Setting up a Virtual Computer Lab

This section describes how to configure a Virtual Computer Lab using GraphTerm on a Linux/Mac server. Some notable features are:

  • Automatic user creation, with the option of Google Authentication
  • All users share a single python installation and can access data files on a cloud server
  • Students can access terminals and notebooks remotely using a browser, both in class and from home
  • Students can collaborate by accessing each others terminals and using a rudimentary chat feature
  • Progressively fillable notebooks can be used to provide scaffolding for teaching students to write complex programs
  • The instructor can monitor students’ work while it is in progress and comment on it using chat

A companion section provides information on Using the GraphTerm Virtual Computer Lab after it has been set up. It can be printed and distributed to the users to serve as a quick start guide.

Note: The GraphTerm multiuser option is meant to be used for teaching purposes or for collaboration among trusted users. It should not be used if there is sensitive information on the server that should be protected from users.

Quick setup

The following steps allow you to quickly launch a “virtual computer lab” with multi-user support. GraphTerm supports multi-user logins using digest authentication with shared secrets, or using your Google sign-on. This avoids the need for storing passwords or other sensitive information on the server, thus reducing the security concerns associated with a publicly accessible server.

Case 1: Mac or Linux server with user accounts already created

GraphTerm server for multiple users

YouTube Video showing how to set up a GraphTerm server with multiuser authentication

  1. Install graphterm on your server using the following two commands:

    sudo pip install graphterm

    Omit the sudo if you are installing as a non-root user within an Anaconda or Enthought Python environment, for example.

  2. Say all the user home directories begin with /Users/..., then run a command like the following as the root user to start the GraphTerm server with password-less multiuser authentication:

gtermserver --daemon=start --auth_type=multiuser --user_setup=manual --users_dir=/Users --logging --port=80 --host=server_domain_name_or_ip

To stop the server, use gtermserver --daemon=stop. You can also omit the --daemon option, to run the server in the foreground for testing. To install GraphTerm as a service, you can copy the script $GTERM_DIR/bin/graphtermd to /etc/init.d and edit it to modify the command line options. If you want automatic new user creation, you can use the --user_setup=auto option, but you may need to modify the user configuration shell script $GTERM_DIR/bin/gterm_user_setup, which has only been tested with Ubuntu Linux.

You can use the --auth_type=login option for traditional password-based login authentication, but it will only work with --https or --host=localhost options (for security). For localhost servers, SSH port forwarding can be used for remote access (e.g., ssh -L 9900:localhost:8900 remote_name). [If using login authentication, the remaining setup operations can be skipped.]

  1. Run the following command as root user to display the master access code:

    cat ~/.graphterm/@server_domain_name_gterm_auth.txt

    (Ignore the port number following the hexadecimal access code.)

    Note: If the domain name is localhost, the filename would simply be _gterm_auth.txt. For automatic new user creation, the group code is in ~/.graphterm/gterm_gcode.txt

  2. Use the URL http://server_domain_name to open a new graphterm window on the server, with the super user name (root in our case) and the master access code
  1. Run the following command in the graphterm window to obtain the individual access code for each user:

    gauth -m username

    Distribute this code and a printed copy of Using the GraphTerm Virtual Computer Lab to each user. The first time an user enters their access code, the ~/.graphterm directory will be created, and there will be an option to enter the GMail address for authentication.

Case 2: On-demand server using Amazon AWS

Virtual Computer Lab using GraphTerm and AWS

YouTube Video showing how to set up a virtual computer lab using GraphTerm and AWS

If you do not already have a Linux server available to set up a virtual computer lab, you can easily create one on demand using Amazon Web Services (AWS). The GraphTerm distribution includes the convenience scripts ec2launch, ec2list, ec2scp, and ec2ssh to launch and monitor AWS Elastic Computing Cloud (EC2) instances running a GraphTerm server. You will need to have an AWS account to use these scripts, and also need to install the boto python module. (These scripts are routinely used during GraphTerm development to test new versions in the “cloud”. )

  1. You will need to obtain an AWS account as described here. The AWS account will be linked to your standard Amazon account. (Optionally, you may create an SSH key pair named ec2key by clicking here). If you would like to use your GMail account to authenticate, you also need to set up a Google project before starting, following the instructions at Google Authentication.

