This summer I took the Spark courses at edx CS100 and CS190, and had wonderful experience.
The two classes apply a Vagrant virtual machine containing Spark and all teaching materials. There are two challenges with the virtual machine —
  1. The labs usually take long time to finish, say 8-10 hours. If the host machine is closed, the RDDs will be lost and the pipeline has to be run again.
  2. Some RDD operations take a lot computation/communication powers, such as groupByKey and distinct. Many of my 50k classmates complained about the waiting time. And my most used laptop is a Chromebook and doesn’t even have options to install Virtual Box.
To deploy the learning environment to a cloud may be an alternative. DigitalOcean is a good choice because it uses mirrors for most packages, and the network speed is amazingly fast that is almost 100MB/s (thanks to the SSD infrastructure DigitalOcean implements for the cloud, otherwise the hard disk may not stand this rapid IO; see my deployment records GitHub).

I found that a Linux box with 1 GB memory and 1 CPU at DigitalOcean that costs 10 dollars a month will handle most labs fairly easy with IPython and Spark. A 2 GB memory and 2 CPU droplet will be ideal since it is the minimal requirement for a simulated cluster. It costs 20 dollars a month, but is still much cheaper than the cost to earn the big data certificate that is $100 (50 for each). I just need to write Python scripts to install IPython notebook with SSL, and download Spark and the course materials.
  • The DevOps tool is Fabric and the fabfile is at GitHub.
  • The deployment pipeline is also at GitHub