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Otago’s “virtual desktop” is a crowd pleaser

Wednesday, 12 April 2017 2:50pm

Anywhere, any time … Information Technology Services Teaching and Learning Facilities Manager Emerson Pratt logs on to Otago’s virtual desktop on three different devices at the top of Signal Hill in Dunedin. Photo: Sharron Bennett.

A virtual desktop is so popular with Otago students and staff, they log on 1.4 million times a year, with about 80 per cent of students using it to access applications and storage provided by the University.

Otago’s virtual desktop was the first for any university in New Zealand and provides access to about 150 specialised applications any time, anywhere, on any device with internet access and a browser, Information Technology Services Teaching and Learning Facilities Manager Emerson Pratt says.

Roaming at high speed

The desktop saves students and staff on all our campuses from being anchored to campus computer rooms or their offices to use applications they need for their study or work – and means they do not have to buy the expensive applications themselves.

Otago’s virtual desktop provides access to the University’s high-speed servers, so the applications run as fast as possible, even on older phones and laptops that could never run the application by themselves.

Staff and students have logged on from between 30 to 40 countries annually since the desktop was created three years ago – mostly from New Zealand, followed by Australia and the United States.

Students can also log on from the side of a mountain while doing fieldwork and load data into statistical analyses applications then get preliminary results immediately, cell phone reception allowing.

Students using their own devices create 35 per cent of the traffic on the desktop, and that ratio is climbing, Mr Pratt says.

Apps attract

The applications available can do everything from help teach maths to seven-year-olds (for the College of Education) and storing and managing references and citations for bibliographies to using specialist statistical software to analyse very large data sets, and overlaying detailed maps with a host of information about the population, minerals and climate in the area.

People usually stay logged on to the desktop for about an hour at a time on average and at least 10 people are using the desktop at all times – day or night – even on Christmas Day.

The desktop won the Supreme Award at the Microsoft Tertiary ICT Innovation Awards in 2015, after winning in the category of Excellence in Technology Innovation.

Now, other institutions ask Mr Pratt about how to scope a desktop project, then pitch it and introduce it successfully.

“We’ve had visits from universities from New Zealand, Hong Kong and Australia to hear about our desktop project, and over 20 video conferences with universities from around the globe in the past three years.”

What do we want?

He says Otago came up with the idea when the desktop it had been using with Windows XP was nearing the end of its useful life and Information Technology Services (ITS) staff started asking people what they wanted.

“The word ‘mobility’ kept coming up all the time when we were talking to students and staff.”

While only about 14 per cent of students had laptops when the original desktop was launched in 1999, that had climbed to 72 per cent by 2008 and kept rising to more than 98 per cent in 2011 - “we were dealing with students with phones and laptops”.

Students also wanted the desktop to work faster, but did not know what else was possible, Mr Pratt says.

What is on offer?

So ITS and some partners ran expos to show staff and students what their vison of the future might look like. Students saw applications they wanted to use but could not afford running quickly on their six-year-old laptops, while staff saw applications they wanted to base student assignments on running on cheap cell phones and tablets, making mobile learning possible.

In demand

The first month the desktop was operating, it hosted more than 73,000 log-ins from 32 countries, including almost 11,000 unique users. Those users spent more than 71,000 hours using the desktop, for 53 minutes at a time on average.

People also started saving time immediately because it had taken up to six minutes to log on to the old desktop but took about 30 seconds on average to log on to the new one.

ITS suddenly noticed another phenomenon as well – “we started getting staff asking ‘when do we get to use it?’ Staff heard about students being able to access all these resources from any device anywhere and wanted to do the same,” says Mr Pratt.


He worked out that if the people logging on were paid a minimum wage, they would have saved a combined $700,000 in a year - more than 50,000 hours - through the reduction in log-on times alone, compared to the old system.

Students studying computer-intensive subjects probably log on several times a day, while some other students may only log on while writing essays or using a specific application, he says.

The virtual desktop also saves time for people in departments like Geography where staff use it.

They no longer have to set up computers from scratch every time they get new ones, they simply log on to the desktop and find everything still there - and the department gets the hardware as part of the package so does not have to worry about buying and maintaining computers.

Having the desktop has meant hardware in our computer rooms lasts longer as well, because those computers use the virtual desktop and its servers so they never become too slow. Instead, they are usually only replaced when their parts start breaking down.

The future

The University of Otago’s desktop currently runs Windows 7 but ITS hopes to offer Windows 10 in the next year or two.

ITS also has plans to create an ‘app store’ so staff and students can select any open source or university-wide licensed software they want to use from a menu.

And more academic departments are asking to move their staff on to the virtual desktop because of the advantages it offers, Mr Pratt says.

The Virtual Desktop – the IT-speak


  • Uses Citrix and Microsoft technologies
  • XenDesktop virtual desktop
  • XenApp hosted shared desktop
  • App-V streaming applications

48 physical blades

  • Cisco Blades
  • 280 XenApp Servers (140 in each data centre)
  • 694 Windows VMs used for Exams
  • 4 dedicated high specification rack mounted graphic servers used for 3D rendering: ArcGIS, Simulation software etc

EMC XtremIO Solid State Storage

  • 300 microseconds latency (0.0003 seconds)