  2. Install and run graphterm on your local (single-user) computer:

    sudo pip install graphterm

    gtermserver --terminal --auth_type=none

    The above command should automatically open up a GraphTerm window in your browser. You can also open one using the URL http://localhost:8900 (Note: This is insecure on a shared, multi-user, computer; omit the --auth_type=none server option in that case.)
  1. Run the following command within the graphterm window to create a Linux server:


    The first time, you will be asked to enter your AWS access credentials, which will be stored in the local file ~/.boto. Then run the command again, enter a tagname (e.g., testlab), choose auth_type as multiuser, and select the pylab and netcdf options. You may also need to enter your project’s Google Client ID and Secret, which were obtained following the instructions at Google Authentication.

    When you press the submit button, the generated command line should look something like this:

    ec2launch --type=m3.medium --key_name=ec2key --ami=ami-2f8f9246 --auth_type=multiuser --pylab --netcdf testlab
  1. After the new AWS Linux server has completed configuration, which can take several minutes, its IP address and server domain name will be displayed. Then type the following command using the new domain name to login to the password-less super user account ubuntu:

    ec2ssh ubuntu@server_domain_name

    Run the following command on the server to verify that gtermserver is running:

    ps -ef | grep gtermserver

    If not, and if using AWS, check for errors in the setup procedure by typing sudo tail /root/ec2launch.log

    To restart the server, use gtermserver --daemon=stop followed by sudo /etc/init.d/graphterm

  2. Run the following command on the server to display the master access code:

    cat ~/.graphterm/@server_domain_name_gterm_auth.txt

    Ignore the port number following the hexadecimal access code. (You do not need the master access code if your Google Authentication is set up properly.)

  3. Use the URL http://server_domain_name to open a new graphterm window on the server, with the super user name (ubuntu in our case), using the master access code (or Google Authentication.)
  1. Run the following command in the server graphterm window to display the group access code which should be entered by new users:

    cat ~/.graphterm/gterm_gcode.txt

    Distribute this code and a printed copy of Using the GraphTerm Virtual Computer Lab to all lab users.

  2. If using AWS, run the following command on your local graphterm window to list, connect to, or kill your instances:


Restarting the server

To restart the GraphTerm server, use the commands:

gtermserver --daemon=stop

gtermserver --daemon=start ... (arguments)

To generate a new master access code, simply delete the file ~/.graphterm/@server_domain_name_gterm_auth.txt and restart the server. This will also make all user access codes obsolete.

Google Authentication

Google Authentication for GraphTerm server

YouTube Video showing how to set up Google Authentication

Here are the instructions to set up Google Authentication:

  • Go to the Google Dev Console at
  • Select a project, or create a new one.
  • In the sidebar on the left, select APIs & Auth.
  • In the sidebar on the left, select Consent Screen to customize the Product name etc.
  • In the sidebar on the left, select Credentials.
  • In the OAuth section of the page, select Create New Client ID.
  • Edit Settings to temporarily set the Authorized Javascript Origin to http://localhost and the Authorized Redirect URI to http://localhost/_gauth
  • Note down the web application “Client ID key” and “Client secret” values

If your GraphTerm server is running, the above instructions, along with the correct redirect URI, may be accessed at http://server_domain_name/_gauth.

To support Google Authentication, the GraphTerm server looks for a file named ~/.graphterm/gterm_oauth.json in the user account running the server. It should contain the following JSON content:

{"google_oauth": {"key": "...", "secret": "..."}}

Any time you create or modify this file, you will need to restart the GraphTerm server.

The email address linked to each user’s account is stored in the file ~/.graphterm/gterm_email.txt, which may created, modified, or deleted, as needed. After having set up the server, if you later decide to use your GMail account to authenticate, you may enter your GMail address in this file. (If you selected the gmail_addr option during ec2launch, this file would already have been created.)

Dropbox and backup

If you wish to have automatic backup and remote access for files, you can use the Dropbox service which provides a Linux client. You can store all important files, including submitted notebooks, in Dropbox folders which are backed up and can be accessed remotely from other computers. To selectively sync folders on the remote server, download the Dropbox CLI client from the Linux install page and execute the following commands: exclude add Dropbox/*         # Exclude Dropbox/* exclude remove Dropbox/gterm  # Sync Dropbox/gterm

Instructions for automatically running Dropbox on system startup, with support for multiple users, may be found at

Optional steps

  • If you wish, you may change the group access code to a more user-friendly value (not exceeding 16 characters) in ~/.graphterm/gterm_gcode.txt and restart the server.

