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I led a team to redesign the architecture for a distributed computing environment in a 1000 student data science course. The resulting deployment has an order-of-magnitude gain in availability and reduces infrastructure costs by 50% through auto-scaling. This project resulted in a new Jupyter-endorsed standard for deploying JupyterHub.

The Problem

Data 8, UC Berkeley flagship data science course for freshman, had an infamously flaky computing environment.

The course uses Jupyter notebooks (website) for all of its content. Although Jupyter notebooks are useful, getting set up is a lengthy and error-prone process — consider these instructions for local setup that we use in a later course.

We’ve found that installation problems intimidate students, especially those that have had less experience doing technical work. To help make the course more approachable for these students, previous course developers created a cloud deployment of Jupyter using a new technology called JupyterHub. The deployment allowed students to visit a webpage to work in Jupyter, saving many man-hours of installation issues.

The first deployment was usable when Data 8 first started, but as the course approached the 400-student mark we quickly noticed that the infrastructure wasn’t holding up: our first labs in Spring 2016 were nearly a complete disaster as entire classrooms of students encountered various JupyterHub errors.

I and other course staff spent the rest of that semester racing to patch the deployment whenever it broke. Rather unfortunately, the deployment most often failed under high load which happened to correspond to assignment deadlines for the class. It was a stressful time all around, illustrated best by the fact that our technical issue forum threads got so long that they would crash the browser on load:

The Old Deployment

What caused the old deployment to break so often? It turned out to be a combination of factors:

  1. Nearly every piece of the system was a single point of failure.
  2. We had no automatic way of recovering from failures.
  3. We didn’t know when failures occurred until students reported them, usually after spending significant time refreshing their browser.

Here’s a simplified diagram of our previous architecture:

When a student visited in their web browser, they were first forwarded to a central node that handled authentication and kept track of which nodes ran which students’ notebook servers. When a student started working, the Hub would use Docker Swarm to run a Jupyter Notebook container on another node. Then, the Hub would proxy the student to that node.

If the Hub failed, all students were locked out of their servers. Sometimes the Hub machine would simply go offline. Other times, the NFS server that the Hub ran would fail with the nasty side-effect of losing student work.

In addition, if a single node failed the Hub would still attempt to proxy students to that node, effectively locking out all students that were previously assigned to that node.

The original developers created the deployment using a combination of lengthy Ansible playbooks, bash scripts, and Docker containers. Because of this, making and testing significant changes to this architecture was a difficult process. With the limited manpower that we had at the time, we were limited to simple fixes.

As a first step towards improving the availability of the system, I set up monitoring to notify staff if machines went down. This helped lower downtime while we (urgently) explored our long-term options.

To get more help, I pitched this project to Blueprint, a student-run software development organization. In the Fall of 2016, I led a team of four other developers to overhaul the JupyterHub deployment for Data 8.

Redesigning the Deployment

Fortunately, we came across Google’s Kubernetes project early on in our search.

Kubernetes gave us a key abstraction: instead of manually assigning containers to specific nodes, Kubernetes’ scheduler allowed us to specify containers to run and automatically scheduled containers to nodes without requiring us to run Docker commands manually. In addition, Kubernetes effectively solved our recovery problem for us by giving us the ability to require containers to be available, starting them if needed.

These key benefits and its simpler, declarative configuration convinced us that switching to Kubernetes for our deployment was a very good idea.

In 10 weeks, I and my team recreated Data 8’s JupyterHub deployment and after stress testing felt confident enough to deploy the project into production. In Spring 2017, Data 8 used our JupyterHub deployment on Kubernetes for the first time as the class grew once more from 400 to 800 students.

The system was noticeably more stable because of Kubernetes’ orchestration functionality and because of the key changes to the JupyterHub architecture. Overall, these improvements gave an order of magnitude increase in availability from hours of downtime a month to less than 5 minutes a month on average. Here are two of most important architecture decisions we made:

Avoiding Single Points of Failure

We split apart the Hub container into a Proxy and an Spawner. This helped us address the fact that the Hub was still a single point of failure in the system architecture. When a student needs to log in, they will visit the Spawner. However, once the student has a Jupyter server running, they will be transparently sent to the Proxy which forwards the student to a running Jupyter server in another Kubernetes pod.

This allows the Spawner to fail without affecting students who have already logged in. Replicating the Proxy is easier than replicating the Spawner which gives us another measure of failure tolerance.

Dynamically Provisioned Disks

We switched to dynamically provisioned Kubernetes Volumes to store student files instead of NFS. NFS turned out to be a major source of problems for us previously since it was quite flaky and a single source of failure. When a student logs into JupyterHub for the first time, we create a disk, assign the disk to the student’s account, and attach the disk to their pod whenever they start their Jupyter server.

This prevents a whole class of problems that caused system-wide failures for us previously. For example, this scheme restricts disk storage and corruption issues to only affect the student the disk belongs to.

Additional Improvements

I oversaw continued development on this project the following semester, although another developer handled the day-to-day management.

We made the following improvements to the system in Spring 2017:

  • We automatically create periodic snapshots of student disks.
  • We allow students to back up their files onto Google Drive so they can keep their files after their semester in Data 8.
  • We implemented cluster autoscaling based on usage. This cut our operational costs by 50%, from over $4000 a month to $2000 a month. Here’s a chart of usage comparison during a project deadline:

Project Handoff

Finally, we abstracted away the Data 8 specific parts of the deployment to allow others to reuse our architecture for their own organizations. We have since handed the project off to the Jupyter team and the project now lives on in Jupyter’s official Zero to JupyterHub guide and as part of a public, cloud-based Jupyter service called Binder.

The deployment is currently used most heavily by Data 8, serving over 1000 students in Fall 2017. It is also used for classrooms and research computing across UC Berkeley and at other universities.