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What is virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI)?

The basics of remote desktops and virtualisation

What is virtualisation?

In cloud computing, the process of separating software (such as an operating system or an application) from the hardware that it runs on is called virtualisation. This frees the software from needing to be run on a specific device – and allows it to be run on any device. For most people, the most familiar usage of virtualisation is when they access a remote version of their work desktop on a personal device, but IT professionals also use it for virtual computers, virtual applications, storage, networks and servers. Virtualisation has been around for years but is enjoying a boom due to the worldwide demand for IT infrastructure with virtualisation solutions to enable highly secure remote work from anywhere in the world.

So, virtualisation is the process – and the “machines” created using this process are called virtual machines, or just VMs for short. While the hardware that makes up your computer is physical and tangible, VMs are virtual computers that exist as code and whose “hardware” (CPU, hard drive, RAM etc.) are defined using software. VMs can be used for a myriad of applications – they’re especially useful for running the virtual desktop environments that are becoming the norm in our rapidly evolving modern workplace.

To be clear, the hardware behind VMs is very real! It’s just that while a traditional computer has its own dedicated hardware, a VM is partitioned portions of a real physical server’s resources so that multiple, independent VMs can share the same physical hardware. This process is also known as server virtualisation and uses a nifty technology called a hypervisor, which is software that integrates the physical hardware and the VM’s virtual “hardware”. This allows IT pros to set up and manage VMs and allows VMs running different operating systems (such as Windows or Linux, to name a few) to run on the same hardware.

What is virtual desktop infrastructure?

Virtual desktop infrastructure, often shortened to just VDI, is IT infrastructure that lets you access enterprise computer systems from almost any device (such as your personal computer, smartphone or tablet), eliminating the need for your company to provide you with – and manage, repair and replace – a physical machine. Authorised users can access the same company servers, files, apps and services from any approved device through a secure desktop client or browser.

VDI lets you run traditional desktop workloads on centralised servers and has become the standard in business settings to support remote and branch office workers and provide access to contractors and partners. VDI helps protect sensitive company apps and data (which can themselves be run from highly secure data centres), allowing users to use their own devices without worrying about mixing personal data with corporate assets.

There are multiple ways to deliver virtual desktops and apps to users – virtual desktop infrastructure to be sure but additionally other flavours of VDI such as desktop as a service (DaaS) and even personalised Cloud PCs. These services have become increasingly popular for a variety of reasons – including improved security, performance, centralisation, lower hardware requirements and cost savings – not to mention enabling employees to do their jobs from anywhere in the world. What is desktop as a service (DaaS)?

How does VDI work?

As VDI is supported by extensive collections of VMs running on top of hypervisor software, VDI environments can get more complex than remote desktop environments. VDI uses server hardware to run desktop operating systems (OS) such as Windows or Linux, or other software programs, on a VM with the desktop OS hosted on a centralised server in a physical data centre. There are two types of VDI virtual desktops, persistent and non-persistent:

A persistent virtual desktop enables users to customise their own personal desktop and save their settings and work progress for future use, like a traditional desktop. With the magic of VMs, persistent desktops behave like actual physical computers – just from a remote device. The user connects to the same VM each time they log in, which allows for personalisation and can even function as a user’s entire computer experience. This is extremely useful and common for many work and school environments.

A non-persistent virtual desktop provides a bank of uniform desktops that users can access when needed. These are not customised to specific users and don’t save personal or session information. Once the user logs out, the desktops return to their original state. Non-persistent VDI is common in computer labs, call centres, retail kiosks and public libraries – environments where users don’t need personalisation and don’t want their personal information stored.

What is VDI used for?

With the global changes in work patterns, more companies are embracing VDI. Here are just some of the use cases:

Empowering remote work

An increasing number of companies are implementing VDI for remote workers because virtual desktops are easier to deploy and update from a centralised location.

Enabling task-based or shift work

Organisations such as call centres or public computer labs that have a large number of users who need the same software to perform limited tasks find non-persistent VDI to be particularly well suited to their use case.

Meeting security and compliance requirements

VDI services can help keep apps and data secure and compliant with intelligent security capabilities that can proactively detect threats and take remedial action.

Allowing users to bring their own devices (BYOD)

As processing is done on a centralised server, VDI is an ideal solution for organisations with BYOD policies as it allows the use of a wider range of devices. It also helps with data security because data lives on the server and is kept off the client devices.

What are the benefits of virtualisation with VDI?

In the past, many businesses running on legacy IT systems thought the cost and the high-performance requirements of VDI deployment were too challenging to consider for their company. However, thanks to the emergence of converged and hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI) systems for virtual desktop infrastructure, these obstacles have been largely overcome and many more companies are taking advantage of the scalability, reliability and cost savings that are offered when VDI is hosted by a cloud provider.

