11 February 2021

Desktop Virtualisation Explained

Desktop Virtualisation Explained

Virtualisation is the process of abstracting defined compute resources from physical hardware. But how does that work when the solution getting delivered is a user’s desktop? If that sounds confusing, you’re not alone. Virtualisation is a confusing topic, with both the technologies and the use cases involved feeling somewhat vague.

What is desktop virtualisation?

Desktop virtualization refers to solutions that give end-users access to a desktop experience through a network. The user logs in to their desktop online, where all their data and applications are securely processed and delivered through a familiar environment.

The virtual desktop can be hosted internally on an organisation’s server or secured in a cloud deployment. This virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) lets the end-user securely access all the tools and information they need to work remotely, from any device, at any time.

For the end-user, it’s like their standard desktop setup is stored and accessed online.

Benefits of desktop virtualisation.
  • Secure remote access: apps and data are stored and served from an encrypted environment.
  • Enhanced flexibility: end-users can access compute resources that might be beyond what they physically have available.
  • Simplified maintenance: updates and patches are applied centrally.
  • Centralised security: IT can control security for multiple users from a single environment.
  • Controlled costs: desktop costs become a part of operational expenses.
  • Improved efficiencies: better usage of computing resources,
  • Increased end-user satisfaction: users have access to everything they need regardless of their devices.

Because virtualisation can be such an abstract topic, there can be some confusion around the terms and processes involved. For example, you have “virtual machines,” “virtual desktop infrastructures,” and “remote desktop services,” all of which sound like they could be part of the same thing. And to some degree, they are.

What is a virtual machine?

A virtual machine (VM) is essentially a software-defined PC. Computing resources – including processing power, RAM, and storage – are abstracted from a server’s physical hardware by a hypervisor. A hypervisor allocates server resources to VMs, letting them focus on specific tasks – including running virtual desktops. The hypervisor then creates and runs “virtual machines” that behave as a self-contained computing device.

VMs can also deliver virtual devices and drivers that allow the user to run applications using the server resources. The result is much the same as if they were using a physical PC, except the hardware they are accessing can be shared with others, or even undergo maintenance without interrupting the user experience.

In essence, VMs offer the same kind of resources as physical PCs, without the maintenance overhead that comes with servicing multiple hardware devices. VMs provide a flexible, scalable hosted computing solution that provides all the end-user resources at a potentially lower cost. Typically, you choose a VM when you need more control over the end-user computing environment but want to avoid buying and maintaining additional physical hardware.

What are remote desktop services?
Remote desktop services (RDS) offers a similar experience to a VM but takes it one step further. While VMs provide the resources needed to perform computing tasks, an RDS delivers these resources along with a standard desktop. The VMs share server resources between users, giving them secure access to apps, data, and computing resources without needing physical access to the equipment involved.

This interface is the critical difference between VMs and virtual desktops. Virtual machines offer what is essentially the resources of a complete PC. In comparison, an RDS provides these resources through a familiar desktop interface – with each instance providing access to a set of applications controlled by internal IT policy.

Perhaps the greatest strength of an RDS solution is that it can bring resources physically closer together. Physical distance remains one of the leading causes of slow responses in computing, and while network connections have improved dramatically in recent times, the tyranny of distance remains an obstacle.

If a standard desktop computer has to access data located on a server halfway across the country through an unstable connection, the time it takes to access and process this request can slow down workflows. This slowdown grows every time a user makes a request, adding time to what could already be a lengthy process. Within a virtual desktop, the resources used to process the data can be located nearby – potentially on the same hardware as the data itself – speeding up access and streamlining processing times.

In this way, an RDS can deliver a wide range of common computing resources to a large user base, while helping to speed up workflows. While virtual desktops’ standardisation can create bottlenecks, it can improve workload proximity, support resource consolidation, and provide additional security.

What is a virtual desktop infrastructure?

Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) refers to technology that uses virtual machines to provide and manage virtual desktops. A VDI deployment stores user desktops either internally or in the cloud, and deploys them to end-users on demand.

A hypervisor abstracts computing resources form the servers into VMs that, in turn, are used to host virtual desktops. A software-based gateway called a connection broker acts as a mediator, spinning up desktop instances and serving them through network connections to the end-user. The end-user then logs in to these desktops – often using disparate devices – with the compute and application tasks run processed by the VM using the server resources allocated.

There are many ways VDI can operate. It can deliver persistent desktops that follow the user around and allow for customisation – and non-persistent desktops spun up from a master image when a user logs in and disappear when a session ends.

These desktops can operate on a one-to-one basis, where a dedicated VM runs a user’s desktop. They can also work on a one-to-many basis, where one VM serves up multiple desktops to multiple users.

Which virtualisation solution matches my business?

All the virtualisation solutions mentioned so far involve providing remote computing features that enhance innovation, collaboration, and help control costs. Each solution helps provide consistent security and can reduce the complexity of everyday maintenance tasks. However, like many IT decisions, the way these solutions operate, and their benefits, make them useful for different reasons. So rather than judging one to be objectively better, it’s more a case of finding the best fit for your organisation’s needs and budget.

Three key factors might help drive the business decision to move to a virtualisation solution:

  • Security: virtualisation can help manage risk by protecting against data loss, data breaches, and enforcing better machine compliance.
  • Workload proximity: virtualisation can shorten the distance between a desktop front-end and the server back-end, making it a viable option for businesses running high-bandwidth processes or legacy apps that do work well when run over the internet.
  • Resource consolidation: virtualisation solutions can let you control costs by sharing resources with individual users and workloads.
What are the best VDI solutions?

There is a vast range of VDI solutions on the market, with features and price ranges to match businesses’ needs of any size. Asking which one is best is a tough call. The solutions each provider delivers can vary in size, costs, licensing requirements, enhancements, and integration, making the objective call of ‘best’ a moot point. A better question is “which VDI solution works best for my business?”

This question gives you a frame of reference which you can use to judge the costs and benefits of each provider and their offerings.

First Focus operates in the medium-to-enterprise space, offering solutions that meet the needs of organizations up to the enterprise level. For larger deployments, our sister company Ordyss is well suited to the bespoke needs of government departments end enterprises.

As both companies are vendor-agnostic, here’s a list of some of the prominent VDI vendors we work with:

  • Amazon WorkSpaces
  • Cisco VXI
  • Citrix Virtual Apps and Desktops
  • Evolve IP VDI
  • Microsoft Azure
  • Microsoft Windows Virtual Desktop
  • Oracle Secure Global Desktop
  • VMware Horizon Cloud
  • V2 Cloud

If you’re looking at VDI as part of a managed service for your business, but aren’t sure which solution fits your needs, get in touch! Our digital transformation experts focus on using technology to transform the products and services that your organisation delivers – including how best to roll out and manage virtual desktop solutions.