  • You may enter an HTML banner message in the file ~/.graphterm/gterm_banner.html which will be displayed during login.

  • You can use the command gls --download $GTERM_DIR/bin/ to download the executable script to your local computer and save the master access code in the local file ~/.graphterm/@server_domain_name_gterm_auth.txt. Then use the following local command to quickly create remote graphterm windows: -u ubuntu --browser=Firefox http://server_domain_name

  • Instead of AWS, if you wish to use a different cloud computing provider, you can either modify ec2launch or write your own script to configure the server. Running ec2launch with the --dry_run option displays the configuration steps for the Ubuntu Linux instances created using AWS. You may also need to modify the shell script $GTERM_DIR/bin/gterm_user_setup, which currently works with Ubuntu Linux on AWS.

  • Instead of using root to run the server, you could also use another account with password-less sudo privileges.

Domain name and IP address

A server needs a domain name or IP address to be accessible. When you start up a new cloud server, it is usually assigned a dynamic IP address. For temporary use, i.e., during the up-time of the server, you can simply use this IP address to create an URL for the server like AWS also provides a long instance domain name that can be used to create an URL.

For a prettier and more permanent URL, you need to register a domain name, say, with a domain registrar like,, or (for about $10-20 per year). A single domain registration is sufficient for any number of servers, as you can always create subdomains. For a single server, you can update the IP address associated with the domain on the nameservers of the registrar.

Alternatively, you can enable the Amazon Route 53 service Route 53 service and create a hosted zone for your domain This will allow the ec2launch script to automatically handle subdomain tag names like for your servers. Ensure that the nameserver records for at your domain registrar point to the AWS nameservers for the hosted zone.

Network security and port access

The cloud server should be configured to allow access to certain network ports, particularly ports 22 (ssh), 80 (http), and 443 (https). If you plan to enable running of the “public” IPython notebook server, you should also allow access to the port range 10000-12000. The ec2launch script automatically sets up an AWS security group to allow access to these ports.

Note: If you have trouble accessing the instance, check to make sure that the AWS security group associated with the cloud instance allows access to inbound TCP port 22 (for SSH access).

Launching a server instance

To create an AWS instance, you should first run GraphTerm on your local (single-user) computer as described in the Quick setup instructions. You will be presented with a web form to enter configuration details of the instance to be launched. You can specify a simple tag name to identify each server. If you have set-up the Route 53 service, you can specify a the tag name is of the form to automatically associate the subdomain with the server IP address. You can also specify whether to install additional packages, like pylab for plotting or R for statistical analysis.

An important configuration choice is the authentication type (auth_type), which may be one of singleuser, none, name, multiuser, or login.

singleuser: Authentication type is meant for a single user on a shared computer. You will need to enter the code found in the file ~/.graphterm/_gterm_auth.txt to access the server, or use the gterm command to open new GraphTerm windows.

none: This requires no authentication, and is meant to be used on a private computer with a single user.

name: This also requires no authentication, but new users choose a unique username. This is meant for demonstration purposes and all users share the same Unix account.

multiuser: For the multiuser case, you typically specify either the --user_setup=auto or the --user_setup=manual option. The auto option allows new users enter enter a group authentication code, along with a unique user name. This creates a new Unix account for the user and generates a unique access code that will be used the next time the user logs in. The super user can view all the access codes using the gauth command. (If the users choose to use Google Authentication, they will also be able to login using their GMail account.) The --users_dir=/home option can be used to specify the root for all user home directories.

login: This uses the standard Unix password authentication, but is permitted only with a localhost server or with HTTPS (for security). Server must be run as root and users will not be created automatically. (Not available with ec2launch)

Once you fill in the form for ec2launch and submit it, a command line will be automatically generated, with the specified options, to launch the instance. You may need to wait several minutes for the instance setup to complete, depending upon the compute power of the instance. To launch another instance with slightly different properties, you can simply recall the command line from history and edit it. (If you wish to force re-display of the ec2launch form to edit the command visually, include the --form option in the recalled command line and execute it.)

Managing instances

The ec2list command can be used to list all running instances, to connect using SSH, and also to terminate them (using the kill link).

