What is VDI, Plus Other Digital Workspace Alternatives To Consider

To say there are many different approaches to providing solutions for your employees to work remotely would be a huge understatement.  There are literally myriads of solutions on the market that offer remote connectivity capabilities for remote employees to carry out business-critical tasks.Image for Cameyo blog post on different approaches to Digital Workspaces

Since the beginning of this year with the global pandemic, the first priority of businesses around the world, no doubt including your own, has been to provide a way for employees to work remotely.  You may have had a solution in place already, or you may have needed to ramp up quickly to provide what was needed.  Even with existing solutions in place, these no doubt had to be bolstered.

What are the main types of remote work solutions that businesses today have to choose from?  Is it a “one or the other” approach?  Is there room for mixing and matching technologies?

Top remote technology solutions for your business

There are many different types of remote solutions on the market today.  Some technologies like VPN have been around for decades now and are still used.  Other technologies like remote desktop technologies are still used in various ways.  While there are many different types of remote architecture and solutions, there are really two different types of technologies that provide viable options for the modern needs of the remote workforce and that satisfy security, compliance, and other concerns.

These are:

  • Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) and Desktop-as-a-Service (DaaS)
  • Virtual application delivery

Let’s take a look at each of these approaches and see how each potentially fit into your remote work strategy for both today and tomorrow. 

Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) and Desktop-as-a-Service (DaaS)

One of the more popular options for organizations to provide employees with remote access to corporate resources is with Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI).  The very similar cloud-based option is often referred to as Desktop-as-a-Service (DaaS).  With both options, remote employees are provided with full virtual desktops that allow running applications and performing other business-critical tasks. 

To level set, what is VDI?  Different vendors implement VDI technology differently, however, in general, VDI refers to creating a pool of virtual desktop images on a centralized server, typically in a data center.  The virtual desktops (applications and operating systems, like Microsoft Windows) are then delivered to remote end users.  This could be by way of a web browser session or with a client or thin client that runs on the end user device. 

VDI solutions in general contain the following basic components:

  • Hypervisor host – A host running a bare metal hypervisor that serves the compute, networking, and storage for the underlying VDI virtual machines
  • Virtual Machines – Virtual machines that are served to end users.  These can be either persistent or non-persistent (more on this below)
  • Gold image – Generally used in a non-persistent VDI configuration.  The “gold” image is the source of provisioning for the non-persistent desktop
  • Connection broker – The connection broker is the entity that finds available virtual desktops in a “pool” of virtual desktops (non-persistent) or matches up an end user with a persistent desktop to which they are explicitly assigned

There are many different solutions for VDI and DaaS on the market, including both VMware Horizon and Citrix virtual desktops. 

Persistent vs. Non-persistent VDI implementations

VDI infrastructure generally serves up either persistent or non-persistent virtual desktops to an end user.  Persistent desktops are virtual machines that persist even after the user disconnects.  The VM stays in the virtual inventory and all the associated data contained on the VM remains, even when the user disconnects or logs off.  This is a very traditional approach that can be likened to using a physical desktop for work.

An end user who needs very specialized tools or applications and customized desktop settings may be assigned a persistent desktop.  This means the end user is assigned the same specific virtual machine each time they connect.  A good example of a couple of specific use cases for a persistent desktop may be an engineer or a graphic artist with very specific tools and applications needed for daily activities.

Non-persistent desktops are specialized virtual machines that are generalized.  When a user connects to a non-persistent desktop pool, they may be connected to a different desktop instance each time they login to the VDI solution.  Changes are not saved in this implementation.  Users are presented with a pristine desktop each time they connect.  With non-persistent desktop pools, these can be elastic in nature and provisioned based on demand from incoming users. 

General office staff and others who simply need a desktop computer to access apps like Microsoft Office or other internal business productivity applications would most likely be assigned to a pool of non-persistent desktop resources. 

What is the difference between VDI and DaaS?

Desktop-as-a-Service is a special kind of VDI that is cloud-hosted.  In other words, the infrastructure and all that goes with a DaaS configuration in most cases is handled by the cloud service provider.  This helps to offset the burden of day-to-day administration and troubleshooting of an on-premises VDI deployment.

