Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) is a technology that delivers virtual desktop operating systems or applications to users remotely. VDI in the cloud is also known as Desktop-as-a-Service (DaaS). It is a cloud service in which a third-party vendor hosts the back-end of a VDI deployment.
DaaS enables desktop operating systems to run on virtual machines in a public cloud provider's data centers. All the supporting infrastructure you need, including network and storage resources, is also hosted in the cloud. Like local VDI, end users can access their virtual desktop or application through client software installed on their local device or a web browser.
Desktop-as-a-service provides all the advantages of a virtual office infrastructure, including remote office support, enhanced security, and simplified desktop management.
DaaS is immediately available and is billed on a pay per use basis. This eliminates the significant initial investment in computing, storage, and network infrastructure needed to set up VDI in your local data center. However, there are two caveats:
- Hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI) built for VDI is driving down the costs of setting up virtual desktop infrastructure internally.
- Pay per use costs eventually add up and may even exceed the capital cost of implementing local VDI. In the long term, the true economic comparison is that of the ongoing maintenance costs of traditional VDI vs. the ongoing DaaS subscription fees.
In the remainder of this article, I briefly review nine options for deploying VDI as a cloud service, divided into two categories:
- First-party cloud VDI solutions—by Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, and IBM Cloud
- Third-party cloud VDI solutions—available on the public cloud but provided by third-party vendors
First Party VDI Solutions on the Public Cloud
Just like nobody was ever fired for buying an IBM, nobody has been fired (yet) for buying an off-the-shelf service from a cloud giant. All the major cloud providers offer robust and mature DaaS services—we'll review three solutions from AWS, Azure, and IBM cloud.
1. Amazon WorkSpaces
Amazon WorkSpaces is Amazon's secure, hosted cloud desktop service. It lets you serve virtual Windows or Linux desktops to thousands of users in a few minutes. You can pay for WorkSpaces employees actually use on an hourly or monthly basis.
Key features of Amazon WorkSpaces include:
- Bring your own license (BYOL)—allows you to leverage previous investments in Windows licenses if you meet criteria set by Microsoft and Amazon
- Active Directory—integrates with your existing Active Directory implementation to avoid having to create user accounts and policies from scratch.
- RADIUS—integrates with RADIUS multi-factor authentication servers.
- Persistent storage—each workspace provides persistent storage for that user, and all data is backed up on Amazon S3.
- WorkDocs Drive—an alternative to the default persistent storage, this is a managed service that lets you share content across the organization while allowing users to mount files locally and view them in Windows File Explorer.
2. Azure Windows Virtual Desktop
Azure Windows Virtual Desktop (WVD) replaces the legacy Microsoft VDI offering, Remote Desktop Services (RDS). It provides a fully managed VDI serving remote desktop sessions.
WVD is based on Microsoft 10 Multisession, a special version of Windows designed for the Azure service. It provides an authentic Windows 10 desktop experience (unlike other services which provide a Windows Service interface), and like other Azure services, offers a high level of security and compliance.
Key features of WVD include:
- Like WorkSpaces, provides BYOL for existing Windows and Office licenses
- Authentic Windows 10 experience, optimized for Office 365 Pro Plus
- Provides free security updates for Windows 7 virtual desktops
- Integrates with Microsoft Teams and OneDrive
- Fully integrated with Microsoft 365 security and management capabilities
3. IBM Cloud
The IBM Cloud DaaS offering is a VDI platform that supports virtual desktops for knowledge workers and power users or technical roles requiring accelerated hardware. Virtual desktops are priced at monthly or hourly rates.
Key features of IBM Cloud VDI include:
- Supports NVIDIA GRID GPUs, which can be used by multiple virtual desktops
- Supports up to 10Gbps network links
- Free file transfer between IBM's 46 regional data centers
- Supports specialized applications like CAD, manufacturing, media, and entertainment
- Provides both block- and file-based storage
- Fully encrypted communication between user devices and DaaS service
Third-Party Public Cloud Solutions
Several providers are offering innovative DaaS services over cloud infrastructure. Here are a few key players that are definitely worth a look.
A DaaS platform focused on providing GPU-enabled virtual desktops. It provides an innovative Compute-as-a-Service (CaaS) model for data scientists or other professionals who need to run heavy computational workloads in fields like AI/ML, predictive analytics, and financial modeling. Cloudalize can integrate with firewalls and provides HDX encryption. It supports GDPR, PCI/DSS, and other compliance standards.
NetApp Virtual Desktop Service
NetApp Virtual Desktop Service (VDS) is a VDI platform that organizations can run on any public cloud—including Microsoft Azure, with native support for WVD; Amazon Web Services; and Google Cloud Platform—as well as on-premises. Unlike other DaaS services, it lets the organization retain full control of the infrastructure and provides enterprise-grade performance.
dinWorkspace is a cloud-based VDI solution with a focus on remote access from a variety of devices, including bring your own device (BYOD), mobile phones, tablets, and laptops. It provides robust security features and complies with HIPAA, PCI/DSS, and other standards. Additional features include customizing the virtual desktop user interface, built-in backups, and file-sharing capabilities.
Evolve IP is yet another cloud-based VDI solution, with strong support for Microsoft Active Directory, and support for the PC over IP protocol, which lets users access their local peripherals. This also gives administrators more control over a user's local device and the ability to monitor and troubleshoot local issues. It integrates tightly with Microsoft applications, including Office and SharePoint, and provides built-in antivirus and two-factor authentication.
In this article, I discussed several compelling options for running VDI in the cloud, with no need to invest in heavy on-premises infrastructure. I covered the DaaS offering of three major cloud providers, AWS, Azure, and IBM, each of which offers an elegant and cost-effective solution to the VDI problem. I also reviewed four third-party providers, each with a niche offering that provides significant value in specific use cases.
Which cloud VDI solution is best for you? Because there are many evaluation parameters, and because of the crucial impact of user experience, it is highly recommended to test each relevant solution with real users and administrators. Especially if you have an existing VDI deployment, testing alternative solutions can give you a real insight into pros and cons before you have gone through the pain of negotiation and integration.