‘Ready to Eat’ Academic Computing Infrastructure

I’m not sure how the kids do it these days, but back in my previous life making an extra buck doing academic tech support, the fast and easy way to get a lab full of computers set up for a group of students or staff was to “ghost” the computers with whatever operating system and software you wanted. This process of cloning ensured that you got exactly what you wanted and started fresh for each workshop.

Nowadays I find myself sometimes wishing for a similarly fast and easy tool in the world of web servers. Amazon Web Services, which hosts and performs computation for a sizable chunk of the Internet these days, is now one of the cheap and fast ways set up a server with just the amount of space and power you need. However, the interface for AWS is a labyrinthine mess of acronyms and options that can confuse even those with years of experience with web hosts and basic server configuration so it may not be the first stop for an academic who wants to use it for testing or teaching purposes.

Enter Academic AMIs, the “Ready to Eat” academic infrastructure solution for the digital humanities by James Smithies, a Senior Lecturer in Digital Humanities at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. James has recognized a very basic need in the academic community: there are a range of server-hosted software packages that are fun to learn, fun to teach, and great for testing new ideas, but which take a bit of time and work to install and get running online.

James has made it easy for us to, using the old terminology, “ghost,” or spin-up a quick server with some of the more common kinds of server software that are worth looking into including Open Journal Systems, Geoserver, Drupal, Ushahidi, Omeka, and a host of Omeka plugins that are fun to work with like Scripto and Neatline. See his list of available AMIs, what version of each software he has installed, and how recently he has tested the servers here.

The way this is done is through pre-configured “AMIs” or “Amazon Machine Images” designed by James that get installed and hosted through the EC2 (“Elastic Compute Cloud”) service at Amazon. If you follow the relatively straightforward set of instructions that James has put together, you can have a small but (at least initially) free server operational within a few minutes that is ready to go.

Important: When you get your “ready to eat” AMI installed, you have an unsecured server which can become a target for hackers. It will take time and a good knowledge of server maintenance to transform what is essentially a very basic sandbox useful in testing new ideas or teaching various skills into a hardened production environment that can be a longterm host for your project and, perhaps most importantly, whatever data you put in. Perhaps the most useful use of the AMIs is to get a server up and running, test (and backup frequently) an idea out, and if you get something up that you think can get the support of a good technical team or institutional support, either harden the server up with some help, or transfer the files and data to whatever server options your own institution can offer and maintain.

Have you tried AMIs for any of your digital projects or do you use Amazon Web Services for your own online hosted projects? What has your experience been like?

Photo Computer licensed under Creative Commons Attribution by Andrew Parnell.

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