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Virtual Computing Labs for students through Amazon Web Services

I have seen some excitement about Virtual Computing Labs for students. This allows students to access software and resources from their home that normally would only be available to them from an on campus computer lab. A need for mobile educational resources, and dropping technology costs are driving the introduction of virtual computing lab environments.

Virtual Computing Labs also solve an age-old problem for students and professors alike. Student’s laptops have various flavors of (often unkempt) operating systems on them, they often encounter snags when installing larger pieces of software (e.g. ones that need SQLServer or IIS to run). By having access to a virtual computer these problems can be avoided.

Traditionally VCL environments are made possible by server arrays in data centers in a university data center. Today such technology is only available to a few faculty within a very small percentage of universities. Amazon Web Services allow students to remotely connect to machines (Windows 2008 in my case), regardless of their host OS, where they can install any software they wish. Best of all, they are only charged for how long they use the machine.

In December 2009 Amazon announced it is possible to stop and start servers, thereby not loosing any of your data that prior to that would have been lost on terminating the server. In February 2010 Amazon announced consolidated billing, which it would make it easy for a professor to foot the bill for the students. Just hope that the student’s do not forget to “stop” their instances. In April 2009 Amazon announced AWS in Education grants — which give instructors $100 in AWS credits (to give to each student).

How much does this cost?

Well if you get the $100 Education Grant from Amazon… nothing.

If the students use the instance of the machine for an average of 5 hours each week over the course of a 16 week semester the cost would be: 5 hours X 16 weeks = 80 hours @ 12.5 cents an hour = 10$. In addition, the students would need to pay for the persistent storage of their data. This would be 10 cents per gigabyte per month: 30 gigabytes x 10 cents per month = $3 per month or $12 for the semester. This is easily within the $100 education credit from Amazon. And this also assumes that the students “stop” their instance when they are done using it.

I don’t work for Amazon, but I think this service can solve many potential headaches for professors and students alike at almost no cost. It’s also fun… Students get to setup their own servers in the cloud, and who wouldn’t be excited to do that?

If you want to try it out, follow all the directions at EC2 for Poets! And if you have any problems, leave a comment here…

1 comment to Virtual Computing Labs for students through Amazon Web Services

  • Sam

    Dude, that’s awesome. I did a bunch of research on this for my last project… it’s interesting to see them rolling this stuff out.