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Compare offerings from 3 major desktop-as-a-service providers

Three desktop-as-a-service providers, Citrix, VMware and Microsoft, all offer virtual desktops as a part of their cloud services. Delve into the pros and cons of their offerings.

Desktop-as-a-service offerings can deliver virtual desktops with fewer management tasks for IT, but there are a variety of routes an organization can take to get there.

Citrix, VMware and Microsoft all offer managed desktop services as part of their cloud portfolios, but it's not always clear what distinguishes one offering from another.

There's no simple formula for choosing between the three major desktop-as-a-service providers. Much depends on what systems the organization is already running, and their specific needs and budget. For organizations that are already invested in Citrix or VMware technologies, the decision will likely be easier.

Organizations that want to implement desktop as a service (DaaS) should compare features from the three major vendors before they decide.

Citrix Managed Desktops

Citrix Managed Desktops is a cloud-based service to deliver Windows virtual desktops and applications. The service runs exclusively on Azure, supports both single-session and multi-session desktop delivery, and provides access from any device with multi-factor authentication. Citrix Managed Desktops is similar to Citrix Virtual Apps and Desktops, but without many of the complexities.

One of the big selling points for Citrix Managed Desktops is its support for the Windows Virtual Desktop service and its multi-session Windows 10 desktops. Multi-session desktops were introduced with Windows Virtual Desktop and represent an important milestone for desktop virtualization. Despite this support, however, Citrix is responsible for managing the platform itself.

For organizations that are already invested in Citrix or VMware technologies, the decision will likely be easier.

Citrix Managed Desktops incorporates technologies such as the Citrix Virtual Delivery Agent (VDA) and Citrix Gateway service. The service can integrate with Active Directory and Azure Active Directory, and it supports both domain-joined and non-domain-joined desktops, making it possible to provide external users with desktop services. Citrix also plans to support SD-WAN technologies in the future.

Citrix Managed Desktops can benefit small-to-midsize organizations that want end-to-end desktop management or don't have the resources to implement on-premises systems. Large organizations can also benefit, particularly if they have a fluctuating number of workers or want to support a hybrid environment. Plus, customers can bring their existing Microsoft licenses to Citrix Managed Desktops.

Despite these benefits, the service comes with several limitations. Customers are heavily locked into the Citrix ecosystem, and subscription fees can add up quickly, leading to a greater total cost of ownership (TCO) over the long term.

IT admins must maintain all software installed on the VDA machines and contend with the complexities of connecting applications to backend systems. Citrix can restart services and access the customer's infrastructure to perform administrative tasks without notifying the customers, which brings into question security and compliance considerations.

VMware Horizon Cloud

The Horizon Cloud umbrella includes several services, including on-premises Horizon 7, Horizon on VMware Cloud on AWS, Horizon Cloud on IBM Cloud and Horizon Cloud on Microsoft Azure. Of these, only Horizon Cloud on IBM Cloud and Horizon Cloud on Azure are considered DaaS products.

Horizon Cloud on IBM Cloud, sometimes referred to as Horizon Cloud with Hosted Infrastructure, is hosted on IBM Cloud and managed by VMware. Customers purchase their subscriptions directly from VMware. Horizon Cloud on Microsoft Azure offers a similar service, except that customers bring their own Azure subscriptions. Of the two, the IBM Cloud service is slightly more robust, providing advanced features such as instant clones and SecurID, while supporting more desktops per location.

With either Horizon Cloud service, customers also get the extensive VMware ecosystem. Organizations can use VMware User Environment Manager for personalization and dynamic policy configuration across VMware environments or VMware Identity Manager to set up single sign-on (SSO). In addition, Horizon Cloud supports the Blast Extreme protocol as well as the NVIDA Grid virtual GPU (vGPU) technology.

Horizon Cloud also makes it easier to integrate with other corporate data center systems by providing each tenant with its own virtual LAN (vLAN). In addition, Horizon and the Horizon Cloud services use the same client software, making it easier to transition between environments, which could be useful in scenarios such as mergers or acquisitions.

VMware also plans to extend Horizon Cloud on Azure to support Windows Virtual Desktop, putting the service on par with Citrix Managed Desktops. Like Citrix Managed Desktops, users can access Horizon Cloud desktops and applications from any device. Any organization looking to offload management and reduce upfront costs while gaining flexibility might benefit, including organizations that want to extend their on-premises Horizon implementations to the cloud.

At the same time, the VMware services share many of the same concerns as Citrix Managed Desktops, such as vendor lock-in, higher TCO and the degree to which VMware can access and control a customer's environment. VMware, however, offers the most flexibility out of all three desktop-as-a-service providers when it comes to cloud vendors.

Windows Virtual Desktop

Windows Virtual Desktop is a DaaS service that runs on Azure. It supports multi-session Windows 10 Enterprise OS, an industry first and a departure from the more traditional approaches to virtual desktop delivery.

The new technology offsets some of the limitations of the server-based model without incurring the overhead of a client-based system. Windows Virtual Desktop still supports these delivery models, but multi-session Windows 10 will likely prove the biggest game-changer, and it's no surprise that other desktop-as-a-service providers such as Citrix and VMware are jumping on board.

Windows Virtual Desktop offers other important benefits as well. The service includes optimizations for Office 365 ProPlus and support for Remote Desktop Services (RDS) sessions. Customers can create a full desktop virtualization environment within their Azure subscriptions, without needing more gateway servers, and they can bring their own images for production workloads. In addition, Microsoft provides RESTful APIs for configuring host pools, creating application groups, assigning users and publishing resources.

Windows Virtual Desktop is free for customers that have a Windows 10 Enterprise or Microsoft 365 Enterprise license. Customers must pay for the virtual machines running on Azure and the storage they use. Organizations can also use Windows Virtual Desktop to virtualize Windows 7 desktops, which includes free Extended Security Updates (ESU) until January 2023.

Organizations that commit to the Windows Virtual Desktop service are indeed buying into the whole Azure ecosystem, which has its pros and cons. Those already committed to Azure, especially if they already have the necessary licensing, could have much to gain. The service is built by Microsoft, based on Microsoft technologies, and managed by Microsoft, providing a cohesive environment for carrying out a wide range of enterprise operations.

At the same time, the service represents one more step toward being locked into Azure. Despite its benefits, Windows Virtual Desktop is still a cloud service, which means organizations must sacrifice a certain level of control. Windows Virtual Desktop also offers limited management options. IT can manage the service with PowerShell or opt to use the extensive management capabilities of traditional VDI platforms such as Citrix Virtual Apps and Desktops or VMware Horizon.

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