Now that we have some of our design goals in place for the new environment we can start evaluating our options and creating the solution architecture. It will be critical to balance cost, performance, ease of administration, and ease of use in order to make this a truly viable platform.

Primary Developer Interface

Since I plan to allocate the lion’s share of the budget on cloud infrastructure my personal interface will need to be relatively bare-boned. I decided to go with a Chromebook for this experiment - they can be had for surprisingly little these days, while still packing great battery life, decent keyboards, and a linux terminal.

The specific model I ended up with is the Asus C100P flip-book. I like that it transitions between a tablet and laptop, has ~9 hour battery life, was available for ~$250, and still has a decent screen.

This places some additional interesting challenges for me, as the chromebooks have little availability of native applications like IDE’s. Thankfully they do have a full ssh terminal (although requires a bit of hackery to access it). I use evernote and dropbox extensively and they check those boxes. Otherwise, however, I’ll need to used web-based tools.

When I first started this project I evaluated several web-based IDEs, including Cloud 9 web-based IDE, Che, and others. C9 and Che were the only that were really multi-language and comparable to PyCharm, my main IDE normally. Che was and still is fairly immature - the instructions are primarily for running on a single host. They have some initial directions for getting running on Kubernetes, but it seems far from prime-time. Cloud9, on the other hand, has been a commercial offering for quite some time and is extremely useable. I started working with the product in early 2017 when I was paying $20/month. I tried for a while to find alternatives so that other data scientists wouldn’t be locked into this monthly charge, but Amazon bought Cloud9 in 2017 and has since made it a free product. I’m still excited to follow Che as it can be self-hosted, but Cloud9 is a great alternative until then, and doesn’t really lock into Amazon services as it allows connection to other services via SSH and is still free.

Infrastructure Management and Deployment

In my work at Philips I became extremely familiar with the virtualization and containerization, deploying a medium-sized OpenStack deployment for data scientists to more effectively access self-service environemnts, then deploying Rancher and Kubernetes on top of it to allow for rapid sharing of reproducable data science environments. The primary benefits I see are:

  • Protection from hardware failure - if any of my underlying computers go down, I don’t care. In the case of OpenStack/AWS the VM will generally just get rescheduled elsewhere. Most virtual environments also have easy ways to snapshot the “hard disk” to provide a good level of protection as well. This protection is far greater if you go all the way to containers, where you treat the environment as immutable after creation - with build scripts (e.g. Dockerfile’s) stored in version control (git), you can always rebuild the image at any time.

  • Elimination of “Pets” - so often when managing individual computers, the systems evolve over time to the point that you can get scared of making too many changes for fear that some incompatability will arise and you can’t recover. As a result it gets increasingly important to attend to the care and feeding of the systems, carefully monitoring and making sure they’re healthy.

  • No “Snowflake” environments - related to the pet problem is the evolution of different
    environments that were supposed to be identical. One environment I worked in had a cluster of ~20 linux systems that were supposed to be identical, all running a job queuing software (PBS) for distributed computation. The problem was that the computers had been manipulated by hand to the point that none of them was identical to the others - libraries and versions were all over the place, and programs that ran on some computers would refuse to run on others. Systems are available to help improve this (e.g. Ansible, Puppet, Salt), but inevitably you get drift over time.

  • Full data and result provinance - working with health care data I came to believe that tracking the provinance of my work was crucial. How could anyone trust my models if I couldn’t point exactly to the code that produce the model, the data the code was run against, the code in the pipeline that collected the data, and so on. In an environment with “snowflakes” this is impossible - there is no tracking of the versions of software on the systems or their configurations, thus provinance is impossible.

At this point containers are hands-down the technology to go with, due to their light weight, reproducability, tooling, and management infrastructure available. The primary technology is of course Docker (though that’s changing), and the main ways I’ve worked with to manage docker containers across a cluster of computers are Kubernetes, Mesos, Rancher, and Docker Swarm. Of these I see Kubernetes as the solution with the most growth potential and largest and healthiest community. Some of the main features I like about Kubernetes (also abbreviated “K8s”) are:

  • Simple but flexible conceptual building blocks - Containers (single programs), Pods (Groups of 1 or more containers), Deployments (organization around managing pods), Services (Controlled network access to the pods), Jobs (repeatable executions), and more. This matches well with the unix philosophy of having simple composable tools, and is engineered in an extremely flexible way that allows for defining custom resources and behaviors.

  • Large community adoption - the project was started by Google (inspired by their “Borg” project), and has since been adopted across the industry. This energy has resulted in rapid progress over the last few years, with tooling to deploy clusters and manage resources on them.

  • No vendor lock in - unlike tools like Amazon’s Elastic Container Service or platforms like Heroku, Kubernetes is completely open source and can be deployed on any cloud provider, a set of bare-metal on-prem machines, or even in your laptop.

  • Access to advanced data-science tools - Newer versions of K8s are beginning to have native support for things like GPU accelerators for deep learning, which will be crucial for large scale data science in the future. In addition, computational software like Spark and database software like Cassandra are starting to support K8s more and more, making deployment of those complex systems relatively push-button.

Hosting Provider

The main hosting providers I considered are AWS, Google, and Microsoft Azure, with AWS and Google by far being my favorites. Google’s main advantage is that they have much better native support for K8s, and now offer completly push-button cluster deployment with free management nodes. Amazon’s large advantage is that they have tons of services that I’m interested to also take advantage of, seem to get newer GPUs faster (though maybe that’s changing?).

In the end I went with AWS - I actually like that it will require some manual effort to create the cluster as that will be a better learning/demo experience, and I already have significant amounts of data in S3 and EBS/EFS that I want to connect to. An additional benefit is Amazon’s purchase of Cloud9, which I’ll make use of to kickstart the project.

Administrator Experience

My goal administrator experience is for the end product to require very minimal time to keep running and do basic tasks like adding users, creating new types of computers, scaling nodes, or deploying new capabilities.

To make infrastructure and application deployment as simple and flexible as possible I’ll be developing a set of Python scripts that will read a common cluster definition file and simplify deployment and management. My goal with this is that the administrator will be able to have a single point of configuration,

One area that is often quite complex (at least more time consuming than most data scientist would like) is user management across a cluster - centralized user administration is great but can be difficult to configure, and non-centralized user management quickly becomes a nightmare. The scripts I’ve written will also be deploying a full LDAP solution with a web-based UI and default configuration, and all containers will tie into this configuration to get usernames, user id’s, ssh keys, etc.

User Experience

My goal user experience for the data scientist and his/her colleagues is to be as simple as possible to access the deployed resources and get to work. I assume ability to launch an ssh client as ssh tunneling is relatively simple and can offer wonderful advantages in terms of security, as all traffic can be encrypted over a single secured point of entry.


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