What Is Windows Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI)?

According to Statista aggregates, the virtualization software market is expected to grow from the roughly $40 billion it was in 2020 to nearly $150 billion in 2026. With so much buzz and planned investment around virtualization, the shifting market has raised some questions. What exactly is virtualization? And what will be the fate of one of the oldest forms of desktop virtualization, Windows virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI)?

Virtualization 101

Virtualization is the process of abstracting software from the hardware on which it runs. A typical real-world example is when a user connects to a remote desktop. In this case, the user theoretically has a desktop-like experience as if the software were running on their local machine, but the operating system and all the applications are actually running on a server in a data center that could be located tens, hundreds or thousands of miles away. 

In fact, the very same server could be running multiple instances of this desktop-like environment for different remote users. That’s why these instances are called virtual machines, or VMs. Their parameters are defined by software, not the true physical hardware that’s powering them. This software used to configure VMs is called the hypervisor, a futuristic-sounding term that actually dates back to the 1970s.

What’s Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI)?

With a basic understanding of virtualization under our belts, the concept of virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) should be fairly clear. This is a technology that was developed several decades ago to give users access to a desktop-style computing environment that was independent of the machine they were using to access it.

The “infrastructure” in VDI refers to the suite of hardware and software that needs to be in place to support a VDI environment. This involves hypervisor hosts—servers that are traditionally located in on-premises data centers—to support the virtual machines. Additional servers and software solutions are needed to broker connections, handle multi-session support and facilitate remote access.

In addition to this, many organizations also provide the fleet of devices on which users will interact with these virtual desktops. These are often what’s known as thin clients, with “thin” describing the fact that their core functionality relies almost entirely on the virtual machines. Zero clients, by comparison, have no functionality without a connection to the virtual desktop infrastructure.

The de facto technology standard for accessing virtual desktop environments is called Remote Desktop Services (RDS), with the Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) being a key component of that architecture. RDS was developed by Microsoft back in the late 1990s. With the emergence of cloud-based technologies, VDI morphed into desktop as a service, or DaaS. This, in a nutshell, took the infrastructure of VDI and transferred it to the cloud. The paradigm stayed largely the same. Which is why Azure virtual machines are just the cloud service version of VMs hosted on-premises.

Now view that through the lens of Microsoft Windows

Circling back to the question posed in the title of this post: Windows virtual desktop infrastructure is simply VDI framed in terms of Microsoft Windows. Here, “desktop virtualization” is assumed to mean equipping end users with Windows desktops. The hypervisor host is taken to be running some variant of Windows Server. The users themselves are presumed to be Windows users, not macOS, Linux or ChromeOS users.

And, to be honest, that’s pretty much how VDI is usually framed anyway. Every single VDI and DaaS provider—whether you’re talking Citrix, VMware, Nutanix or Microsoft Azure Virtual Desktop—has the same underlying approach, which is to provide users with a virtual Windows operating system environment on (mostly) any device. They equate delivering “desktops” with providing end users with Windows desktops in their entirety.

Some of the proposed use cases of Windows VDI include:

  • Remote work: Users get the full, familiar Windows desktop experience even outside the office on BYOD clients.
  • Workspace standardization: Virtual machines and VDI enable IT to create and manage a uniform computing experience across the organization.
  • Cost-cutting initiatives: On account of their lower-spec hardware (e.g., CPU, RAM), thin and zero clients are less expensive than conventional workstations and laptops, making them more cost-effective.
  • Dynamic or growing workplaces: Provisioning new end users with virtual desktops instead of standalone machines improves scalability and agility.

But the benefits of VDI aren’t quite as clear cut in these scenarios as the messaging would have you believe. Virtual desktop infrastructure, including DaaS, is a legacy approach to modern computing environments that would benefit more from cloud-native solutions. VDI is expensive, cumbersome and can even open up major security vulnerabilities. And as we’ll see, providing end users with a complete Windows desktop environment often just doesn’t even make sense.

Why Windows virtual desktops are a legacy approach

The fundamental issue with Windows-centric desktop virtualization is that it’s wedded to the traditional concept of the operating system. It’s not that there’s anything inherently wrong with Microsoft Windows per se. The bigger sticking point is that VDI is focused solely on giving end users a classic, old-school PC-style desktop experience — with all the potential drawbacks that entails.

Latency is just one such issue. Recreating the PC experience on a remote thin client can be far more data-intensive than just delivering a single software application. This can lead to input lag and lack of responsiveness that leads to a sub-optimal and unproductive experience for the end user. 

Security is another concern. Providing Windows virtual desktops to remote users means that malicious actors have the power of full desktops at their disposal should one of those devices be compromised. Even if steps are taken to mitigate that, like using sandboxed virtual servers, the use of virtual private networks (VPNs) and unsecured RDP ports can increase an organization’s attack surface.

And let’s not forget pricing. VDI is widely acknowledged as a huge investment. Although DaaS does take some of the on-premises hardware out of the equation, equipping users with Windows-based remote desktops still involves a significant outlay. There are much more efficient approaches that can suit varied workloads.

Finally, there’s the often-overlooked matter of ease of use. Windows-based virtual desktop environments create a bifurcated user experience where the user is on one OS, then has to use VDI to log into a Windows desktop session in order to access their apps. This bifurcation also exists in all-Windows scenarios where the user is on, say, Windows 11 and has to use a VDI environment running Windows 10.

A modern approach to virtualization: Virtual App Delivery 

Instead of pushing all the complexity and security issues of the Windows operating system onto users’ devices, Virtual App Delivery (VAD) provides end users with straightforward, streamlined access to the apps they need.

Cameyo, a pioneer of VAD, embraces this app-centric approach because it suits the more flexible digital workspaces required by modern organizations. Through Cameyo’s VAD platform, end users have remote access to all the apps that are essential for their productivity, and they can seamlessly work with those apps right within their device’s native OS environment — whether it’s Windows 10, ChromeOS, macOS, IGEL, Android, iOS or Linux. That’s because Cameyo’s virtualized apps are delivered securely through the native Web browser, or as Progressive Web Apps (PWAs). 

This creates a frictionless, high-productivity user experience even on BYOD devices. Compare that to a desktop virtualization solution like VMware Horizon or Citrix that still requires users to log back into a (virtual) Windows OS every time they need to access their apps and data. By contrast, Cameyo is quicker for IT to provision, more transparent to the end user and easier to optimize for different workloads.

That’s what makes Cameyo the only virtualization solution to move beyond the Windows operating system while still giving end users access to all of their Windows and Linux (and SaaS and internal web) apps on any device. Cameyo’s VAD platform provides a native application experience on any OS, which in turn feeds into a superior digital employee experience (DEX).

Getting started with Cameyo couldn’t be easier. Sign up today for your free trial and test drive our Virtual App Delivery solution in your own environment. If you’re not quite ready to take that step, that’s fine too. Feel free to schedule a demo with one of our engineers to have them show you the ins and outs of Cameyo.