Quinn Dombrowski's picture

“CloudPowering DH Workshop” supports humanities applications of cloud computing

Humanities-oriented support for cloud computing at Berkeley has significantly expanded with help from the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) at the University of Victoria. Cody Hennesy, the campus E-Learning Librarian, and Brendan Mackie, a PhD student in the History department, attended the "CloudPowering DH Workshop", hosted by Compute Canada during the week of June 6th. Cody and Brendan both received tuition scholarships for the course as part of Digital Humanities at Berkeley and are available for consultation on cloud computing for humanists.

Cloud computing involves using remote, virtual, and transient hardware that someone else manages, with almost as much control as if it were physically in the same room. Cloud computing allows scholars to spin up single-purpose machines for activities like text mining and potentially access much more computing power in the process. It can also enables quick replication of IT tasks, by allowing people working on projects together to emulate the same hardware and software, and can provide a redundant backup for data.

The workshop covered using OpenStack, a free and open-source cloud computing software platform, to provision virtual machines (VMs). Students learned how to set up VMs to run popular Digital Humanities applications, including WordPress, IPython, Jupyter Notebook, R and R Studio, and Omeka, as well as how to use cloud-init to configure the initialization of cloud images (stored, replicable configurations of VM hardware and software) for common needs.

In addition to Brendan and Cody, the workshop roster included a wide range of attendees, including librarians looking for greater freedom to host websites and web-based projects that their local IT groups don’t support, research consultants trying to get up to speed on big data and the cloud, and humanities graduate students seeking more processing power for larger datasets.

The contrast between the amorphous idea of the "cloud" and the physicality of the server rooms where virtualized cloud machines actually run was particularly striking for Brendan during a field trip to the University of Victoria computing cluster: "The cloud can feel like some kind of Platonic Ideal: it exists "out there", completely distinct from the real-life world of crummy hard disks, broken computer keyboards, and laptop fans vainly whirring away heat. But the cloud is actually a thing, and we got to see it... It turns out that the cloud is heavy, hot, and loud. Walking by one of the new high performance computing clusters, you could feel the extra heat that the thing was generating--a sauna of computer power."

Since their return to Berkeley, Brendan and Cody have been in contact with Berkeley Research Computing about opportunities for leveraging the cloud to support humanists. Work is already underway on developing a virtual machine for use in the Geospatial Analysis workshop at the Digital Humanities at Berkeley Summer Institute in August. In the future, virtual machines might be adopted more broadly by DH workshops, enabling instructors to skip time-consuming installations during class.

Got a question about how you might be able to use cloud computing for humanities research? Email dh-consult@berkeley.edu.

Photo of Dennis Tennen in "Fundamentals of Programming/Coding for Human(s|ists)" workshop at DHSI courtesy of Maelia DuBois.