Ghost in the (Google Cloud) Shell

One of the perks of being a technologist that is not tied to a traditional 9 to 5 is that you have immense freedom in terms of where you can complete your ‘work’ from. I’ve always toyed with the digital nomad lifestyle… but it’s kind of ridiculous when you need to lug around an insane amount of equipment in order to effectively complete your tasks. I have several computers; optimized for specific types of work, or tied to specific clients. This always required me to think ahead before traveling.  Which project I was going to work on while away?  There was a time where I would take everything with me.  Traveling with kids has definitely made me want to pack as minimally as possible.  Since I was spending a bunch of time working on the Google stack, I decided to investigate using Google Cloud Shell as a development environment.

Problems as a Digital Nomad Developer

Development and image processing requires horsepower.  Even the best laptops for doing this are big and heavy…. and expensive.  This is definitely something to think about if you travel.  Especially if you’re regularly in a country like India, Russia or China where in today’s political climate the likelihood of your hardware getting confiscated is higher than ever. Having this happen while traveling was what ultimately drove me to become a Chromebook advocate.

Pros and Cons of the Chromebook

Losing the hardware is one thing, but losing the data contained on the device is even worse. Chromebooks solved the data problem… You could powerwash the device and then restore it back to its former state at any point in time from the cloud. Worst case scenario, you lose a reasonably inexpensive piece of hardware, but your data is intact. Unfortunately, Chrome OS hardware hasn’t historically been the best option for development… especially if you want to maintain the security offered by the powerwash technique that I mentioned.

The desire to be able to travel anywhere, any time at a moments notice and feel confident that I can deal with anything that comes up while I’m gone using just my Chromebook ultimately drove me to experiment with setting up containerized development environments. I wanted something divorced from the hardware that I could easily get up and running and know that everything is setup the way I need it to be. This was great, but I still needed someplace where I could access these containers from anywhere. I eventually became more and more a fan of the Google Cloud Platform (GCP).  The container centric approach to everything and the fact that the price was right ultimately led me to migrate all of my cloud infrastructure to GCP. It wasn’t long before my containerized development environments followed… and then I discovered Google Cloud Shell.

Using Google Cloud Shell as a Development Environment

Google Cloud Shell takes this whole idea a step further. It gives me a 5GB persistent space accessible from any browser. I don’t even need the Chromebook any more. Everything that I store in my home directory stays there across sessions. Even better, it’s directly connected to all of my projects in GCP. I’ve been doing almost all of my recent development using Google Cloud Shell and the integrated Orion Editor exclusively… and I LOVE it! For web based development and microservices, it’s absolutely great. Especially if you’re ultimately deploying to GCP. The only time I’ve gone back to my ‘development’ laptop has been to do Android development as I haven’t really found a good solution for running things like Android Studio or emulators using this approach.

But I want to develop for ‘free’

Ok, I can hear a bunch of you thinking that you don’t want to be forced to develop on GCP (and potentially incur costs) before you’re ready to deploy to production. Guess what? ngrok works great in Google Cloud Shell… you can expose your local dev environment securely anywhere on the web without deploying your project to GCP. What about localhost? ngrok exposes debug information on, so there’s no way to access that from Google Cloud Shell, right? Wrong… with GCS, you can expose a ‘ ‘web preview’ from any port just by clicking on the icon within GCS, you can map this to expose ngrok’s debug interface.

Onward to Production

Google Cloud Shell obviously has all of the Google Cloud SDK integrated by default, so when you’re ready to go to production, it’s a piece of cake. GCS even knows which Cloud Project you’re working on (and reminds you of that fact in the terminal). Turn off ngrok, push to your cloud environment and update your systems to point to the production version!

Google Cloud Shell Conclusion

Is Google Cloud Shell the absolutely flawless solution to every development need that a digital nomad has? Definitely not, but it’s pretty damn good. I haven’t found a good way to do Android development this using it. It’s absolutely fantastic for doing Node development though…. especially if you’re deploying to GCP ultimately. Google Cloud Shell does have a usage limit of 60 hours per week.  If you’re burning the candle from both ends, you’ll want to remember to shut it down when you do take a break so that you don’t hit that limit. Give it a shot for yourself and let me know what you think.