Microsoft Windows Virtual Desktop

­­Microsoft­­ Windows Virtual Desktop is an Azure-based cloud service for desktop and application virtualization. Using Windows Virtual Desktop, companies can deploy virtual Windows desktops and enterprise application access for individual employees.

Windows Virtual Desktop uses desktop virtualization. Virtual machines (VMs) for multiple users and desktops are hosted in Microsoft Azure -- meaning that endpoint devices that access the desktops do not directly run the operating system, software, folders and files, or the user settings.  

Microsoft's virtual desktop infrastructure service is intended for enterprises. It is often used for specialized workloads, security and regulation-heavy sectors, and elastic and remote work demands. The Windows Virtual Desktop client can be accessed from a variety of device types and operating systems. Currently, the client is accessible via Windows, macOS, iOS, Android an­­d web browser.

The Windows Virtual Desktop service was announced in September 2018, and released in September 2019.

How does Windows Virtual Desktop work?

Windows Virtual Desktop is a desktop as a service (DaaS) product that offers virtual desktop and application access through Microsoft Azure's cloud infrastructure.

Using desktop virtualization, the Windows 10 operating system does not directly run on the client device that the user accesses it from; rather, it is hosted in the cloud via Microsoft Azure. Users can access the client software for Windows Virtual Desktop through a variety of device types such as Windows, macOS, iOS, Android and HTML5-enabled web browser. As Windows Virtual Desktop allows for multi-session Windows 10 deployments, multiple users can be assigned to each virtual machine, therefore requiring less Azure infrastructure.

Microsoft's acquisition of FSLogix allows user profiles to be stored separately from the virtual machines, in separate containers.

Key features and capabilities

According to Microsoft's web page for Windows Virtual Desktop, key features include:

  • Desktops and enterprise apps can be virtualized in multi-session, multi-user scenarios. Full desktop virtualization environments run through Azure subscriptions. Additional gateway servers are not needed.
  • Scalable Windows 10 deployment.
  • Assigned users can connect with virtual desktops and apps through any Windows Virtual Desktop client device, including Windows, macOS, iOS or Android.
  • Existing Remote Desktop Services (RDS), Windows Server desktops and applications can be brought to any of the computers.
  • Unified management for Windows 10, Windows Server and Windows 7 desktops and apps.
  • As many host pools can be published as needed.
  • Images for production workloads can be user provided or used from the Azure Gallery.
  • Persistent desktops provide maintained ownership for the individual user.
  • Host pools, app groups, users and resources can be managed and configured through the Azure portal, Virtual Desktop PowerShell and REST
  • Diagnostics service allows admins to troubleshoot errors and collect information about configuration or user errors.
  • Reverse connections can be used to establish users securely.
  • Extended Security Updates are provided for free for Windows 7 virtual desktops.
  • FSLogix for profile management can separate user profiles from the underlying OS.

Benefits and challenges of Windows Virtual Desktop

Reported benefits to using Windows Virtual Desktop include:

  • Flexibility with remote work.
  • Ease of deployment and scalability.
  • Multi-session capabilities for each Windows 10 VM can reduce costs. Fewer virtual machines can provide the same amount of available resources for users with lower and OS expenses.
  • Lower overall setup fees related to individual desktop computers, software licenses, decentralized maintenance and support costs.
  • Access to Azure security features.
  • Delivers a multi-session Windows 10 virtual desktop experience, with optimization for Office 365 Windows Virtual Desktop is the only virtual desktop service that does this.
  • End user experience with accessibility across multiple operating systems, such as Windows, macOS, iOS, Android and web browsers.

Windows Virtual Desktop creates some challenges, as well:

  • Working offline, efficiently, is not possible due to cloud-based infrastructure. Weaker internet connections may create hiccups to smooth functioning.
  • Creates a level of reliance on the cloud service provider for aspects such as service reliability and security.
  • Windows Virtual Desktop does not offer a simple way to manage updates for images or applications, in contrast to competitors such as Citrix and VMware. This can cause challenges within environments that are larger or more complex to manage.
  • Lack of auto-scaling and provisioning mechanisms.
  • Limited management tools for controlling sessions or assisting connected end-users.
  • Heavy workloads may be negatively affected by limited data transport which only uses reverse Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) WebSocket-based connections.
  • Windows Virtual Desktop data components are only available in six Azure regions.

Enterprise uses cases

Enterprise use cases associated with Microsoft Windows Virtual Desktop include:

  • Providing reliable application and desktop access to traveling sales team members, mobile and bring your own device (BYOD) users, call centers and branch employees.
  • Applications for sectors with specific security demands and regulations, such as healthcare, financial services and government. Rules and permissions can be customized so that individual users get their own desktops that only show relevant information -- such as an individual doctor's specific patient records.
  • Multiple desktop accounts with fewer endpoints for shift workers.
  • For work needs such as remote workers, contractor and partner access, mergers and acquisitions.
  • Access to highly specialized application workloads, such as engineering and legacy applications.

Licensing, costs, requirements

Microsoft Windows Virtual Desktop requires an active Windows or Office 365 license or subscription for each user who is connected to a virtual desktop. Furthermore, Azure virtual machines used for this service must be Windows desktop computers. They must use a standard method or hybrid AD join method, rather than Azure AD join, to join the Azure AD.

Each eligible user is granted access to Windows 7 and 10 virtual desktops. Additional costs for deployments depend on compute costs, virtual machines, operating system storage, data disk (for personal desktops only), FSLogix user profile storage and networking.

Eligible licenses for access to Windows 7 or 10 virtual desktops include:

  • Microsoft 365 E3/E5
  • Microsoft 365 A3/A5/Student Use Benefits
  • Microsoft 365 F3
  • Microsoft 365 Business Premium
  • Windows 10 Enterprise E3/E5
  • Windows 10 Education A3/A5
  • Windows 10 VDA per user

Microsoft Remote Desktop Services Client Access License customers can access virtual desktops and applications that are powered by Windows Server Remote Access Desktops for no extra cost.

Other requirements necessary for a Windows Virtual Desktop deployment include having an Azure Active Directory within the Azure cloud infrastructure, or a domain controller synced it. Furthermore, the Azure subscription must either have a virtual network, be connected to the Windows Server Active Directory, or be connected to an Azure Active Directory Domain Services instance.

This was last updated in October 2020

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