself is reminiscent of a minimal take on something like wakari.io, which provides access to a hosted version of IPython notebooks within a claimed workbench environment. To my mind, KMi Crunch as more of a workbench feel to it, because it provides application integration, (RSTudio + MySQL), albeit baked in. At the moment, ResBaz doesn’t seem to offer that. (However, another service that I’ll be blogging about in a day or two, binder, does provide support for 1-click created linked containers (although again, the configuration options are limited). I think binder is builds on elements of tmpnb.org, which itself demonstrates support for a full blown Jupyter install capable of running several kernels, which may be something for the ResBaz folk to think about (for example, offering at least an R kernel within the notebooks, and maybe Python 3 as well as Python 2.7?)
One of the great things about the ResBaz set-up seems to be its support for training events. From my own personal experience, it’s really handy to be able to point workshop participants to online, browser reachable versions of the applications covered in the workshop you’re running.
For OU teaching, I think we really should be looking seriously at using software packages that can be accessed via a browser and run either as a local virtualised service or as a remotely hosted service to try to mitigate against software install issues/hassles. For OU postgrad research students, I think that running applications via containers has a lot to recommend it. And for academic researchers, including the growing number of digital humanities researchers, I think that the range of benefits associated with being able to run research software using what is essentially as software-application-as-a-service model are increasing.
But then, what do I know? I just watched a bunch of folk wasting much of the day trying to work out how to support a raft of remote, informal learners install some remotely hosted and maintained third party s/w onto all manner of personally managed weird and wonderful Windows machines. (The ones on company machines tend not to have the privileges they need to install the software, so we just forget about them. The ones on notebooks wondering why their machines start to fall over when they have to run more than a browser, or the ones who have tablets that can’s install anything other than custom built applications, are also discounted… If the OU is set on becoming a global, online provider, someone needs to start
thinkingdoing something about this…)
See also: Seven Ways of Running IPython Notebooks