How to perform an Azure Virtual Desktop (AVD) migration

An Azure Virtual Desktop migration begins in the planning stages, which should entail weighing the options for moving to AVD, including alternatives to direct migration.

Azure Virtual Desktop -- previously named Windows Virtual Desktop -- is Microsoft Azure's desktop-as-a-service offering.

By using Azure Virtual Desktop (AVD), IT no longer needs to buy hardware and expensive management software for virtual desktops. Instead, organizations go to Azure, and with a few clicks and a credit card swipe, they have virtual desktops ready for users.

But migrating from an existing virtual desktop environment can bring some complications. Before deciding on how to adopt AVD, organizations need to determine what it is and the exact benefits it offers.

What is Azure Virtual Desktop?

AVD delivers enterprise virtual desktops or applications to users. The workload is hosted on Microsoft Azure. In fact, AVD does not support on-premises deployments unless an organization has an Azure Stack, which lets it basically run Azure on premises.

AVD delivers the entire back-end service for virtual desktops and applications, and it lets users connect through the internet to their company's resources. The host VMs for AVD are part of a hosting pool and run on Microsoft Azure.

Why migrate to Azure Virtual Desktop?

AVD is easy to set up with numerous data centers to choose from. Organizations can quickly create an AVD pool close to their location or across multiple sites worldwide. This is a significant advantage compared to buying and managing hardware firsthand. AVD is included with the right RDS CALs or Microsoft 365 licenses. It might be cheaper to go this route than renewing subscriptions for on-premises virtual apps and desktop offerings like Citrix or VMware.

Another big reason to use AVD instead of traditional on-premises applications is scalability. Many companies are moving to a modern workspace and prefer SaaS applications over Windows-based ones. Many customers want to remove their on-premises Citrix or VMware environment for third-party hosted ones.

One of the major hindrances to transitioning to SaaS is a line-of-business application or critical back-end system that has not yet moved to SaaS and requires a published desktop or application to function properly. Moving that application to AVD might be wise because this lets IT scale back the machines needed to host the application as the organization is busy fading out the application. When the application is migrated to SaaS, IT can quickly delete the AVD environment with a few clicks. The same, of course, goes for scaling up when needed.

The last reason to deploy AVD is the technology lifecycle of a product. When a product is new, it has a lot of innovations and competition, and it might be hard to decide on a vendor. This is not the case with published desktop and applications technology, where the quality of the products has standardized and the delivery for users is not as different as AVD, Citrix or VMware.

Why organizations shouldn't adopt Azure Virtual Desktop via migration

There are many reasons to migrate to AVD, but there are also many reasons not to. The biggest of these is a question: Is the organization ready to move to the cloud? AVD is not available on premises, so choosing AVD means moving to the public cloud.

The applications an organization hosts on AVD need to access data, so is this data available within the public cloud? This might require IT teams to migrate applications, databases and file servers to the cloud or set up an express route or VPN to the data center. Both of these options create extra Azure costs. Also, AVD does not support hybrid implementations, while Citrix and VMware do.

Another reason to not adopt AVD via migration is that AVD's management plane is not as feature rich as that of Citrix or VMware. Users will have almost the same experience on all platforms, but it's different from a system administration perspective. AVD lacks a proper image management system like Citrix Machine Creation Service (MCS). This can be a huge issue when dealing with a large environment. This is one reason why Citrix and VMware are more popular on premises than RDS. However, vendors such as Nerdio, NetApp, Citrix and VMware have products that IT can combine with AVD to solve these issues. The same goes for troubleshooting user issues -- AVD doesn't come with a great troubleshooting tool like Citrix Director for a helpdesk. There are some monitoring Azure workbooks available, but they lack many essential features.

Does it matter where you migrate from?

Migrating to AVD is not an easy task. In fact, there is no clear and easy way to migrate from an on-premises Citrix or VMware environment. Microsoft does, however, provide a comprehensive guide on migrating from RDS to AVD. A key factor about this guide is that the outlined process only works with specific circumstances that some environments might lack.

