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Adopting Hands-on Cloud Computing Labs in Your Classroom

By Jeff Tjiputra, D.Sc., Chair and Collegiate Professor, Cloud Computing Program, University of Maryland University College

Jeff Tjiputra, D.Sc., Chair and Collegiate Professor, Cloud Computing Program, University of Maryland University College

Cloud computing is one of the hottest fields today. Many students are taking courses or enrolling in programs that prepare them for a career in this fast-paced industry. One of the challenges facing educators teaching cloud computing concepts is providing students with hands-on experience working in a cloud environment.

The challenge, however, is that cloud computing, by its nature, is built around the idea of pay-per-use. You pay for the services or resources that the cloud service providers provide. How do you then provide students with access to the cloud without affecting your budget?

One option is for students to create their own account using their own credit card to pay for the usage. Many cloud providers offer some kind of trial, whereby new users are provided with either a fixed credit to use their service or a fixed period where they can try different services for free, so this option may work.

Three notable cloud service providers offer robust trials. AWS provides all new users with one year of AWS Free Tier service. More than60 different services are included for free to users during the first year. Azure has a similar offering whereby many of their more popular services are free for new users for the first 12 months. Azure also offers a $200 credit that can be used for any other services. This credit is only good for the first 30 days though. In addition to that, Azure also advertises25-plus services that are always free for users, even after their first-year trial is up. Google Cloud Platform (GCP) has a similar offering. It provides $300 in credits for GCP services, good for the first 12 months. GCP also offers services that are always free. All these offers are subject to restrictions as of this article.

"If you are teaching students Cloud computing concepts and are looking for options to provide hands-on exercises, you may want to look into the AWS Educate Classroom"

Asking students to do their lab exercises using these free trials may work in some instances, but they can also create problems down the road. What do you do when students use up their free trial, maybe because they opened an account long before enrolling in a college course? The “free trial” option would also require students to have a credit card, which would be charged if a student uses more resources than their available credits. I have heard from faculty members who have had to help their students deal with hundreds of dollars of charges to their credit cards after they forgot to shut down one of the cloud services from their lab exercises.

Another way to help students gain invaluable cloud experience is for the academic department to open an account and provision user accounts for their students to participate in hands-on lab exercises. This option eliminates the need for students to use their own credit card or even own a credit card. Also, students won’t be charged if they leave any cloud services running. But keep in mind that if this happens, the department’s credit card would be the one charged. Based on my conversations with faculty, this is the least preferred option, not only for the reason stated before, but also for fear that students may take advantage of this and use cloud services for their own use, for example setting up their own personal gaming server, while leaving the school to pay for it.

These potential red flags can be prevented if the main departmental account is configured properly and monitored for any unauthorized use. This would require a considerable time commitment for the faculty, but could also be handled by the department’s IT staff. Having a dedicated IT staff to monitor and manage the department’s account would significantly add to the overall cost to the program.

At University of Maryland University College (UMUC), we began offering a Master of Science degree in Cloud Computing Architecture in the fall of 2017. During the curriculum design phase, we looked at both options described above. We immediately decided that option 2, with the department paying for the student’s cloud access, is off the table. So, for the first two years of the program, we designed our curriculum around students using their own credit card and opening their own account. For the most part, this worked well. Once in a while, we had a student who didn’t have a credit card or who accidentally left a cloud service running and racked up hundreds of dollars in charges. Although not the norm, these incidents have caused enough headaches for us to continue to explore other options.

Fortunately, we discovered a third option, called AWS Educate Classroom.AWS Educate is a division of AWS tasked with helping schools teach cloud computing concepts. Its initial offering is annual credits to faculty and students to use AWS services. Institutions who are AWS Educate members would be provided $200 annual credits for their faculty and $100 annual credits for their students. It also provides curricula that schools can adopt for their own courses. AWS Educate also offers a job board where students can search for professional opportunities.

AWS introduced its Educate Classroom option a few months ago. This is the solution we are using at UMUC right now. Faculty can request a “classroom” through a simple online form. On the form, faculty would provide the number of students enrolled in the class, the AWS services that they wanted their students to use, and the approximate amount of AWS credits that each student would need to complete their labs.

Once their classroom request is reviewed and approved, faculty members have the ability to invite students to join their classroom. Within this classroom, students are provided with a temporary AWS account, very similar to what they would get had they signed up on their own on AWS main website, except it doesn’t require a credit card. The account is only a temporary account and is automatically closed at the end of the semester. The amount of credits that the faculty had requested on the form is automatically added to this temporary AWS account. Students can do their hands-on lab inside this account just as they would under option 1 and 2 described above. If a student is running low on their initial credits, they will get a notification about it and the faculty can request additional credit.

Most importantly, AWS Education Classroom provides safeguards against racking up unnecessary charges. If students do not see the notification that their credit has run out, all of the services running on their account are automatically (and gracefully) shut down until they receive replenishments. They will not lose their work. This option has worked well for us. Students don’t need to provide a credit card to start using this service, and because no credit card is involved, there is no chance of “accidental” charges for forgetting to shutdown a cloud service – a win-win for all.

Our department doesn’t have to pay for the student’s cloud usage. The process to request these classrooms, enroll students, and request additional credits is easy and straightforward. If you are teaching students cloud computing concepts and are looking for options to provide hands-on exercises, you may want to look into the AWS Educate Classroom. You can find out more about this at www.awseducate.com.

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