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What Are Virtual Desktops?

Virtual desktops are a form of desktop environment that users can access remotely from a variety of endpoint clients. The desktop itself is a preconfigured operating system image that runs as a virtual machine on a host. This host can run many of these machines at the same time. Virtual desktops are useful because they allow users to access their working environment from a laptop, tablet or smartphone, and system administrators have full control over the virtual desktop configuration.

Types of Virtual Desktops

There are several different kinds of virtual desktops and different virtualization techniques that can be employed in their creation. Virtual desktop technology can be categorized as Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI), Remote Desktop Services (RDS) or Desktop as a Service (DaaS). These solutions can be used to deliver persistent or non-persistent desktops.

VDI solutions are typically hosted in-house and can be used to deploy virtual desktops running a variety of different operating systems on one piece of hardware. Licensing requirements for VDI solutions can vary depending on the type of software being run. Overall, VDI is a powerful and flexible option but one that carries more technical overheads for the organization.

RDS is similar to VDI in that it is usually managed in-house. With RDS, the host machine is running Windows Server and the virtual desktops are Windows-based. Each unique client must have a license. RDS is generally seen as easier to administrate than other VDI solutions, but there is still some time and labor required to set up and manage the system. It's important to note that RDS is not available for Windows 10. However, Windows 10 offers a feature known as Windows 10 Enterprise Multi-Session, which allows Windows 10 Enterprise installations to run multiple interactive sessions on a single host.

DaaS solutions are typically outsourced. Rather than managing their own hardware and virtualization technologies, organizations subscribe to a cloud-hosted DaaS solution. This removes the responsibility for managing licensing issues, installation and management from the organization. DaaS can be a convenient solution for both large and small organizations that don't want to manage this aspect of their IT in-house.

Persistent Desktops

When persistent desktops are deployed, each user has access to a unique virtual desktop image that saves its state between uses. This means a user can access their virtual desktop environment from their device, do work or make changes to a setting in an application, and save the status of the virtual desktop so it can be resumed later. Persistent desktops are often used for remote workers who need access to specialized applications on the go.

Persistent desktops require more storage than their non-persistent counterparts and therefore also take more time and effort to back up. There can also be additional licensing costs depending on the software and operating systems being run. However, from the end user's perspective, persistent desktops offer an experience similar to running an operating system directly on their device.

Non-persistent Desktops

Non-persistent desktops do not save their state. Each time the user logs in, they're presented with a clean, preconfigured virtual environment. Any changes the user makes are not preserved. Non-persistent desktops require less storage than persistent desktops, and can also be useful from a technical support or software-testing perspective because the users are presented with the same configuration each time they access the system.

How Do Virtual Desktops Work?

Virtual desktops are a form of virtual machine (VM) that runs on top of virtualization software. This software abstracts the operating system from the underlying host hardware. Using virtualization software, it's possible to run multiple operating systems on a single machine. The virtualization software manages and controls the guest operating system's access to resources.

How to Use Virtual Desktops

From an end user's perspective, virtual desktops offer a similar experience to using an operating system running on bare metal. The user still sees the start bar, icons, ribbons or other UI elements associated with that operating system. The key difference is that to log in to the virtual desktop, the user either has to launch a client application such as Citrix Workspace, or access the VM through their web browser.

Benefits of Virtual Desktops

Virtual desktops can offer a variety of benefits, including:

  • Reduced hardware costs since users can access sophisticated tools using "thin clients"
  • Increased scalability, because spinning up virtual desktops is quicker than deploying physical hardware
  • Improved security thanks to the relative ease of revoking log-in rights to the remote desktops
  • Reduced technical support burdens due to the ease of updating and managing virtual machines
  • Convenient backup and disaster recovery options

VDI vs. VM

VDIs and VMs are closely related. A VM is a virtualized computing environment that runs on a host machine, making use of a hypervisor to communicate with the underlying hardware. VDI is a form of desktop virtualization that uses virtual machines to provision those virtual desktops.

Choosing the Right Virtual Desktop

There are several different ways to create and manage virtual desktops. Which option will work for you depends on the size of your organization, the level of in-house IT expertise and hardware you have access to, and your budget.

Consider VDI if:

  • You already have the hardware and infrastructure to support VDI
  • Your IT team has the time and expertise required to manage the deployment of VMs
  • You want to run virtual desktops with different operating systems or highly specialized software
  • You need full control over the virtual environments

Consider RDS if:

  • Your organization is already heavily invested in the Windows ecosystem
  • Your virtual desktops will be running Windows
  • You have the required in-house resources to support this deployment
  • You have the budget available for any required licenses

Consider DaaS if:

  • Your organization does not have access to the hardware and infrastructure required to deploy virtual desktops
  • Your in-house IT team is small or does not have the required expertise for these deployments
  • You want to provide access to relatively common operating systems and applications
  • You want a predictable subscription pricing model that covers all your virtual desktop-related needs

How to Get Started

Common cloud virtual desktop solutions include Azure Virtual Desktop and Citrix DaaS. Citrix also offers an IT-managed VDI solution. If you're considering deploying virtual desktops in your organization, first consider your infrastructure and in-house capabilities. DaaS solutions are quick and easy to get started with.

If you decide to host your VDI in-house, consider the resources available on your host machines and the type of software you plan to run. Windows Remote Desktop Services can be a good option for companies that already run Windows Server and are looking to provision Windows Desktop services for their employees.

Some key things to consider during the deployment include whether each employee will have a persistent virtual desktop environment, or whether the VM will be non-persistent and employees will have access to a network drive to store any personal files. In addition, consider how users will access their virtual desktops. Some solutions, such as Kasm, use a combination of containers and browser-based clients to provide access to virtual desktops. Others might require dedicated client software.

Whatever solution you choose, you'll need the right tools and systems in place to manage the virtual machines and access control lists, updates and backups. Veeam Backup and Replication can help streamline the process of backing up and restoring Hyper-V virtual machines.

If you'd like to know more about how Veeam can assist with backups and disaster recovery for your VDI deployments, contact us to book a free demonstration.

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