The Independent Institute of Education (IIE) is South Africa's largest registered and accredited private higher education provider. Varsity College is a brand of the IIE, with 10 locations within the country. The IIE is a private higher education provider and a subsidiary of ADvTECH Ltd, a public company listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. Their scale and status assure their leading position in the higher education sector in South Africa.


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I connected with Sarina Till, the Head of the School for IT at The IIE’s Varsity College. They have been using Azure Lab Services since March 2020 because they wanted to avoid managing the complexities,  operational work, and costs of maintaining their on-premises physical labs. Around the same time, Covid-19 pandemic shutdown restrictions further validated their decision to continue using it to accommodate their students' remote teaching and learning.


Their student registration for the current semester has shot up by 35%, and they were in desperate need to have all the students use Azure Lab Services instead of the on-premises labs. The CFO for the institution was thrilled about not having to invest in building additional capacity in the on-premises lab but rather having students use labs in the Cloud via the Azure lab services. With explosive student growth, they have settled to continue with Azure Lab Services as the permanent replacement as opposed to investing further in the on-premises labs.


The service is primarily used for Computer Science and IT programs for courses in Java, C#, SQL/Database Management, Cloud Development, and Android Mobile App development.


Sarina is using a single Azure subscription, and it took her just one week to set up all the labs compared to the 6 weeks it used to take her previously to configure the on-premises labs. They have provisioned around 1000 virtual machines and use a virtual machine SKU with four vCPUs, 16 GB of RAM, and 128GB of disk space. Their labs are set up in the Azure's Western Europe Data Center. They have not seen any lag or performance degradation for the labs or the contained virtual machines. They plan to continue to add more virtual machines into their online labs for additional enrolled students.


According to Sarina, the service has made IT's job much easier, and they had this to say about the Azure Lab Services:

"It was the best decision ever, and I have not had any complaints about slow PCs or stuff being blocked by the GPO at all this year."


"ALS is definitely easier, and I used to always get called for speed and admin issues and keep looking for workarounds, this is better. "We have a lot fewer queries now, so yes 100% it's better on us lol thank you, hope it's here to stay"


While The IIE’s Varsity College still has labs on campus, these are only used to access the ALS labs/VMs. This year, they no longer install any IDE SDKs, etc., on the physical campus lab machines. They have created customized images for each year of their degree program and have added these to the Azure compute gallery to use across all their campuses with Azure Lab Services.


As a teaching faculty member, she is happy to provide a customized environment to her students in the Azure Lab Services for her courses and is not constrained by the on-premises labs' group policies. That also means that she doesn't have to work with the on-campus IT to reconfigure on-campus labs for the courses she teaches. This is a huge win for her as an educator.  


Sarina shared some feedback from her colleagues who have been using the service in their classes:


"Students are loving the VMs as they get to practice at home and on campus....My experience in class...It's less issues, as I don't need IT in class...It's great that students have ownership of their own space...."


"It has made life easy for me and my students with access to software with no need to re-install and configure in my own PC.


As a part of our chat, we also discussed on-premises network configuration for using the service, performance improvements, virtual machine shutdowns, tracking student virtual machine usage, and the ability to republish the labs without overwriting the current virtual machines. They are interested in over-the-shoulder capability where the instructor can see the student's virtual machine UI and, if needed, remotely control a student's virtual machine. We also chatted about graphical remote access for Ubuntu machines using and Wayland.  


The IIE’s Varsity College is looking forward to continuing to use, expand, and optimize the service for accomodating additional enrolled students in their Computer Science and IT programs.