Starting and stopping GraphTerm server

By default, a publicly accessible graphterm server will be automatically started on the new instance (and after reboots). Once the instance is running, you can access the GraphTerm server at http://domain_name_or_ip_address. You can log in to the instance using the command ec2ssh ubuntu@domain_name, or copy files to it using ec2scp file ubuntu@domain_name:

To stop a running server, type:

gtermserver --daemon=stop

To restart it, switch user to root and re-run the startup script with command options (e.g., /etc/init.d/graphterm).

If you are not using ec2launch, you can start the server explicitly from the command line, e.g.:

gtermserver --daemon=start --auth_type=multiuser --user_setup=auto --logging --nb_server --https --external_port=443 --host=domain_or_ip

The above options configure the server for multiuser authentication, with https. (ec2launch automatically configures port forwarding from port 443 to the default graphterm port 8900, enabling even non-privileged users to run gtermserver.)

An account with password-less sudo privileges is required for new users to be created automatically (--user_setup=auto option). Running an Ubuntu linux instance on AWS automatically creates such an account, named ubuntu, as described here. By default, GraphTerm server is run from this account. The --user_setup=auto option creates a file named ~/.graphterm/AUTO_ADD_USERS which can be deleted to suppress auto-user creation while the server is running.

To automatically start the server when the computer is rebooted, copy the gtermserver command line to the executable script /etc/init.d/graphterm on a Ubuntu server followed by update-rc.d graphterm defaults, or equivalent for other linux flavors (ec2launch automatically does this for AWS).

Access codes

The master access code is stored in the file ~/.graphterm/@server_gterm_auth.txt in the home directory of the super user, and can be used to sign in as any user. (To generate new random access codes, simply delete this file.) To display the access code for a particular user, use the following command within a GraphTerm on the remore machine:

gauth -m username

The user-specific access code is also save in the user’s home directory in ~user/.graphterm/user@server_gterm_auth.txt.

To avoid having to type in the access code every time, you can download the executable python script $GTERM_DIR/bin/ to your desktop/laptop computer. You can then type the following command: -u user http://server_domain

to open a terminal on the remote server. You will be asked for the access code the first time, and then it can be saved in your local ~/.graphterm directory for future use.

To display the group access code (needed to generate new accounts), type:

gauth -g -m super_username

on the server.

Using https

You can run the gtermserver with the --https option enabled for limited security. By default, it will create a self-signed certificate stored in ~/.graphterm/localhost.pem. Inform users that self-signed certificates will generate multiple browser warning messages. (For maximum security, you can purchase a domain certificate signed by an authority, which is often available through the domain registrar.)

Running a public IPython Notebook server

Specifying the --nb_server when starting up the GraphTerm server enables a menu option allowing each user to run the gnbserver command which starts up a public IPython Notebook server listening on a unique port number that is tied to the user’s Unix user ID. (A similar option for ec2launch opens up these ports for public access.)

If using https, the self-signed certificate created for the GraphTerm server can be re-used for the IPython public notebook server, by copying the file ~/.graphterm/localhost.pem to /var/graphterm/localhost.pem to make it accessible to all users.

Administering the virtual computer lab

The super user can use the shell script gterm_user_setup in $GTERM_DIR/bin to manually configure new users:

sudo gterm_user_setup username activate server_domain user_email

Note: This script may need to be modified to work on non-AWS servers.

The gadmin command (a work in progress) performs administrative actions to monitor users:

# Display status for all terminals with path name matching python regexp
gadmin -a sessions [regexp]

Clicking on the displayed terminal list will open up the terminal for viewing (see Dashboard for a “virtual computer lab” - listing user terminal activity).

You can also view multiple user terminals embedded in your own terminal using the gframe command (see Dashboard for a “virtual computer lab” - viewing user terminals):

gframe --rowheight 300 --border --columns 3 --terminal /bob/quiz1 /jane/quiz1 /jose/quiz1

More information can be found in Embedding and remote terminal commands

Configuring groups

In the multiuser authentication mode, user groups can be configured the file ~/.graphterm/gterm_groups.json containing a JSON formatted dictionary, e.g.:

{"group1": ["user1", "user2"],
 "group2": ["user3", "user4", "user5"]}

Users in the same group can see each others’ terminals for collaboration.

Note: At this time, the GraphTerm server needs to be restarted if the group configuration is changed.

Secondary cloud instances

Secondary cloud instances can connect to the GraphTerm server on the primary instance using the command:

gtermhost --daemon=start --server_addr=<server_domain_or_address> <secondary_host_name>

Note: It would be better to use an internal (non-public) network address to connect secondary cloud instances.