Serving up managed desktops

Microsoft is dropping its table d’hôte-like Windows 7 menu in favour of a more tapas-style offering, in the form of Windows 10. This will mean big changes for sysadmins

Businesses have just over six months to migrate from Windows 7 before Microsoft officially ends support in January 2020. The majority will upgrade to Windows 10, which brings a host of opportunities, particularly around the way desktop IT is managed going forward.

There appears to be growing interest in the IT market for managed desktop services. First, Microsoft Windows 10 itself is managed by Microsoft. The upgrade to Windows 10 should be the last Windows upgrade the desktop IT administrators in organisations need to do. Once on Windows 10, Microsoft will issue updates to the operating system every six months through the Semi-Annual Channel (SAC). From a PC management perspective, if Microsoft takes care of the operating system updates, there is no longer a need to take a big-bang approach to deploy a new Windows operating system (OS) and PC hardware every couple of years. In fact, with Windows 10, hardware refreshes are no longer linked to a new operating system release.

The PC administrator role does not disappear, however. Application compatibility tests are still needed to check that the new Windows releases do not break existing software. But organisations have the option to choose when to upgrade by configuring Windows Update for Business.

From an IT strategy perspective, Gartner research director Ranjit Gartner believes organisations need to move to Windows 10 or they will fall behind. For instance, Microsoft has aligned the upgrades of its cloud productivity suite, Office 365, to Windows 10. In other words, the latest version of Windows 10 provides a common platform on which Microsoft’s next-generation office productivity suite runs.

Then there is the question of how to improve IT security. According to Forrester’s Global business technographics infrastructure survey, 2016, 51% of technology decision-makers surveyed indicated that security and privacy would be a key reason for upgrading to Windows 10.

Managed desktop services

In another report, entitled The partner opportunity for Microsoft 365 modern desktop, published in July 2018, Forrester found that the implementation of Microsoft’s identity and access management, including Azure Active Directory (AD), Windows Hello, conditional access and Windows credential guard, provides the components organisations require to move to a Microsoft 365 modern desktop. Forrester noted that this lays the foundation for future security and cloud transformation project work, including desktop management through Intune.

Forrester found that Microsoft partners are introducing multiple pricing and delivery models to support customers with Windows and Office updates, as well as the application remediation that comes along with keeping these systems evergreen. “Larger enterprise customers were understandably surprised to learn that update services were being recommended by partners, in some instances prior to fully deploying Windows 10,” the report’s authors noted.

Over the past 12 months, Forrester found managed services pricing and operational models have been formalised based on the Microsoft 365 toolkit. This includes Office ProPlus, Windows 10 and Enterprise Mobility + Security (EMS). The research company also identified a number of novel new offerings around Windows Defender Advanced Threat Protection (ATP), Windows Analytics, Intune and Azure Active Directory.

“While partners have had varied success in attaching these services to deals, one partner had attached evergreen and support services to 100% of its managed services contracts. Others are experimenting with automatic managed services purchase agreements,” the report noted.

Forrester’s study suggested that an evergreen desktop IT service covering update services around Windows 10 and Office ProPlus would cost around $10 per user per month. Such a service would typically ensure customers are always up to date and have access to all new feature sets. This includes Tier 1 and Tier 2 technical and user support.

Virtual desktops become mainstream

In the past, organisations that wanted to provide a fully locked down, managed desktop IT environment would deploy virtual desktops. With virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), the PC is virtualised so that the only data transmitted is the user interface. All processing is run on back-end servers using an image of the user’s desktop IT environment. This operating environment image is simply recreated each time the virtual desktop is rebooted. From an IT perspective, this means the environment remains secure and consistent.

However, across the IT industry, the idea of running high-performance PC applications on VDI was never considered practical. In the past, virtual desktops found a niche in computationally less demanding environments such as education, healthcare and government. But thanks to cloud computing and the availability of fast networking, the performance and bandwidth needed to stream computationally intensive PC applications is now possible.

For instance, during a demo at the Nutanix .Next conference in Anaheim, Nikola Bozinovic, vice-president and general manager at Nutanix, showed how it was possible to mask out the infamous Starbucks cup scene in Game of Thrones, editing a 4k, 60-frames-per-second video clip in Adobe Premiere Pro streamed to his Chrome browser, via Nutanix’s virtual desktop service, called Frame. This enables the user interface on a Windows desktop to appear in an HTML 5-capable browser.

In the past, VDI lacked graphics processing units (GPUs) and raw performance, but as the Nutanix demo shows, a virtual desktop can indeed run graphics-intensive applications such as video editing in Adobe Premiere Pro. In  March 2019, Google launched Stadia, a gaming platform which streams 4k games at 60 frames per second to any browser and integrates with other cloud services. “This is just a virtual machine, streaming pixels,” says Bozinovic. “[With Stadia], Google will have 10 times more users than the combined users of VDI, and this will raise the bar.”

Nutanix joins companies such as Citrix and VMware, which offer hybrid VDI, enabling businesses to run virtual desktops on-premise, with the ability to burst capacity into the public cloud.

Desktop as a service

Desktop as a service (DaaS) is the other option in desktop virtualisation. This generally refers to a managed desktop delivered via a cloud service. While DaaS providers have previously operated their own hosting platforms, as Gartner’s Market guide for desktop as a service noted, they are now moving their services onto public clouds

“All DaaS vendors are gravitating to a hyperscale platform by default. For security, compliance and sovereignty requirements (especially in Europe, the Middle East and Africa), organisations will require dedicated hosting platforms. However, many of the DaaS vendors that have entered the market are partnering with the hyperscale vendors to leverage platform agility, offer customers choice and help drive down service pricing. Most importantly, this approach helps DaaS vendors scale geographically and sell to organisations with more geographically distributed users, independent of organisation size,” the Gartner analysts wrote in the report.

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DaaS provides an opportunity for IT decision-makers to consider the merits of moving desktop workloads to the cloud for workspace delivery, according to Gartner, and the benefits include an expansion in functionality to securely control application, workspace and data delivery across a broad array of platforms and endpoints.

“Delivering a cloud-hosted user workspace with decreasing levels of on-premise service access is becoming the dominant architectural and provisioning approach,” the report’s authors noted. This style of provisioning is designed to be “always on” and highly available, regardless of user or network location. It also means that a Windows desktop user interface can be streamed to any device, whether it is a PC, a Mac, an iPad or an Android tablet.

Compared with 2016, Gartner found that in 2018 the median price for DaaS dropped by $1.50 to $20.50 per user per month. However, at the top end of the pricing scale, it found that DaaS providers were now offering multi-GPU virtual workstations, which cost $630 per user per month.

Cost is not the only factor

Desktop IT is moving beyond simple office productivity and providing desktop hardware, an operating system and a software suite to users.

Microsoft has put together a portfolio of applications to support collaboration and flexible working. It sees artificial intelligence (AI) as part of a modern workplace enabler, by using a machine to perform tasks that used to take many man-hours to complete text manually.

For instance, it has demonstrated how its technology can convert speech to text in real time, and how this text can even be translated into another language. It has also demonstrated how its Cortana voice-controlled digital assistant can listen in on a Skype for Business call to provide relevant information participants may require.

Gartner’s analysis found that in large enterprises, with well-managed desktop IT, DaaS is more expensive than VDI or a traditional managed desktop PC environment. But VDI does provide a platform for flexible working, which may be aligned with the organisation’s digital transformation strategy. And while opting for an evergreen IT service from a service provider is a form of desktop IT outsourcing, it does give IT leaders a chance to reassess what a modern desktop environment looks like and how such a digital workplace can be deployed in their own organisations.

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