Arizona, Software Carpentry, and Software Installation

Software installation is a real problem.

I'm writing this as I return from my fourth Software Carpentry workshop, or -- if you count the one I ran at LLNL almost a decade ago -- my fifth one. This workshop was taught with Karen Cranston and Rich Enbody, both of them very experienced teachers. The workshop was at University of Arizona, co-sponsored by iPlant, and organized by Julie Messier. Darren Boss, Katie Cunningham, and Chas Leichner helped out as TAs, along with one or two others whose names I missed (sorry!)

I think it was a success, in that we covered a fair amount of useful material ranging from basic Python programming to automating data analysis. We had about 90% attendance on the second day (which is at least a sign that we duped them into thinking that it would be valuable based on the first day's content ;).

The only total disaster was software installation. (Oh, installation, my old enemy!) Unlike the UW workshop, I spent more time working with students to debug problems, and so I can assure you with some confidence that installing Anaconda on Windows is just a complete nightmare. Our problems ranged from IPython Notebook not starting up, to it not running any Python code, to it not emitting any output when Python code was run. Some people could only run it from Git Bash, others couldn't run it from Git Bash, but cmd worked fine. Which was which seemed to depend on Windows version, 64- vs 32-bit, and the alignment of the heavens at that very moment.

Problems also occurred with software installation via pip (do I need to run anaconda pip, or what? Where is my Python install? Do I have admin privileges? etc.) and running Python scripts at the command line.

So it was a mess.

Naturally, when the instructors got together at the end of the day at 1702, the over-beer conversation turned to INSTALLATION. What were we going to do about it for the next workshops??

This is more than a merely academic question. I now have some money to fling at these kinds of problems. So how best to spend it? Here are our thoughts, equally contributed from Karen, Rich, Darren, Katie, Chas, and myself.

Karen made the point that the first two hours are critical -- that's when people are awake, energetic, and optimistic. We mostly spend the first two hours debugging install, which means that (a) people who got it working are bored, and (b) people who don't have it working are scrambling with incomprehensible technical problems. So we need to address it in some way that doesn't make the first two hours SUCK.


FIRST, we could send out a specialized "installation TA" to meet with students to install and document install problems, and also to coordinate with local Python groups to come help out with troubleshooting. Eventually we'd saturate the set of common problems and we could provide either automated workarounds, or specific install protocols to diagnose and fix the common problems.

The main problem I see with this is that it's manpower intensive, and we need to find a fairly well-trained person to fly around a lot.

SECOND, we could work with Continuum and Enthought to make their installs work better. This could include building a little Web or binary installer (for Anaconda), and maybe some nice launchers. Remember, most of the time we're dealing with people who don't have any experience with the command line, so anything that involves more than typing one or two completely stereotyped command lines is FAIL.

I would be mildly unhappy to spend money making their software better, but since we're already using it... I guess my main fear is that at some point Continuum or Enthought would cease to offer their free/academic version and our work would disappear.

THIRD, we could provide expected install results in some form, so that people could know when they had installed things properly in advance. For example, "you should be able to run ipython notebook, type 'print "hello, world"', and hit shift-enter, and get "hello, world"." But in video form or something.

We should definitely do this.

FOURTH, we could just tell Windows people to use VirtualBox and provide a VM. It flies in the face of trying to get the students to be able to use this stuff on their own computer, but perhaps we can motivate them with the workshop and they can go get help installing this stuff on their own, later; or, during the workshop, but with less urgency.

I'm going to do this for my future workshops, I think. Should it be Software Carpentry standard policy?

FIFTH, we could compute entirely in the cloud, as I do with a number of my other courses. For my other courses, we tend to be analyzing large amounts of data, so running it on the local laptop is generally impossible. It has worked out great. On the flip side, it doesn't help students to actually use this stuff on their own (see above)...

This costs money but I bet we could get one or two of the big cloud providers to spring for it. Or we could work with the iPlant folk.

SIXTH, we could compute in the cloud for the FIRST day, and then have an install fest at the end of the first day, or the beginning or end of the second.

This has the advantage of motivating people by showing them how good the world could be, if only they spent the time... plus, the installs could still fail without huge harm to the workshop.

SEVENTH, we could use some general installation system that actually works, like on Linux. My concern with this is that the more "meta" we go (like, "install this piece of software so that we can more easily install any piece of software! it's cool, trust me!") the more quickly we lose students and the more things can actually go wrong.

I don't see anything like this in the cards. Easy installation is simply not a forte of the open source crowd.

EIGHTH, we could fix Windows. Hahahaha, no, not really.

What am I missing?



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