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What is a virtual desktop?

A virtual desktop is a workstation existing in a virtual form that’s separated from physical devices that use it. The virtual desktop provides a preconfigured view of operating systems and applications that can be accessed on different online devices through wifi connections.

The prime attraction of a virtual desktop is that it can be accessed remotely through any endpoint device that a user may be using. So, throughout a workday, the same user could check her virtual desktop on a laptop, tablet, computer or smartphone; and each time the user experience would be identical to what appears on the physical Windows server and offer complete compatibility across platforms.

That experience is not just aligned with a variety of platforms—in many cases, a virtual desktop can optimize user experience when compared to a physical workstation because the virtual desktop environment can access extra storage and other resources as needed.

Although originally limited to being able to cater to only a single workstation, virtual desktop technology has progressed to enable multiple users to operate workspaces on a shared system.

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How do virtual desktops work?

Building and configuring virtual desktops that can support multiple user workstations is complicated and it typically requires software that is written and installed by a third-party client. The virtual desktop can be customized or built according to that company's particular needs and specifications.

A virtual desktop is a piece of customized infrastructure, as generated by various virtual desktop providers. Some of the most popular creators of virtual desktops are Citrix (and its VDI Solutions product), Microsoft (Azure) and VMware (Horizon).

Regardless of proprietor, the steps that are involved in creating virtual desktop infrastructure are roughly similar. First, the virtual desktop provider builds a virtual machine to be hosted on-premises or within cloud computing environments by using desktop virtualization software that essentially clones the company’s hardware.

When a virtual desktop is installed on-premises, a piece of software that is known as a hypervisor is created to manage the real-time process of simultaneously enabling multiple users to access the virtual desktop. If a virtual desktop is installed in cloud environments, the hypervisor and all of the infrastructure are re-created in the cloud, where the virtual machine can be fully accessed.

Computing resources are governed and allocated by either the hypervisor or the public cloud, depending on whether the virtual desktop is being operated on-premises or through a public cloud account (such as FreeBSD, Linux or Microsoft Windows 10).

What are the types of virtual desktops?

Virtual desktops are classified in one of two categories, according to whether or not they’re designed to retain information in an ongoing fashion: persistent desktops or nonpersistent desktops.

  • Nonpersistent desktops are workspaces designed to be used for an undefined period of time before being effectively discarded. A user utilizes a nonpersistent desktop as a temporary workstation before leaving it to be completely reset for the next user, who then inherits a “clean slate” upon which to work.
  • Persistent desktops are used when more permanence is needed. A persistent desktop is configured for a particular individual’s use and every action that a person makes while using the persistent desktop workstation is captured. When that user returns to that persistent desktop, all of their previous changes remain intact. Persistent desktops are best suited to projects that require ongoing interaction.

A persistent desktop offers a more personalized experience since the user can customize it with their own data and apps and their own visual imagery. Nonpersistent virtual desktops are more generic in style and feature one consistent desktop image.

From an administrative perspective, persistent desktops and nonpersistent desktops differ in how they must be handled. Persistent desktops require more storage due to the amount of customization and associated data that must be stored for the user to have a personalized experience each time they access the virtual desktop.

And since a persistent virtual desktop is meant to be used over time, administrators also must be involved with making regular software updates for those persistent desktops and determining how to manage the added storage of saved workloads.

For reasons of practicality, in many use cases, nonpersistent desktops are often seen as the more attractive option for organizations to implement.

What are the benefits of virtual desktops?

The primary benefits that virtual desktops offer are enhanced convenience and added utility. The ability to access a perfectly idealized desktop from any online location over any standard device is invaluable, both to salespeople operating in the field or anybody who may need to perform remote work in alternative locations.

This group could include temporary labor that is engaged in seasonal work. These workers can often bring and use their own devices to access the virtual desktop, which can help support IT budgets by lowering equipment costs. Similarly, significant savings can be achieved by using older PCs as virtual desktop endpoints.

Another prime benefit is that remote desktops are often better equipped than physical desktops because virtual desktops can call upon online resources that physical desktops can’t. Furthermore, because virtual desktop data is stored in the data center instead of on physical machines, a greater measure of data security control is possible.

How does virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) support graphics and gaming?

Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) is a type of desktop virtualization, while a virtual desktop is an overarching term that covers any technology that separates the desktop and hardware. One of the main benefits of virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) is graphical software enhancements that allow large, oversized graphics (such as maps) to be displayed in a more accessible format (through a giant virtual screen) by expanding the display screen.

This is accomplished in one of two ways:

  • By integrating switchable virtual desktops that function in a manner similar to clicking between multiple views on a Windows desktop.

  • By expanding the screen size beyond the dimensions of whatever device is being used and then providing a means of scrolling through the graphic so the user can navigate the entire virtual desktop.

“Streamer” apps are designed to showcase virtual desktops and other content within a large, sweeping perspective. Some of these apps even contain interfaces that are designed expressly to showcase certain visual displays. For example, one such app (link resides outside ibm.com) provides an interface shaped like the inside of a movie theater for displaying streaming content from providers such as Netflix.

Virtual desktops are also used to enhance the immersive gaming experience and support the use of game headsets like Oculus Rift, Pico and HTC Vive. In addition to bringing incredible virtual environments to vivid life, virtual desktops help in maintaining low latency during gaming, thus safeguarding a high-performance gameplay.

Virtual desktops are able to deliver the extra computing power that is needed to run PC Virtual Reality (PCVR) games and SteamVR (which enables users to manage multiple parts of the VR gaming experience) with enough processing power to operate hardware like Nvidia graphics boards and AX wifi routers.


What is a hypervisor?

A hypervisor is a piece of specially written software that is designed to aid the process of desktop virtualization by serving as a type of automated resource manager. The hypervisor assigns resources to each virtual desktop according to their current needs. The hypervisor serves as the bridge between the physical hardware and the cloned hardware of the virtual machines and it is therefore the component that enables desktop virtualization.

What is virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI)?

Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) is the creation and management of desktop environments and applications that allow employees to work and access applications and services outside the office, in the office, or from a remote location. VDI is a type of virtual desktop, as desktop virtualization is an overarching term that covers any technology that separates the desktop and hardware.

What is desktop as a service?

Desktop as a service (DaaS) is a less compute-intensive version of VDI and it describes a situation in which a service provider hosts virtual desktop workloads on the cloud through the backend of VDI deployment. While DaaS offers many of the same attributes as VDI (such as enhanced security and the ability to work remotely), DaaS pricing is more competitive than VDI since DaaS requires less up-front investment in infrastructure.

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Resources What are hypervisors?

A hypervisor is a small software layer that enables multiple instances of operating systems to run alongside each other, sharing the same physical computing resources.

What is desktop-as-a-service (DaaS)?

Desktop-as-a-service (DaaS) is a way of delivering complete virtual desktop environments to users including operating systems, applications, files and user preferences from the cloud.

What is desktop virtualization?

This video walks one through the benefits of virtual desktops and how they can cut costs on infrastructure, increase flexibility and secure an organization's most valuable data.

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Dizzion Managed DaaS on IBM Cloud helps enterprises build an agile, long-term remote work environment using cloud desktops to optimize end-user performance, security and compliance. The solution can support a variety of challenging use cases, including streaming voice and video, compliant personal devices and media-intense workloads.

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