Windows Virtual Desktop Coming to Microsoft Azure

SADA-WindowsVirtual_300x300-01Microsoft’s much anticipated announcement on Windows Virtual Desktop (WVD) at the recent Ignite 2018 conference has raised many questions about the company’s motivation, long-term plans, as well as the future of several existing services such as Remote Desktop Services (RDS). In this blog post, we shall tease out the various aspects of this new Windows service and explain how it can deliver value to enterprise users.

Before describing WVD, it may be useful to briefly outline what exists now – the better to contrast this new offering with what our readers already know or deploy.

What we have today

Microsoft users have had the ability to remotely access a Windows desktop environment since the days of Windows NT. From its earliest manifestation, this feature – variously called Terminal Services (TS), RemoteApp and Remote Desktop Services (RDS) through its evolution – allows simultaneous, remote sessions from clients to Windows-based apps and/or the full Windows desktop hosted at a data center.

From the end user point of view, the entire Windows desktop experience appears as if the software is on a local desktop, except that a network connection is always needed. The data center hosted server runs a multi-user Windows server operating system, nowadays usually Windows Server 2008 and up.

Such a solution allows enterprises the benefits of unified software deployment and security/patch management, savings on local hardware upgrades and IT support, support for custom, line-of-business applications and enables both remote and mobile workforces.

With the advent of virtualization, server hardware costs can be further reduced by using a hardware abstraction layer to run multiple virtual servers on a single physical machine. This provides the ability to offer each user a fully personalized (and resource optimized) desktop environment by hosting the remote desktop and applications in individual virtual machines.

This type of solution falls under the umbrella of what’s called VDI – Virtual Desktop Infrastructure. Microsoft’s current VDI solution uses its hypervisor, Hyper-V, as the hardware abstraction layer and Windows Server 2012 as the OS in the data center.

So, what’s Windows Virtual Desktop?

With Windows Virtual Desktop (WVD), Microsoft will provide a new, multi-user version of Windows 10. This new version allows for a centrally-hosted Windows 10 deployment including its tools and apps (such as Cortana, the Windows Store, etc.) without the need for local installations.  The initial announcement limits this to Windows 10 Enterprise and Windows 10 Education licensees.

Windows 10 desktop and applications can be accessed by multiple users remotely logged in to a shared Windows 10 virtual machine. (Microsoft will also allow a Windows Server-based virtual machine deployment for hosting Windows 7 apps that require a GUI. As we’ll discuss later, this will allow enterprise customers reluctant to move to Windows 10 an upgrade path towards that.) It will also offer users remote access to individual legacy applications, to take the place of the RemoteApp feature of RDS.

There is no change to the ability to support a VDI solution, with users remotely accessing their individual Windows 10 or Windows 7 virtual machines.

WVD is a cloud-based service

The other major aspect of WVD compared to RDS is the change to the hosting environment, the move to the cloud – specifically Microsoft’s Azure. This makes WVD the latest example of the XaaS style of provisioning IT service within enterprises in recent years – starting with Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), then Platform (PaaS), followed by Software (SaaS) and so on until we now have Desktop as a Service, or DaaS!

Enterprises can use their existing Azure subscription or buy a new one to spin up the VMs needed for use with the WVD service. Any cost for resource usage within these VMs will be the usual usage-based cost associated with the enterprise’s Azure subscription.

Thus, WVD preserves all the goodness of previous approaches to remote desktops, while allowing enterprises to take advantage of the usual and well-known cloud efficiencies such as moving from CAPEX-intensive IT (e.g., supporting end user devices, investing in data centers, etc.) to pay-as-you-go/grow, consumption-based OPEX costs.

Microsoft’s motivations, and how enterprises benefit

Microsoft has made no secret of its desire to harmonize and unify its historical portfolio of client operating systems to one – Windows 10. To this end, it has ended support for several earlier OSes. However, Windows 7 persists in the enterprise and enjoys a large share of the Windows user base. Much of this is because of the number of Windows 7-based legacy apps that enterprises have deployed during the past decade and which cannot easily (or cheaply) be ported to Windows 10. Microsoft has tried to discourage further use of Windows 7 by offering paid Extended Security Updates (ESU) that come with a cost assessed per-machine that increases each year.

However, Windows 7 apps accessed via WVD are not subjected to payments for ESUs. Thus, one can imagine an enterprise with several critical Win7-based apps needed by specific user groups (e.g., payroll, HR, etc.) or individual users offering remote access to these via WVD, while allowing the enterprise to move to a modern OS and desktop environment that caters for a variety of end device form factors and upgrade capabilities. As the ability to use WVD is included in the cost of a Windows 10 Enterprise E3 license, it can only be a win-win for any enterprise contemplating such a transition.

By requiring that WVD use the Azure cloud for its hosting environment, Microsoft is also attempting to open one more front in its battle for dominance against the two other major public cloud providers. The Azure-hosted solution is optimized for Microsoft’s enterprise productivity toolset, Office 365 ProPlus, which is already a subscription-only service on Azure.

Microsoft is going to ensure that Windows 10 and Office 365 ProPlus have regular, coordinated updates and security patches. Meanwhile it has announced the withdrawal of support for the latter on Windows 8.1, Windows Server 2016 (and older) and some earlier releases of Windows 10. The slow withdrawal of support for the standalone, desktop versions of Office is another way Microsoft is attempting to wean its users from earlier OSes.

Summary

An Azure-based solution with its flagship OS (Windows 10) and productivity tools (Office 365 ProPlus) is the path that Microsoft hopes enterprises will follow. The generously included licensing costs for supporting legacy Windows 7 apps via WVD is Microsoft’s opportunity to nudge Microsoft enterprise customers off the past and onto a purely Windows 10-based future.

The public preview of WVD begins shortly, and user feedback and usage patterns will no doubt affect the development of WVD. We’ll continue to follow and report on its uptake and evolution in the coming months.

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