This guide provides an overview of desktop virtualization technologies—options for delivering secure, agile, easy-to-manage, full-fidelity desktop experiences to end users on any device.
What is desktop virtualization?
Desktop virtualization creates a software-based (or virtual) version of an end user’s desktop environment and operating system (OS) that is decoupled from the end user’s computing device or client. This enables the user to access his or her desktop from any computing device.
There are three typical deployment models for desktop virtualization:
Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI)
In virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), the operating system runs on a virtual machine (VM) hosted on a server in a data center. The desktop image travels over the network to the end user’s device, where the end user can interact with the desktop (and the underlying applications and operating system) as if they were local.
VDI gives each user his or her own dedicated VM running its own operating system. The operating system resources—drivers, CPUs, memory, etc.—operate from a software layer called a hypervisor that mimics their output, manages the resource allocation to multiple VMs, and allows them to run side by side on the same server.
A key benefit of VDI is that it can deliver the Windows 10 desktop and operating system to the end user’s devices. However, because VDI supports only one user per Windows 10 instance, it requires a separate VM for each Windows 10 user.
Remote desktop services (RDS)
In remote desktop services (RDS)—also known as Remote Desktop Session Host (RDSH)—users remotely access desktops and Windows applications through the Microsoft Windows Server operating system. Applications and desktop images are served via Microsoft Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP). Formerly known as Microsoft Terminal Server, this product has remained largely unchanged since its initial release.
From the end user’s perspective, RDS and VDI are identical. But because one instance of Windows Server can support as many simultaneous users as the server hardware can handle, RDS can be a more cost-effective desktop virtualization option. It’s also worth noting applications tested or certified to run on Windows 10 may not be tested or certified to run on the Windows Server OS.
In desktop as a service (DaaS), VMs are hosted on a cloud-based backend by a third-party provider. DaaS is readily scalable, can be more flexible than on-premise solutions, and generally deploys faster than many other desktop virtualization options.
Like other types of cloud desktop virtualization, DaaS shares many of the general benefits of cloud computing, including support for fluctuating workloads and changing storage demands, usage-based pricing, and the ability to make applications and data accessible from almost any internet-connected device. The chief drawback to DaaS is that features and configurations are not always as customizable as required.
Virtualizing desktops provides many potential benefits that can vary depending upon the deployment model you choose. Some of possible benefits are as follows:
- Simpler administration: Desktop virtualization can make it easier for IT teams to manage employee computing needs. Your business can maintain a single VM template for employees within similar roles or functions instead of maintaining individual computers that must be reconfigured, updated, or patched whenever software changes need to be made. This saves time and IT resources.
- Cost savings: Many virtual desktop solutions allow you to shift more of your IT budget from capital expenditures to operating expenditures. Because compute-intensive applications require less processing power when they’re delivered via VMs hosted on a data center server, desktop virtualization can extend the life of older or less powerful end-user devices. On-premise virtual desktop solutions may require a significant initial investment in server hardware, hypervisor software, and other infrastructure, making cloud-based DaaS—wherein you simply pay a regular usage-based charge—a more attractive option.
- Improved productivity: Desktop virtualization makes it easier for employees to access enterprise computing resources. They can work anytime, anywhere, from any supported device with an Internet connection.
- Support for a broad variety of device types: Virtual desktops can support remote desktop access from a wide variety of devices, including laptop and desktop computers, thin clients, zero clients, tablets, and even some mobile phones. You can use virtual desktops to deliver workstation-like experiences and access to the full desktop anywhere, anytime, regardless of the operating system native to the end user device.
- Stronger security: In desktop virtualization, the desktop image is abstracted and separated from the physical hardware used to access it, and the VM used to deliver the desktop image can be a tightly controlled environment managed by the enterprise IT department.
- Agility and scalability: It’s quick and easy to deploy new VMs or serve new applications whenever necessary, and it is just as easy to delete them when they’re no longer needed.
- Better end-user experiences: When you implement desktop virtualization, your end users will enjoy a feature-rich experience without sacrificing functionality they’ve come to rely on, like printing or access to USB ports.
The software required for delivering virtual desktops depends on the virtualization method you chose.
With virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), the desktop operating system (most commonly Microsoft Windows) runs and is managed in the data center. Hypervisor software runs on the host server, delivering access to a VM to each end user over the network. Connection broker software is required to authenticate users, connect each to a virtual machine, monitor activity levels, and reassign the VM when the connection is terminated. Connection brokers may be bundled with, or purchased separately from, the hypervisor.
Remote desktop services (RDS/RDSH) can be implemented using utilities that are bundled with the Microsoft Windows Server operating system.
If you choose a Desktop-as-a-Service (DaaS) solution, all software installation, configuration, and maintenance will be handled by the DaaS cloud-hosted service provider. This includes applications, operating systems, files, and user preferences.
How to choose: VDI vs. RDS vs. DaaS
VDI is a popular choice because it offers a virtualized version of a familiar computing model—physical desktop computing. But implementing VDI requires you to manage all aspects of the infrastructure yourself, including the hardware, operating systems and applications, and hypervisor and associated software. This can be challenging if your VDI experience and expertise is limited. Purchasing all infrastructure components can require a larger upfront investment.
RDS/RDSH can be a solid choice if it supports the specific applications you need to run and your end users only need access to those applications, not full Windows desktops. RDS offers greater end-user density per server than VDI, and systems are usually cheaper and more scalable than full VDI environments. Your staff does need the requisite skill set and experience to administer and manage RDS/RDSH technology, however.
DaaS is currently gaining in popularity as IT teams grow more comfortable with shared desktops and shared applications. Overall, it tends to be the most cost-effective option. It’s also the easiest to administer, requiring little in-house expertise in managing infrastructure or VDI. It’s readily scalable and involves operating expenditures rather than capital expenditures, a more affordable cost structure for many businesses.
Desktop virtualization and IBM Cloud
The roots of virtualization lie in mainframe computing, and IBM invented the hypervisor to test software on its mainframes in the 1960s. Today, IBM supports a full range of virtualization solutions, including virtual desktops.
If you’re looking to build your own VDI environment, you can do so with IBM Cloud IaaS solutions. IBM offers a full-stack cloud platform that includes all the components you’d need to build your own VDI environment, including virtualized compute, network, and storage. You’d need to install and manage the hypervisor yourself in this scenario.
In partnership with VMware, IBM offers customer-managed and partially VMware-managed VDI solutions and a fully-managed virtual Desktop as a Service (DaaS) solution, delivering desktops and applications hosted on the IBM Cloud platform.
The graphic below offers a comparative overview of the options:
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