Tangible benefits of VDI include:

  • Remote access, productivity and device portability: Workers who are frequently mobile or out in the field can pull up a virtual desktop containing the full range of virtual apps and data – such as having a mobile office available on-demand. With VDI technology, the desktop is not chained to the hardware; you can view your desktop from multiple devices – whether mobile, laptops, tablets or thin client devices.
  • Enhanced security: As VDI is centralised and sandboxed, it can be a foundational component of a company’s security strategy. It eliminates the IT headache of having sensitive company data stored locally on client devices. And it keeps personal apps and info separate from enterprise apps, helping to protect both sides.
  • Improved compliance: VDI often offers organisations help with compliance certifications, particularly in certain verticals such as government or finance services where there’s a need to host and process data to align with federal regulations or for businesses that operate in Europe where they need to make sure that they comply with GDPR regulations when dealing with personal data.
  • IT cost savings and lower hardware requirements – As VDI processing is largely server-based, there’s no need for expensive or cutting-edge hardware. VDI can also save costs on licensing, other IT infrastructure, hardware refresh deployment and maintenance, as well as saving investment costs on company-issued devices.
  • Data centre features and capabilities – Companies can take advantage of the features and functionalities of desktops hosted on servers in high-performance data centres when they run their VDI through a cloud service provider. Many trusted cloud service providers offer advanced security, high-end infrastructure, cloud backup and disaster recovery solutions.
  • Simplified IT management and easy desktop provisioning – VDI eliminates the need to configure each system manually, making it easy to provision desktops almost instantaneously. This lets IT admins configure their network settings, add users, run desktop apps and turn on security from a central location with a few clicks.

Access your desktop and apps from anywhere

Learn how to enable a secure, remote desktop experience with Azure Virtual Desktop (formerly Windows Virtual Desktop).

Frequently asked questions

  • A hypervisor is software that integrates the physical hardware and the virtual “hardware” of virtual machines (VMs). Much like a school crossing, guard helps multiple students move safely backwards and forwards across a busy intersection, the hypervisor makes sure that each VM gets allocated the resources it needs from the physical server in an efficient manner.
  • With “service” in the name, many cloud service providers offer desktop as a service (sometimes made into the acronym, DaaS) – a flavour of VDI service for virtual hosting the backend of VDI deployment. DaaS provides similar advantages to VDI, including enabling remote work, improved security and ease of desktop management. Additionally, DaaS can give big cost savings up front because DaaS doesn’t require the same initial investment in compute, storage and network infrastructure that VDI does.
  • While it may seem like all of these virtualisation terms are just moving the word order around, there is a difference between a remote desktop environment and a virtual desktop infrastructure! Virtualising desktops and application virtualisation are generic computing terms for any technology that separates a desktop environment from the physical hardware used to access that desktop.

    VDI is one popular type of desktop virtualisation, but not all types of virtualisation take advantage of host-based virtual machines such as VDI does. Desktop virtualisation can be used in other ways, such as remote desktop services (RDS) – where users connect to a shared desktop that runs on a remote server. So, when we say remote desktop, we’re really talking about a software or operating system feature that allows a computer’s desktop environment to be run remotely on one system while being displayed on a separate client device.

  • Virtual desktop infrastructure allows for remote app streaming – to run your apps on the host server and stream them to remote devices. Remote app streaming lets you create a low-latency, high-performance user experience from virtually anywhere, on any device.
  • Remote Desktop Services (RDS) is a platform offering from Microsoft that allows you to cost-effectively host Windows desktops and apps. RDS creates different server roles and each specific role enables multiple users to simultaneously log in to a Windows Server. Once set up, you can connect to the published desktops and apps from various platforms and devices – using the Microsoft Remote Desktop application on Windows, Mac, iOS and Android.

    Learn more about RDS
  • Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) is a Microsoft protocol that helps app developers simplify the complexities of dealing with the protocol stack. It helps developers to write clean, well-designed, well-behaved 32-bit apps and it facilitates security, data transfer and encryption between devices, client users and a virtual server.

    Learn more about RDP
  • This is the foundational category of cloud computing services. Renting infrastructure – servers and virtual machines (VMs), storage, networks and operating systems – on a pay-as-you-go basis from a cloud service provider such as Microsoft Azure lets you save on upfront costs of infrastructure investment. In other words, adopting IaaS allows you to leave behind the more rigid and expensive traditional CAPEX model for your IT investments in favour of a more flexible, scalable and affordable OPEX model.

    Learn more about IaaS

Resources and solutions

Azure Virtual Desktop

Enable a highly secure, remote desktop experience from virtually anywhere on any device

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VMware Horizon Cloud on Microsoft Azure

A VMware service that simplifies the delivery of virtual desktops and apps on Azure by extending Windows Virtual Desktop

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Citrix Virtual Apps and Desktops for Azure

A service from Citrix that simplifies the delivery of virtual desktops and apps on Azure by extending Windows Virtual Desktop

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Deploy and scale virtualised desktops and apps on Azure

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