The Evolution of Cloud Desktops
By Robb Henshaw, Cameyo
If you’re looking for ways to support hybrid work or give your users secure remote access to all the software they need to be productive, you’ve almost certainly evaluated Virtual Desktops.
But, just like Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) itself, evaluating the expanse of 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.
As we dig into the history of Virtual Desktops and their evolution to today’s Cloud Desktops, it’s helpful to start with the origin of legacy Virtual Desktops.
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 only gave it increased urgency.
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 teasing out the differences between Virtual Desktops and remote desktops can be like splitting hairs, the distinction is 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.
For example, VDI often goes hand in hand with virtual private networks (VPNs) which allow users to “tunnel” through the organization’s firewall and onto the internal network in order to access their Virtual Desktop.
Unfortunately, VPNs are challenging to set up, require dedicated hardware and software, and they introduce major security risks.
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 who are 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 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. Generally, DaaS provides more APIs for extensibility and smoother integration with other cloud services, including IdPs for user authentication. Those are all pluses.
But at its heart, DaaS remains very close to classic VDI with a few cloud-friendly tweaks. Well-known desktop service solutions like Azure Virtual Desktop (AVD) 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 just a pool of company-issued thin clients?
Virtual App Delivery (VAD) emerged as the natural answer to those questions. By removing the longstanding dependency on the Windows operating system and all that entails, VAD marks the evolution from Virtual Desktops to truly cloud-native Cloud Desktops. Organizations can implement VAD-based Cloud Desktops to deliver select Windows apps to their remote users, of course, but now they can do so without all the administrative and infrastructural overhead.
Cloud Desktops are able to take this streamlined approach because they are fully cloud native solutions. They do not rely on legacy technology that’s been retrofitted to incorporate cloud services; they were designed to capitalize on the latest cloud technologies for unparalleled cost savings, security, flexibility and ease of use.
Benefits of Virtual App-based Cloud Desktops include:
Secure – Cloud Desktops are typically built with Zero Trust security models that separate apps from individual devices, segment devices from your corporate network, prevent lateral movement, and more.
Flexibility – Because Cloud Desktops deliver apps without relying on the Windows operating system, you can customize your digital workspaces for specific apps and workloads.
User Friendly – For end users, Cloud Desktops make accessing their apps from any device as simple as clicking on a browser bookmark or accessing the app as a PWA, with nothing new to learn from the user’s perspective.
Device agnostic – To access apps via Cloud Desktops, all users need is a modern HTML5 browser like Chrome or Firefox. Cloud Desktops run just as smoothly on macOS, Windows OS and Linux computers as it does on Android and iOS mobile devices.
Cost-effective – With lower CapEx and OpEx relative to both VDI and DaaS, Cloud Desktops can typically enable remote & hybrid productivity for a fraction of the cost of traditional VDI/DaaS.
More Evidence of the Shift to Cloud Desktops
In 2021, according to the “VDI Like a Pro” survey on the state of end-user computing, the breakdown between orgs using Virtual Desktops and orgs using Virtual App-centric Cloud desktops was 67% (Virtual Desktops) to 33% (Virtual App Delivery/Cloud Desktops). But when asked what their plans were in the next two years, 17% of orgs who were utilizing legacy Virtual Desktop solutions stated that they planned to retire those Virtual Desktops and migrate to virtual app-centric Cloud Desktops. That 17% combined with the 33% who have already made the switch puts the split between legacy Virtual Desktops and Virtual App Delivery/Cloud Desktops at 50/50.
Making the choice: Which virtualization products are right for you?
Because every organization is unique, their workflows and workforces will differ, sometimes even from department to department. To figure out which virtualization software is the best fit, start by asking yourself and your team what your organization is trying to accomplish.
What do your users need to be most productive? Complete desktops or select apps?
Do you have the resources to purchase and manage the infrastructure required for desktop and/or app virtualization?
Would you prefer to keep things in-house or shift the heavy lifting to the cloud?
You might be surprised to find that your users’ needs are best met by a combination of virtualization tools and hosting methods. In many cases for large enterprises, >10% of users might require a full desktop virtualization solution (for specific workloads, like heavy video editing). But 90% of users usually only need access to 8-10 business-critical apps so that they can be productive form anywhere and on any device.
Regardless of the solution (or mix of solutions) that you identify, the most critical question is this: How important are cost, complexity and security to you? Let’s break that down.
Cost: The total cost of any virtualization solution is the sum of its licensing, administration, infrastructure as well as its effects on productivity. Of all the available options, VAD tends to be the most budget friendly. It’s less resource intensive and more flexible/versatile.
Complexity: The average user doesn’t always know an operating system from a CPU. Most IT teams are already overtasked and don’t want to manage more infrastructure. That’s why ease of use and simplicity of deployment are key for any virtualization solution. Virtual App-based Cloud Desktops are superior on both counts because of their user-friendliness and low IT overhead.
Security: A number of virtualization technologies make use of always-open ports or virtual private networks (VPNs), which unfortunately create several risks. Hackers have learned to exploit these vulnerabilities, leading to a rise in ransomware attacks. Cloud Desktops typically utilize Zero Trust security models to thwart malicious attacks without sacrificing ease of access.