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WVD vs. RDS vs. VDI: Which should you choose?

Application and desktop virtualization delivered by Windows Server continues to do the job, but is it time to give Microsoft's new cloud-based desktop service a look?

The COVID-19 pandemic pushed more than a few administrators out of their comfort zones when the need to set up remote workers pushed every other project to the background.

The effort to stand up the fully remote infrastructure seemingly overnight required some in IT to make quick decisions to determine which technology would work best for their organization. Microsoft has produced several entries in the virtualized application and virtual desktop market. Today, the company has three distinct offerings -- virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), Remote Desktop Services (RDS) and Windows Virtual Desktop (WVD) -- to give end users access to applications and data they need to keep working.

While they perform some of the same functions, they are not the same internally, as each can have a different back end, licensing model and audience. It's ultimately up to the admin to do a WVD vs. RDS vs. VDI comparison to determine which approach is best at a time when more applications -- and desktops -- have sprouted in the cloud.

Remote Desktop Services

RDS is one of the most mature remote-access offerings from Microsoft. RDS -- formerly known as Terminal Services -- is a proprietary protocol in Windows systems used to provide a session-based virtual desktop or develop a virtual desktop infrastructure. Once installed, RDS is easy to set up and get working. Each user who logs in gets a virtualized desktop provided by the server with applications that were configured and installed on the server for presentation to end users.

One of the great benefits to an RDS setup is the relative ease of the deployment. Outside of getting the appropriate licensing, RDS setups can be done in an afternoon and with little external impact to other systems or applications. But there are a few caveats. RDS is based on the Windows Server OS, not a Windows desktop. So, the end user might be getting a slightly more restrictive experience than a traditional VDI or the cloud-based WVD, but it is functional and that is a key here.

Microsoft did not design RDS as a desktop replacement but as another delivery method for applications that could be installed on a Windows OS platform. While the server-based experience, rather than the desktop experience, chipped away at the popularity of RDS, it was really the movement of end-user applications from thick clients to web-based clients that really accelerated the downward trend of RDS in the data center.

Virtual desktop infrastructure

As a technology that delivers more traditional desktops, VDI has always been on the cusp of widespread popularity. Unlike server-based virtualization efforts, the VDI cost model is difficult to determine due to the low cost of desktop equipment. The benefits of portability and security, while positive, were often outweighed by the cost of the hypervisor and accompanying storage, as well as the overall virtual infrastructure. VDI also has a licensing model, which was challenging to work with, even for the most seasoned IT professionals.

Windows Virtual Desktop

Microsoft listened to these VDI concerns and came up with WVD -- released to general availability in September 2019 -- which can be thought of as a hybrid between RDS and VDI. WVD, marketed as a desktop-as-a-service offering, is based on the Windows desktop OS, rather than the Windows Server OS. By basing WVD on a multiuser desktop OS, administrators can eliminate the cost of both the Windows Server license and the client access licenses required to run that desktop.

WVD licensing is more streamlined; Microsoft basically included WVD with most business-level subscriptions of Windows 10 Enterprise or Microsoft 365. This is a game changer for many companies that want to do VDI without the complexity or cost associated with that technology.

Because WVD runs in the cloud, you will have to pay for the cloud-based resources used to support running the virtual machines, but that should be a fraction of what you would normally expect this service to cost. WVD's unique user profiles are stored in containers, so, while that would be an additional cost, it is most likely a minor one based on traditional sizes. While a Window's 10 multiuser desktop does not have the extensive framework of RDS, WVD can be done at a scale and cost that RDS or VDI would have trouble matching.

WVD vs. RDS vs. VDI: Which one ranks highest?

There is a catch with WVD. Unlike RDS or VDI, the WVD management aspect is simply not yet adequate. Right now, you are limited to using PowerShell. This should change as the service matures and Microsoft develops GUI management tools for administrators who are not comfortable with working with PowerShell. It's also important to note that WVD is cloud only, unlike RDS or VDI. This can be an issue, depending on your business or security needs.

While RDS and VDI deliver a somewhat similar end product, they employ two different methods. WVD borrows some of the best aspects from each for a product that can be widely deployed by businesses without the deployment difficulties or expenses normally associated with VDI or RDS. Some might say a multiuser Windows 10 desktop delivery service isn't enterprise-ready because it's based on Windows 10 and not Windows Server. For organizations looking for a positive end-user experience at a reasonable cost with minimal complexity, WVD might just fit that bill now.

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