This can have many fiscal advantages as well such as shifting to an operational expense (OpEx) rather than a capital expense (CapEx).  In addition, whereas on-premises VDI deployments will have at least a theoretical limitation of how many virtual desktops can be supported, cloud DaaS has the advantage of virtually unlimited scalability. 

DaaS solutions based on cloud technologies are generally elastic.  This means they can scale either direction, up or down, based on the needs of the business.  This is something that is not really possible with on-premises VDI deployments.  On-premises hardware, that has been provisioned for VDI, is static and can generally only be changed during refresh cycles, etc. 

Virtual Application Delivery

There is another highly-effective approach to delivering resources to remote workers known as virtual application delivery.  This is an approach that is certainly gaining traction in the industry, especially as organizations are focusing on building out a digital workspace for remote employees. 

Virtual application delivery focuses on applications and not desktop infrastructure.  This approach drastically cuts down on the resources that are required to allow remote end users to run business-critical applications.  Since the remote end user is not consuming an entire desktop session but only running an application remotely, this requires a fraction of the resources. 

Many businesses find as they scrutinize exactly what resources are needed by remote workers, it often comes down to the majority needing access to run their normal applications.  Interacting with a full-blown virtual desktop environment is just not needed.  This leads to tremendous advantages including the following:

  • Much smaller infrastructure footprint – The much greater efficiency of virtual application delivery compared to VDI means a much smaller footprint from an infrastructure perspective (fewer servers, networking resources, storage, etc).
  • Reduced complexity – Not as many “moving parts” are involved with virtual application delivery which leads to reduced complexity.
  • Reduced staffing needed to manage and maintain a full-blown VDI environment – VDI requires a special skillset and staffing of individuals who can maintain, configure, and troubleshoot a VDI implementation.  The reduced complexity with application virtualization means you need less specialized skills and staffing to maintain the environment.
  • Much shorter provisioning time – Reduced complexity and reduced infrastructure leads to much shorter provisioning time.
  • Better scalability – Application virtualization allows organizations to scale very quickly and efficiently.
  • Reduced cost – Increased efficiency, smaller infrastructure footprint, and fewer IT operations specialists to take care of the solution leads to tremendous cost savings.

Provides simple and efficient access to applications

Virtual application delivery is a great tool for your organization. It allows your remote employees to easily access what they need most – applications – on any endpoint device, from the browser. These applications can be custom, home-grown, modern, or even legacy on-premises applications.

Using a modern virtual application delivery solution like Cameyo allows businesses to provide access to critical apps in hours and not days, weeks, or months.  Virtual application delivery requires only a tiny footprint for virtual apps that can be delivered over a simple SSL-enabled browser session. 

Do you have to choose one or the other?

Many organizations will assume that you need to pick one or the other and use that solution to solve all the remote work needs of your business.  However, realistically, both types of remote work solutions may have a place in your organization in varying degrees.

There are definitely use cases that cater to either full-blown virtual desktops provided by VDI or DaaS as well as virtual application delivery.

Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) and Desktop-as-a-Service (DaaS)

Well-suited for:

  • Users who require full desktop sessions
  • Have custom digital workflows and software tooling
  • Engineering, CAD/CAM
  • Graphic artists
  • Developers

Virtual Application Delivery

Well-suited for:

  • Remote workers who need access to normal business applications (most likely the majority)
  • Building a digital workspace for modern productivity
  • Extreme scalability
  • Ease of provisioning, management, configuration
  • Small footprint requirements
  • Small infrastructure investment
  • On-premises or cloud

Concluding Thoughts

At the end of the day, having choices is always a good thing for you and for the market in general.  Having the right tool for the job is important.  It may be the case that provisioning one solution over the other or even provisioning both types of remote work solutions in your environment make sense for your business to satisfy different use cases.

In many cases, organizations who look at the actual needs of their employees decide that virtual application delivery is the most cost-effective and efficient approach for remote workers.  VDI and DaaS certainly have their place.  However, as organizations shift to digital workspace layouts and need to deliver applications quickly, efficiently, and in a cost-effective way, virtual application delivery is certainly an approach that makes sense for many.