VDI vs RDS: What are the Differences? And What are the Alternatives?

As organizations everywhere double down on their digital transformation, some are evaluating virtual desktop infrastructure and Remote Desktop Services (RDS) as potential solutions to support hybrid offices and remote work trends.

That’s understandable. Both VDI and RDS are established technologies that give end users remote access to managed desktop environments. However, there’s often a difference between perceived and actual benefit. What organizations think they’re getting with VDI and RDS doesn’t always play out in practice, and as a result, they find themselves encumbered with plenty of sunk costs and more IT sprawl than they bargained for.

To help avoid that outcome, this post looks at the featured capabilities of each approach as well as the differences between the two. Then we’ll review how to evaluate whether or not VDI or RDS meets your specific business needs. We’ll wrap things up by proposing some streamlined alternatives to virtual desktop infrastructure and RDS.

What Is Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI)? 

Virtual desktop infrastructure is a technology that provides individual end users with a full desktop operating system via a dedicated virtual machine (VM). This VM is hosted on a centralized server known as a hypervisor host. When users log onto this server using a remote client device, they’re given access to this virtual OS by means of a discrete connection broker, which is usually running on its own separate server. This cluster of VDI servers can be located in a data center or on-premises.

You can think of a VDI solution as one that mirrors traditional setups by equipping each user with their own self-contained desktop environment. So, in other words, different users get desktops that are tailored to different user experiences, with resources and applications that have been specially provisioned for their particular workloads. That allows for a certain level of optimization.

One of the selling points of a VDI environment is that the central server can host multiple operating systems atop its hypervisor layer. For example, there can be one VM for Windows 10 and another for Manjaro Linux.

Additionally, VDI desktops can either be persistent or non-persistent. In the former, the end user’s desktop environment continues across sessions, just like any home computer. Non-persistent is when the desktop session (and all its data) is erased after the user logs out. Each time the end user logs in, they’ll be greeted with a fresh desktop with the standard set of apps.

VDI might get a fresh coat of paint every now and then, but it’s certainly not a new, unproven technology. Many enterprises have been running Citrix Virtual Apps and Desktops, Microsoft’s Windows Virtual Desktop or VMware Horizon View in various iterations for years.

We should note here that traditional VDI has also been adapted to the more recent cloud computing paradigm in the form of desktop-as-a-service. (For more background on VDI vs DaaS, see this post as well as our detailed breakdown “How Much Does DaaS Cost?”)

What Is Remote Desktop Service (RDS)?

Much like VDI, Remote Desktop Services (RDS) isn’t some new kid on the block. Its underlying technology dates back to the Windows NT 4.0 days, when it was known as Terminal Server or Terminal Services. RDS has been going by its current name since 2008.

RDS leverages Windows server to provide users with a Windows-based desktop session. This means that the user’s machine has to be at least capable of running Microsoft’s Remote Desktop Client to connect to and interact with the desktop image on the server. That remote access is established via the Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP), which basically functions as the vital liaison between the Windows client and the Windows server.

On the backend, provisioning with RDS is fairly straightforward because that single desktop image accommodates multiple users. But that also means less customization and granular control over individual desktop environments. It also makes troubleshooting a little more difficult, because it can be harder to pinpoint whether a given issue lies with the workstation, the desktop image or the server OS.

VDI vs RDS: What Are the Key Differences?

As we’ve seen, VDI and RDS largely diverge in how they leverage the central server. Whereas VDI tends to focus on the virtual operating systems hosted by the hypervisor server(s), RDS revolves around the Windows desktop image hosted on the Windows server.

VDI’s virtual machine model therefore generally demands more powerful (and expensive) hardware, as it’s providing dedicated virtual environments to every single user. By contrast, an RDS deployment shares common resources. Yet that “one-size-fits-all” approach of RDS can also be detrimental to the user experience, especially during high-demand periods and peak workloads.

There’s also the matter of software compatibility. The Windows-centric nature of RDS limits flexibility compared to the choice of operating systems that VDI offers. At the same time, VDI typically requires a software client to connect to the session host, and it’s up to the VDI solution provider to make that client available for whatever mix of remote devices are in users’ hands.

However, when comparing VDI vs RDS to determine how exactly they differ, it’s important to note that there’s a lot of overlap between the two. Those similarities aren’t just in the basic functionality they provide. They also have to do with their shortcomings, which broadly fall into three categories: 

  • Complexity: Deploying, provisioning and managing virtual/remote desktop solutions often requires third-party support plus a dedicated team within the IT department. At the end of the day, you’re still providing end users with full desktop environments—whether they need them or not.
  • Security: The Remote Desktop Protocol is infamous for the risks it poses to data security and has become one of the primary attack vectors for ransomware amid the widespread adoption of remote work policies. Virtual private networks (VPNs), though a popular means of enabling remote access, come with their own set of risks.
  • Cost: Although RDS is often assumed to be inherently more cost-effective than VDI, there’s still infrastructure, licensing costs and vendor lock-in to account for. And the complexity and security of both approaches call for additional resources that will impact the bottom line.

The Alternatives to VDI and RDS

Fortunately, VDI and RDS aren’t your only options when it comes to keeping remote users integrated in the workplace. Virtual App Delivery (VAD) sidesteps the drawbacks associated with each approach by shifting the emphasis to apps, not desktops. With VAD, users are given access to the business-critical apps they need without the massive investment of resources required by VDI and RDS.

Cameyo takes the inherent benefits of VAD and makes them even more secure, more cost-effective and easier to use. Our Virtual Application Delivery solution enables companies like Klarahill to put apps in the hands of its users on the very first day of deployment. In Klarahill’s case, even though those users were running Chromebooks, they were still able to use the full-featured desktop versions of their core software, thanks to Cameyo’s secure browser-based platform. On top of that, Klarahill saved 85% in expenses compared to its prior VDI implementation while also enjoying peace of mind from Cameyo’s enhanced security.

No wonder more and more companies are choosing VAD over desktop virtualization

You’ll find Klarahill and many other Cameyo customer success stories among our case studies. And if you’d like to evaluate VAD as part of your due diligence before choosing one digital workspace strategy over another, be sure to sign up for a free trial of Cameyo or schedule a demo today.