The Southern Institute of Technology is one of the first organisations in Australasia to undertake a new ‘workstation in the cloud’ collaboration with Microsoft. The offer from Microsoft was to help SIT’s IT team scale to meet the demands of the entire organisation working and studying remotely.
With in-person teaching suspended due to the COVID-19 lockdown, SIT’s programmes were taught fully online from end of March to mid-May, and now just over 100 Digital Media students are able to access high tech equipment in the cloud, with around 80 Engineering students set to be next.
In early 2019, SIT undertook an Institute-wide project to enable fully online delivery for all programmes, and this ensured a relatively straightforward transition to online learning, but the 48 hour notice for New Zealand’s Level 4 lockdown meant a number of programmes were left without access to some key onsite resources, such as specialised computer equipment.
SIT provides four dedicated computer labs at its Downtown campus in Invercargill for students in Digital Media programmes which include subjects such as Film, Animation, Game Design, and Fashion Design. The computers in these labs are highly specialised, costing thousands of dollars per machine meaning few students had computers at home that had a high enough specification to run the array of intensive applications required. Students from these programmes go on to intern and work at places such as Weta and Disney, so they require access to a high level of technical resources to learn their craft. With Microsoft’s help, SIT was able to quickly develop a full Windows Virtual Desktop solution to give students access to the resources they needed.
New Media, Arts and Business Head of Faculty Hamish Small is delighted with the results. “Enabling students to have access to the same specialist technology at home as they would on campus has meant we are able to deliver the same high level of education for these programmes as we would pre-COVID”. It would ensure that SIT Digital Media students could have total confidence in being able to continue their studies uninterrupted, regardless of any future changes to alert levels as well, he said.
While remote access to onsite networks using the likes of Citrix and RDS are relatively common in businesses, dedicated user desktops in the cloud are not - especially when specialised hardware is required. The Microsoft Windows Virtual Desktop offering is very new and thus is currently being utilised in by only a few organisations world-wide. When lockdown commenced, staff at SIT’s Information Technology Services department evaluated the offering and saw an opportunity to leverage the high-end hardware available in Microsoft’s Azure datacentres to deliver the kind of specialised workstations the students needed.
Microsoft New Zealand’s Higher Education Manager Dimi Madras arranged a special collaborative engagement between SIT and Microsoft engineers, which enabled the system to be built and delivered to test users in just three days. “The hardware these students need is so high end it was only available in one of our datacentres throughout all of Australasia, and the use case for the virtual workstations was beyond what we’ve done so far, so we were really breaking entirely new ground” she said.
SIT’s Chief Information Officer Nick Elder has nothing but praise for the Microsoft and SIT project teams. “Microsoft are great partners, we work very closely with them anyway, but they have stepped up even further during the COVID crisis. It was an incredible opportunity to have our very talented engineers working alongside the Microsoft consultants setting up this cutting-edge system.”
Using Windows Virtual Desktops has several advantages compared to onsite labs, as it will allow SIT to easily scale up resources to adapt to class numbers and offers granular cost management not possible with purchased hardware. “With this system we can deploy more capacity within minutes, rather than having to purchase new custom workstations which takes weeks” Elder said. “Not to mention that custom workstations have been near-impossible to procure since January anyway, seeing as 95% of them are built in factories in Wuhan.”