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Windows Virtual Desktops: Microsoft takes virtual Windows mainstream on Azure

Microsoft is fleshing out its virtual desktop proposition by allowing enterprises to access Windows via its Azure platform, but what does this mean for its competitors?

Microsoft likes to present itself as a cloud company today, but desktop Windows remains a key element of its overall platform. Office 365 web applications are handy, but no substitute for desktop Office. Further, countless business-critical Windows desktop applications keep organisations tied to their Windows PCs and laptops.

This being the case, it is curious that Microsoft has been slow to offer a compelling solution for remote Windows desktops on its cloud platform. Until now, that is.

At its Ignite event in Orlando, in late September 2018, the company took the wraps off Windows Virtual Desktops, which aims to make Windows 10 virtual desktops on Azure a smooth and cost-effective option for its cloud customers.

Why has this taken so long to arrive? The reasons are part licensing, and part technical. Until now, licensing Windows for multi-user access in a virtual environment has been a feature exclusive to Windows Server, where it is called Remote Desktop Services.

Setting up a Remote Desktop Services infrastructure, whether in the cloud or on-premise, required several components, including Active Directory, Remote Desktop Connection Broker which manages incoming connections and directs them to the correct server, and Remote Desktop Gateway which lets users connect over SSL and UDP.

Additionally, there is Remote Desktop Web Access for access through a web browser, and Remote Desktop License Server to assist with license compliance.

Windows Virtual Destkop: Tech specs

In late 2017 Microsoft debuted a preview of Remote Desktop Modern Infrastucture (RDmi). The key differences in RDmi are these:

  • RDmi Gateway, RDmi Connection Broker and RDmi Web Access are now services that no longer depend on Active Directory. Users authenticate with Azure Active Directory and are then connected to the appropriate Remote Desktop Session Host or dedicated Windows VM.
  • A new RDmi Diagnostics service assists with troubleshooting.
  • These RDmi infrastructure services are multi-tenant enabling a provider to support multiple Azure AD tenants.

At the 2018 Ignite conference Microsoft announced Windows Virtual Desktop. This builds on RDmi as well as adding in the following key features:

  • On Azure, Microsoft manages the connection and management services for you, so you only need to provision VMs for virtual desktops or Remote Desktop Session Hosts (RDSH) (multi-user VMs).
  • Windows 10 Enterprise Multi-User lets you use Windows 10 rather than Windows Server as a multi-session host, offering a more up-to-date desktop experience as well as removing the need for Windows Server and Remote Desktop Server CALs (Client Access Licenses).

Windows Virtual Desktop: Pricing

What does it cost to license Windows Virtual Desktop? If you have a supported operating system, there is no extra cost. The supported operating systems are these:

  • Microsoft 365 E3 or E5 (Microsoft’s complete suite of Office 365, Windows 10, and Enterprise Mobility + Security)
  • Windows E3 or E5 (subscription licenses for Windows)

There is no initial offering for small businesses, but during some sessions at Ignite, company representatives said Microsoft 365 Business and F1 (Firstline Workforce) will be supported.

A way to look at this is that a business of any size will be able to add a remote Windows desktop to their Office 365 subscription by upgrading to the Microsoft 365 variant and purchasing the necessary resources in Azure.

There is also provision for Windows 7. You can run Windows 7 on the service (though not multi-user) and get Extended Security Updates for no extra cost. This means, although Windows 7 extended support ends in January 2020, you will continue to get security updates for a further three years, to January 2023, giving enterprises more time to upgrade their operating systems.

Competitive comparison

Where does this leave third-parties like Citrix and VMWare, whose remote desktop solutions are already available on Azure? It was not that long ago, January 2017, when Citrix launched Azure-hosted Xen Desktop and XenApp Essentials, in partnership with Microsoft.

The answer is that third-party solutions still have advantages in terms of management tools and performance optimisation. Citrix principal product manager Adam Lotz stated in a blog post that “Citrix is excited to extend Windows Virtual Desktop through our comprehensive Citrix Workspace offering”.

Citrix will take advantage of multi-user Windows 10 Enterprise as well as integrating Windows Virtual Desktop into its management tools, including image management that Microsoft’s offering currently lacks. In addition, Lotz says “Citrix is building a new DaaS [desktop-as-a-service] offering … The upcoming release will include the cloud services, software licenses, and Azure compute needed to securely deliver a Windows Virtual Desktop on demand.”

That said, Microsoft’s Scott Manchester, principal group program manager in the Cloud and Enterprise Group, told Computer Weekly that “we’ve been hearing from customers that they want to see Microsoft providing more of a first-party solution. They want a single throat to choke, they want one person to point a finger at if there’s a problem.”

Digging deeper into the desktop

Windows Virtual Desktop works with both session-based and host-based virtual desktops, as well as with remote applications (where the remote desktop is hidden). Administrators manage this by creating host pools and assigning groups of users to each host pool.

 The type of desktop virtualisation, and the specification for the virtual machines (VMs), is defined as part of the host pool. You could have, for example, a session-based host pool for light users, another for heavy users, and another for full host-based VDI (Virtual Desktop Infrastructure).

“For heavy users it’s about 3 users per core,” says Manchester. “So for 200 users I only need 9 8-core VMs.” You could also create specialised pools, such as one with dedicated GPUs, for example.

How does the density of Windows 10 Multi-user compare with that for Windows Server? Manchester says “Windows 10 has more services and more resources that it consumes than server, so we’re not at the exact same density as server, but we’re within 20% for most scenarios.”

The arrival of Windows 10 multi-user means users will no longer have a compromised experience, says Manchester. “Because Windows is released on a semi-annual channel, there were certain components they were missing [in Server].

“Components that are updated consistently, like Edge, Cortana, the Store for Business, those were removed from Windows Server. Now the Windows 10 Enterprise multi-user facility gives them the exact same channel as the bare metal machines running Windows 10 Enterprise.”

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Windows 10 multi-user will be the default but Windows Server remains an option, for example, for organisations that have existing well-tested deployments which they want to migrate to the new service.

Will Windows Virtual Desktop reduce the cost of desktop virtualisation? “Yes, absolutely,” says Manchester. “If your workloads can be supported on our Windows 10 Enterprise multi-user, then all the licenses you need for accessing that remotely are included in that package. You just pay for the IIAS [infrastructure as a service].

“We believe most enterprise customers will consider reserved instances. You can get the Azure three-year Reserved Instance and it’s a 72% cost saving.”

You can tune a host pool for either breadth or depth. If you tune for breadth, then users are spread evenly over all available host machines, maximizing performance. This is suitable for pre-paid reserved instances. If you tune for breadth, the system maximizes density, so you can reduce operational expense by shutting down VMs according to load, suitable if you are not using reserved instances.

How this fits with Microsoft’s overall strategy

Desktop virtualisation is nothing new, but packaging this as part of the Microsoft 365 offering brings it to the mainstream of the company’s cloud platform. It is part of Microsoft’s overall strategy of making it easier to use any device – Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, Chromebook – while still being able to run on its cloud platform.

At Ignite, Microsoft also announced changes to its Office applications to make them work better in a virtual environment, particularly Outlook with its requirements for mailbox caching. There are also advantages for Office 365 users thanks to fast connections between Microsoft services such as OneDrive and Exchange Online.

The main weakness of the new service is in the management tools for things such as image management, and this is where the third-party solutions have an advantage.

Next Steps

Microsoft integrates virtual desktop, Azure Active Directory

Read more on Virtualisation management strategy

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