If you’re looking for ways to support hybrid work or just give users remote access to productivity software, you’ve certainly come across virtual desktops as a suggested solution.
But, just like virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) itself, evaluating different virtual desktop solutions can be a little more complicated than it first appears. The remote desktop solutions of just five short years ago are not the virtual desktops of today. Digital workspaces have evolved as the world moves to the cloud, and the way organizations deliver software to their remote users is changing.
Before we look at where virtual desktops are now and where they’re headed, it’s helpful to know how they started.
What exactly is a virtual desktop?
Remote users might be more common these days, but they aren’t a new phenomenon. Ever since the advent of the personal computer, organizations have had a growing need to provide end users with some form of remote computing environment. That need accelerated as mobile devices became more widespread. The pandemic gave it increased urgency.
Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) first gained popularity as an early way to support the end-user computing (EUC) model. VDI is a server-based computing paradigm wherein the operating system—usually some version of Microsoft Windows—is not run on the local machine. Instead, the operating system is run as part of a virtual machine (VM) on a hypervisor server in a data center. This host server is often (but not always) located on-premises for reasons of security and management.
Because all the actual computing for the virtual desktop environment is done on the data center server, VDI makes it possible to use endpoint devices that might have reduced processing power and limited functionality. These are called thin clients. Endpoint devices known as zero clients have no independent capabilities and can only run the virtual operating system.
And though the differences between virtual desktops and remote desktops can be like splitting hairs, the distinction can be important. Whereas VDI solutions provide a desktop via the hypervisor virtual machine, solutions that leverage Microsoft’s Remote Desktop Services (RDS) work a bit more like sharing software from one machine to another.
The long legacy of VDI
As a pre-cloud virtualization technology, VDI set the tone for how individuals and organizations thought of virtual desktops for many years. This idea was still very much centered around replicating the familiar user experience by virtualizing the entire operating system (OS), whether Windows or Linux, on remote endpoints. Even if end users just needed one or two Microsoft Office apps for their particular workloads, they still had to interact with the full OS.
IT departments have also had to go to great lengths to make that happen. The operative word in the VDI acronym is infrastructure: Above and beyond the basic VDI platform, separate solutions are almost always needed to enhance functionality like remote access and authentication.
VDI is also surprisingly costly. There are hardware expenses (e.g., virtual machine servers, license servers, storage servers, load balancers, server peripherals) as well as operating expenses (e.g., deployment, maintenance, upgrade). In fact, most VDI implementations require a permanent team of IT professionals dedicated to overseeing and administering the solution. This explains why, even as far back as 2013, industry analysts were saying “the numbers won’t work” when trying to justify VDI from a budgeting standpoint. That’s still the case today.
However, because they provided the virtual desktop functionality that so many organizations needed, VDI solutions like Parallels, Citrix and VMware Horizon did gain a foothold in the enterprise and became almost synonymous with the technology itself.
DaaS: VDI enters the cloud
With the advent of cloud computing came desktop-as-a-service (DaaS), a shift that caused the idea of virtual desktops to morph a little.
DaaS took the footprint of on-premises infrastructure and moved it into the cloud, where it acquired some of the advantages that cloud platforms are known for—things like better scalability, faster disaster recovery, automatic updates, less management overhead and more predictable pricing.
But at its heart, DaaS remains very close to classic VDI with a few cloud-friendly tweaks. Well-known desktop service solutions like Windows Virtual Desktop (WVD), now rebranded as Azure Virtual Desktop, still revolve around the operating system and aim to mimic the local PC user experience. The complexity of management doesn’t go away, either, which is why solution providers have sprung up with dedicated IT teams to help organizations manage their DaaS solutions.
Like VDI, DaaS can also suffer from latency. As much as you might try to optimize every variable in the chain, you’re still trying to recreate a local Windows desktop environment over a standard Internet connection.
VAD: The evolution from virtual desktops to cloud desktops
Then software innovators started asking important questions: Why does a virtual desktop have to be tied to an operating system in the first place? Why can’t it be tailored to individual end-users and unique use cases instead of being dependent on Windows OS? Shouldn’t a true cloud-based digital workspace work with every device rather than a pool of company-issued thin clients?
Virtual app delivery (VAD) was the natural answer to those questions. By removing the longstanding dependency on the Windows operating system and all that entails, VAD marks a significant evolution from virtual desktops to cloud desktops. Organizations can implement VAD solutions to deliver select Windows apps to their remote users, of course, but now they can do so without all the administrative and infrastructural overhead.
VAD is able to take this streamlined approach because it’s fully cloud native. It’s not a legacy technology that’s been retrofitted to incorporate cloud services; it was designed to capitalize on the latest cloud technologies for unparalleled cost savings, security, flexibility and ease of use.
If you are looking to implement VDI, Azure Virtual Desktop or Cloud Desktop in your business, we can help. Network Connections, (NCI) has years of experience with these technologies and we can help.
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