A cloud desktop is a virtual desktop hosted in a secure data centre, accessed by individuals via a secure username and password. The desktop is essentially a hosted operating platform that is accessed on any PC or Mac through a secure Internet connection. Each user opens their desktop in full screen mode, so once they have logged-in everything looks and appears to be running on their local machine.
As with a traditional local desktop, the user will have a Windows start button that lists the available programs and applications, provides shortcuts to data and access to the organisation’s shared drive.
Cloud desktop solutions offer much greater flexibility, enabling people to work from home and in some cases remotely using laptops and tablets. As the solution is hosted in the cloud and managed by experts centrally, it provides a greater level of security, back-up and recovery.
Cloud desktop solutions can look very different
Despite the clear benefits on paper, it’s important to recognise that not all cloud desktop solutions are created equal. The actual, ‘real life’ experiences that users receive are reportedly very mixed and this can be down to a variety of reasons, as we’ll explore through this post.
Generally, there are two different approaches to delivering cloud desktop solutions. The most widely used is called RDS (Remote Desktop Services), sometimes called ‘terminal services’. As an approach, RDS has been in operation a lot longer than the second option - the more modern cloud desktop solution, known as VDI (Virtual Desktop Infrastructure).
As a largely outdated method, RDS has left many users disappointed with the performance of their cloud desktop. With RDS, each server is shared by many users, meaning issues can cascade across the network and slow down the running of applications. RDS also requires an ‘always-on’ connection, so there’s no facility to work offline.
Here’s a full run-down of the limitations associated with RDS. If you’re a cloud desktop user, or responsible for managing this type of infrastructure within your organisation, you’ll no doubt be familiar with the following issues.
RDS cloud desktop - the drawbacks:
- Performance: With multiple users sharing a each server, capacity is always likely to present a problem. When one user consumes too much RAM for example, performance is reduced for all other users on the system. Even when users aren’t drawing heavily on the server’s resources, they still often experience slower performance than they might expect when running programs on a traditional, local desktop. This is especially prevalent when a user is trying to access web applications or resource heavy programs such as digital dictation.
- Remote access: Remote access is a key issue, with users often losing connection while trying to work from home. This frustration is often compounded further, as there’s no option to work offline. As remote sessions are established via approved IP addresses, users can only connect from home and nowhere else. Firewall settings will prevent you from accessing your desktop from a café or other remote locations unless this location is also approved by the firewall. The only way firms could avoid this problem is to allow all IP addresses to access the server, which would result in flawed security, or set up a VPN which could further complicate their solution.
- Inconsistent desktop experience: Users typically have to live with an inconsistent desktop experience each day, not just in terms of the issues already mentioned, but also the data and applications they work with. As users will access a different server when logging-on, information that was saved in a previous session may not always make its way over from one server to another.
- Security concerns: Due to the shared access to the same infrastructure, any security issues that affect one user will normally impact all users. In the face of a security threat, such as a virus or malware, the whole system usually needs to be shut down - which can clearly have a major impact on the productivity of your business.
- Constant reboots: A well-known issue that users have to live with is the continuous need to log off and back on if fixes need to be implemented. If a particular terminal server encounters an issue, then everyone must close their session and either wait for the fix to be completed, or try to access an alternative server.
- Complex updates: System updates are often complex to manage and time-consuming to implement in an RDS environment. This is due to the poor compatibility associated with RDS technology. Any software update that needs to be rolled out would also require all users to be logged off, which results in workforce disruption or inconvenient out-of-hours maintenance. A further issue associated with RDS solutions is that testing can often be problematic. This is due to the fact that any changes made will impact the live environment, meaning users will have to stay off the server until a fix is fully tested and deployed.
VDI cloud desktop - A modern alternative
For both existing and potential cloud desktop users, Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) is increasingly seen as a more effective approach. Indeed, many existing users of RDS are now making the switch to a VDI solution in search of a more familiar desktop experience, enhanced security and more simplified IT management.
VDI provides remote access to a desktop in a similar way to RDS, but crucially includes a layer of ‘virtualisation’ between the server and the user devices. This means that rather than a shared desktop environment, each user gets his or her own individual operating system, capacity and applications - all of which can be accessed via multiple devices.
With VDI, an individual desktop image spins up to suit the profile of each user. This image reflects the desktop hosted centrally, which ensures sensitive data is kept safe in the data centre and not on the end-user’s machine which can be lost, stolen, or even destroyed.
Below is a list of the advantages offered by VDI:
- Improved performance: With dedicated and scalable desktop resources per user, performance remains consistent and unaffected even when other users are drawing on more capacity.
- Heightened security: With VDI, you have greater control of how you secure your desktop. You can lock down the image from external devices or prevent the copying of data from the image to your local machine. At the end of each user session the VDI desktop is ‘destroyed’ and with it any malicious infection.
- Security breach management: In the event of a security breach, your IT administrators can easily isolate and shutdown an infected user’s desktop, limiting the risk of the issue spreading across your network.
- Simplified migrations and software updates: Let's say you want to roll-out Windows 10, install a new software package or simply update existing software for a few selected users. With VDI, you can do it all from a central location to groups of users. Once happy with the solution you can then implement the update for everyone. This also means updates can be carried out in working hours with minimal disruption.
- Quicker recovery: Disaster recovery and business continuity plans are significantly enhanced with VDI. You have the ability to restore desktops to previous states within a VDI environment almost immediately. This means if any issues are encountered, you can simply roll-back to a previous VDI profile. This can be done without getting all users to log off an RDS server – only the affected users simply log off and back on.
- Create desktops on-demand: With VDI, you can easily create a library of desktop profiles to meet all of your company’s needs. For example, if your business is seasonal, you can have extra profiles to handle the increased employee demand. If you use third-parties, you can use secure/encrypted locked down profiles to allow them to work in your environment.
- Consistent remote access: Unlike RDS, where a small drop in connection will shut down the session, VDI is resilient to outages due to it's ability to present a cached session to the user. This provides a far more consistent user experience when a user is on an unstable network, such as on public transport or in a coffee shop. This results in a far more productive mobile working experience, which increases the firms overall mobility and productivity.
Should you move to VDI?
Ultimately, the holy grail of cloud desktop solutions is for the user to enjoy the experience of a traditional local desktop but with much greater speed, security and mobility. Put simply, VDI will get you much closer to this vision than any other approach available today.
If you’re still not sure whether VDI is right for your business, consider the following two scenarios. If the users in your business are hampered by your current desktop approach, or your IT function is receiving more than its fair share of desktop support requests and complaints, then maybe it’s time to think seriously about VDI. If you've decided VDI is right for you also make sure that you carry out the appropriate due diligence on any potential provider, for example, has the provider got a proven track record of rolling out VDI solutions? And are there a number of VDI specific references the supplier can provide? Considering these questions seriously will result in a smoother, more productive and more mobile experience for your users.