Taking advantage of cloud VM-driven development

Most people write about cloud computing as it relates to their service infrastructure. It’s exciting to hear about how Netflix and Dropbox et al. use AWS to support their operations, but all of those large-scale ideas don’t really mean much for the average developer. Most people don’t have the budget or the need for enormous computing power or highly-available SaaS data storage like S3, but it turns out that cloud-based VM’s can be highly useful for the average developer in a different way.

Sometimes, you see something like this one-liner installation script for Heroku Toolbelt, and you just get nervous:

wget -qO- https://toolbelt.heroku.com/install-ubuntu.sh | sh

Not only are they asking you to run a shell script downloaded over the Internet, but the script also asks for root privileges to install packages and stuff. Or, maybe you’re reading a blog post about some HA database cluster software and you want to try it out yourself, but running 3 virtual machines on your puny laptop is out of the questions.

To get around this issue, I’ve been using DigitalOcean machines for when I want to test something out but don’t want to go to the trouble of maintaining a development server or virtual machines. Virtualized cloud servers are great for this because:

  • They’re DIRT CHEAP. DO’s smallest machine costs $0.007 an hour. Even if you use it for 2 hours, it rounds down to 1 cent.
  • The internet connection is usually a lot better than whatever you’re using. Plus, most cloud providers have local mirrors for package manager stuff, which makes installing packages super fast.
  • Burstable CPU means that you can get an unfair amount of processing power for a short time at the beginning, which comes in handy for initially installing and downloading all the stuff you’ll want to have on your machine.

I use the tugboat client (a CLI ruby app) to interface with the DigitalOcean API. To try out MariaDB Galera clustering, I┬ájust opened up three terminals and had three SSH sessions going on. For source builds that have a dozen or more miscellaneous dependencies, I usually just prepare a simple build script that I can upload and run on a Cloud VM whenever I need it. When I’m done with a machine, I’ll shut it down until I need a machine again a few days later.

Running development virtual machines in the cloud might not drastically change your workflow, but it opens up a lot of opportunities for experimentation and massive computing resources when you want it. So load up a couple dollars onto a fresh DigitalOcean account and boot up some VMs!