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Azure Virtual Desktop partners find SMB deals

The economics of Microsoft's AVD has made virtual desktops more feasible for some smaller business, but partners said the technology scales to support enterprise clients.

Azure Virtual Desktop partners are finding a home for the technology among small companies, large enterprises and, in some cases, as an extension to Citrix deployments.

Microsoft's Azure-based desktop and application virtualization offering became generally available in September 2019. Since then, Microsoft has cited the technology as a digital transformation opportunity, encouraging partners to develop Azure Virtual Desktop (AVD) practices. Microsoft in September 2020 launched an AVD Advanced Specialization to help partners establish credibility and differentiation in the desktop as a service (DaaS) market.

Some partners have responded to Microsoft's AVD message, wrapping services around the offering.

Howell Technology Group (HTG), an IT solutions provider based in the United Kingdom, is one such partner. The company earned an AVD Advanced Specialization last year and launched an AVD FastTrack program to help its clients deploy and manage their Microsoft DaaS environments.

HTG Founder and CTO Kevin Howell said AVD opens virtual desktop infrastructure technology to organizations that are smaller than typical VDI customers. In the past, a VDI deployment needed at least 200 seats to make sense from a cost-benefit perspective. That formula, however, has changed with AVD, which replaces on-premises servers with cloud resources.

"The cost of entry is so low, anybody can use it," Howell said, noting customers don't need to spend on servers and OS licenses.

DaaS comparison chart
DaaS approaches such as WVD can prove less expensive and easier to manage than their server-based counterparts, creating an opening for SMB sales.

As a result, organizations with as few as five users can adopt AVD. Small companies and education sector clients are deploying the technology, Howell said.

Opportunities come in all sizes

So, too, are larger enterprises.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year, HTG helped a housing association with thousands of seats deploy AVD to quickly provide virtual desktops to home-based workers, Howell said. Time to market was critical. The task of purchasing and installing data center servers to support a VDI rollout for the newly remote workforce would have taken three months, Howell noted, citing shortages of gear in the supply chain and difficulty accessing data centers due to social distancing or lack of staff on hand. AVD, however, "was a turnkey solution that we could turn on in minutes in any location," he said.

The cost of entry is so low, anybody can use it.
Kevin HowellCTO, Howell Technology Group

Infopulse, a digital services and consulting company based in Kyiv, Ukraine, has also deployed AVD for small businesses and large enterprises. The company's first AVD rollout was for a small financial services firm in Switzerland that had been using a local hosting services provider and Citrix for desktop virtualization, said Oleksii Ivanov, expert IT engineer at Infopulse. The setup had become expensive: The company had to pay support fees to the hosting provider, software licensing fees to Citrix for virtual desktop management and VDI client licensing fees to Microsoft.

The customer faced additional costs on the compute side and management-server side as well. Infopulse recommended migrating to Azure and replacing Citrix with AVD, which reduced the customer's virtual desktop expenses. The customer was able to cut Citrix licensing and management server costs, for example.

Oleksii said AVD deployments start at five to 10 users and scale up from there. On the enterprise side, Infopulse has worked with a large manufacturing company. While managing a data center-to-Azure migration for that organization, Infopulse noticed the customer had deployed about 100 servers to provide around 7,000 remote desktop sessions. Infopulse migrated the remote desktop environment, which was based on Windows Server and Remote Desktop Services, to AVD, Oleksii said.

The economic benefits of AVD depend, to some degree, upon how much an organization already uses Microsoft offerings. If a customer already uses Microsoft Azure, the virtual desktop management layer is included as an Azure service, but it might have to upgrade its license to a plan that covers AVD -- Microsoft 365 E3, for instance. Infopulse said its AVD offering is in demand among customers who already work in the Microsoft environment, noting AVD is usually cheaper than other offerings customers can use to provide Windows-based desktops.

Bemo, a Microsoft Direct Cloud Solution Provider and cybersecurity company based in Las Vegas, offers AVD deployment services. Demand for AVD has accelerated among the company's small business customers, especially since Microsoft rolled out an audio/visual (A/V) redirection feature for AVD and Microsoft Teams, said Bruno Lecoq Bemo CEO and chief information security officer.

A/V redirection, which launched in July 2020, handles Microsoft Teams conferences locally on the call client hardware, bypassing the AVD virtual machine and improving latency.

"Many people wanted [AVD] but couldn't do Teams," Lecoq said. Bemo can now target customers who had been unwilling to adopt Microsoft's virtual desktop technology, he added.

Bemo sees high demand for AVD among customers that have 20 to 100 users, Lecoq said. SMB customers dealing with COVID-19 have shown interest in AVD's ability to let users remotely access QuickBooks Enterprise, which typically runs on servers located at the customer's location, he said. Customers can migrate QuickBooks Enterprise to Azure and have home-based workers access the accounting application through AVD.

Coopetition with Citrix

AVD competes with Citrix in some cases and cooperates with the virtualization company's technology in others, according to Azure Virtual Desktop partners. Microsoft named Citrix an approved partner for AVD, one facet of a long-running alliance between the companies. As a result, organizations can use Citrix's enterprise tools to manage AVD deployments.

HTG's Howell said his company replaces Citrix with AVD when the latter is deployed natively. However, other deployments involve Citrix running on top of AVD. HTG's housing organization deployment, for example, used an existing Citrix installation to create an AVD resource pool in the public cloud. The ability to plug AVD under Citrix lets the customer tap Citrix user provisioning and administrative tools, eliminating the need to retrain staff, Howell noted.

Carisa Stringer, senior director of product marketing, desktops and applications at Citrix, said the company is "seeing an increase in the number of companies integrating [Citrix Virtual Apps and Desktops] with [AVD]." She said the linkup stems from the "new age of remote work" and the need to quickly provision virtual desktops that provide secure and reliable access to corporate resources.

Ray Wolf, CEO at A2K Partners, a Citrix partner based in Austin, Texas, said he has discussed Citrix-WVD integration with customers but hasn't seen definitive use cases emerge.

"We haven't landed on an opportunity to leverage [AVD] in connection with Citrix," he said. "The [AVD] side of it is really just in the discussion stages."

In the meantime, A2K Partners focuses on the future of work and employee experience. Wolf said Citrix's repositioning in the market from an IT infrastructure provider to an employee experience and productivity company is on track with where his company is going.

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