The best way to migrate to AVD is to avoid migration altogether and build up a new green field AVD environment. The migration challenge depends on how complicated a user's current image is and if IT staff use image automation tools such as Terraform, Ivanti Automation or Azure DevOps. If an image is automated, the migration is not that difficult. IT administrators can just run the automation on an Azure VM, remove the tasks that install the Citrix or VMware software, and add the AVD agent to the installation tasks. If the IT staff has created and updated its image manually, it might be more challenging to recreate it in Azure. This can serve as the motivation to automate image creation.

User data is another consideration when migrating to AVD. AVD supports and advertises the use of FSLogix profiles. If an organization uses FSLogix profiles with Citrix, VMware or RDS, IT can easily connect the same profiles to the AVD environment. From there, users will automatically have their complete profile available in the new environment.

Organizations that use a different technology, such as Citrix Profile Management -- formerly Citrix UPM -- or Ivanti Zero Profile, should migrate to FSLogix first. This means users will start with a new empty profile in the cloud. IT teams should write a guide for users on how they can save profile data, such as settings from Microsoft Edge or Chrome -- to their home drive and then import them back into the new environment. IT can even script this process for users. Just remember that clutter in is also clutter out, so it can sometimes be better to start with fresh new profiles.

4 factors to help plan a transition to Azure Virtual Desktop

It is easy to get stuck in the details of how to get an AVD environment up and running, but IT leaders and management should keep the following factors in mind.

1. Cost

An AVD license is included with Microsoft 365, but the main cost is the Azure consumption. Each AVD host that runs in Azure consumes Azure resources, and AVD does not have a scaling feature analogous to Citrix's auto-scale, which automatically shuts down and deletes Azure machines when they are no longer needed. This Citrix tool also recreates the machines when they are needed again.

An AVD license is included with Microsoft 365, but the main cost is the Azure consumption.

IT can script this automation with Azure Automation, but out of the box, AVD is created to generate as much Azure consumption as possible. There might also be unexpected costs in networking and data usage. If an application on AVD requires a connection to the back end that is still on premises, IT teams will have to set up an express route on their VPN and pay for any associated data costs.

Organizations can try to avoid surprises via the Azure cost calculator, but it isn't a perfect measure of the data that users will consume on the platform. It's important for IT to closely monitor the costs of its AVD environment in the first days and weeks that it's online to determine the operational costs of the environment. It might be a good idea to first do a proof of concept with a limited number of users to project the exact costs.

2. AVD vs. Windows 365

Microsoft has two DaaS offerings -- AVD and Windows 365 -- so IT teams and management need to compare the benefits of each one. AVD is an enterprise-class DaaS offering that provides more options and freedom to create the whole environment to direct specifications.

Windows 365 gives its customers complete cloud PCs, which IT can then manage with Intune. With Windows 365, IT doesn't have to pay for consumption. Rather, it offers a flat rate per month, per user. A good use case for Windows 365 is a desktop for independent contractors that need access to company data but don't want to be enrolled with Intune. These contractors can access the Windows 365 Cloud PC from a BYOD endpoint and IT can then revoke that access once the tasks are done.

A chart comparing the license sizes and use cases of Windows 365 and AVD.

3. Multi- or single session

Organizations can use AVD with multi- or single-session hosts. And the consideration for using multi or single-session hosts is the same as on-premises with one exception. AVD lets administrators run Windows 10 or 11 as a multi-session host OS. If an organization uses software that requires Windows 10 or 11, IT administrators can switch between multi-session Windows 10 or 11 and enjoy the cost savings of multi-session hosts.

4. Management software

IT can combine AVD with Citrix, VMware, Nerdio and other management software to get image management, user troubleshooting tools, auto-scale cost savings and more. It's well worth investigating these options, and the added functionality from third-party tools might be mandatory for large-scale AVD deployments.

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