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Archive for July, 2010

Automated Proxy Setup

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Here are some instructions as to how to do a quick and dirty MarkUs setup so that it’s accessible behind Apache httpd. Please don’t use it in production. It may provide some inspirations, though.

Here is a shell script, which does the heavy lifting of a proxied setup including basic authentication. This has been tested on Debian and Ubuntu. It might also work on some other distributions with some modifications. The necessary steps are as follows:

  1. cd to a clean checkout of MarkUs
  2. edit config/environment.rb such that it includes
    config.action_controller.relative_url_root = “/markus”
  3. edit and update MARKUS_RAILS_ROOT so
    that it points to your MarkUs checkout.
  4. go to your MarkUs checkout and do ./script/server (the usual

Become root (e.g. $ sudo -s)
# chmod +x
# ./

Finally go to (It should ask for authentication; use username=markus_test password=test). You should see a standard MarkUs login screen now. Happy proxy testing/developing! 🙂

Written by Severin

July 29th, 2010 at 12:03 am

Posted in Uncategorized

PDF Conversion Heavy on Memory Use

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We use ImageMagick to convert pdfs to jpgs to display them within the browser. Originally, pdf to jpg conversion was done with the RMagick gem for ruby, which was a nice api for ImageMagick. This worked fine until we started testing with pdf files containing hundreds of pages. The problem that went unnoticed until then was the amount of memory ImageMagick actually required to convert files. It was quickly gobbling up gigabytes of RAM and taking over the entire swap memory. Fortunately, we noticed this and managed to kill the process in time before our computers crashed.

After doing some research, i found a blog post at This talks about the issues of using RMagick, namely the memory leaks it creates as ruby’s garbage collector doesn’t play nice with it. Upon further investigation, I found that this leak made MarkUs use 3 times as much memory as was needed for conversion. Furthermore, the post described a function designed to free memory. However due to the nature of RMagick, this meant that we would be using at least twice necessary memory used to convert the files by ImageMagick, as RMagick would save an object corresponding to an image, and create a new one for every manipulation performed on it. Thus there was always an unavoidable window after a modification and before the original image object can be destroyed to free its memory.

As a result, I have opted for issuing a direct call to ImageMagick’s convert function via ruby.  This is a much better alternative, as it performs all the modifications in one line. The memory use issue still wasn’t solved here though. After more digging I found this formula on ImageMagick’s site

Memory use = (5 * Quantum Depth * Rows * Columns) / 8

Where Rows and Columns were the size of the pdf file, and quantum depth was a setting configured at the pre-compilation phase of ImageMagick. It was impractical to reduce the quantum depth for several reasons. Firstly, having to recompile ImageMagick would not be very fun, especially since this would have to be done for every server MarkUs is hosted on. Secondly, picture quality would be severely compromised, as quantum depth is responsible for the number of colours in the image (setting it to 8 would impose a 256 colour restriction and we live in 2010 now…). Lastly, the quantum depth was currently set at 16, and its minimal value was 8. All that extra headache would only cut memory use in half, and still not prevent malicious users from crashing server simply by using a pdf file twice as big.

After more headaches, (I blame myself for them, as the solution should have been so obvious) I took a close look at all the optional arguments the convert command takes. The -limit option was exactly what I was looking for – being responsible developers, the ImageMagick team knew of its heavy memory requirements and created a solution for cases just like ours. The documentation can be found here Essentially, this option allowed me to limit the amount of memory that the convert command was allowed to use. Now, instead of eating up all the server’s RAM and swap, convert gets all the memory it needs from the hard disk, where space is not an issue anymore.

The downside of course, is significantly slower conversion times when the hard disk is used. To counteract this, I have added an option in the markus configuration that will allow sysadmins to set the amount of RAM they want to be accessible by ImageMagick. We found that 100 megabytes will take care of most conversion needs, and should be enough to convert a 10 page US letter sized pdf, and the hard disk only needs to kick in for those extra big files.

This post is meant to be a guide to anyone who decides to tinker with the pdf conversion system in the future, as well as aiding admins in the (highly unlikely…. hopefully) case something goes wrong.

Written by c8braver

July 19th, 2010 at 4:38 pm

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MarkUs 0.8.0 is out!

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The summer started two months ago and I am very proud to announce to you the latest release of MarkUs, version 0.8.0.

We have added a lot of great features : 🙂


  • We are now using Rails 2.3.8, the latest version of the 2.3.x tree
  • Some bug fixes on submission dates and grace period credits
  • Python and Ruby Scripts in order to help users to interact with MarkUs through the API
  • Displaying and annotating images
    • A lot of accessibility features have been implemented :

    • Missing labels & Better focus on forms
    • Adding annotations in downloaded code from students repository
    • Re-arrange criteria using keyboard
  • MarkUs is now completely internationalized and a French translation is available

So what are you waiting for? Get MarkUs 0.8.0 right now!

Diane Tam
Dina Sabied
Evan Browning
Anton Braverman
Nelle Varoquaux
Bryan Shen
Severin Gehwolf
Mike Conley
Benjamin Vialle

I hope I didn’t forget someone. 🙂

Written by Benjamin Vialle

July 7th, 2010 at 11:20 am

Posted in Uncategorized