Nowadays, it’s rare for an organization to not provide a way for people within it to access their desktops virtually.
Whether you have a team that operates remotely once a week or your sales reps on the road work from a variety of devices, organizations need some element of virtualization to support these users in their day to day.
Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) is software used by businesses to enable access to remote desktops, laptops, and other operations systems. A form of desktop virtualization, VDI hosts different desktops on a central server at a data center, which are then accessed by authenticated users.
Essentially, with VDI software, you can access your desktop from anywhere, at any time, with any device. In the modern day digital workplace, VDI allows employees to access whatever applications, operating systems, and information they need through a secure portal, boosting productivity and accessibility without sacrificing security.
Desktop virtualization is an umbrella term that refers to any type of technology that separates a desktop from its hardware. In short, desktop virtualization is what enables people to access their virtual desktops from anywhere other than the central server.
VDI is a type of desktop virtualization, but desktop virtualization can also be implemented in other ways, like remote desktop software.
Again, VDI enables users to remotely access the entire operating system of a computer. It acts as a delivery service for other devices.
Remote desktop software (RDS) allows users to connect to and interact with a computer in another location, using the internet or an internal network.
While they both allow users to access desktops from a remote location, VDI and RDS are used differently. With RDS, multiple users are given access to the same environment. The desktop instances can be customized, but they aren’t designated for any one user in particular.
VDI users, on the other hand, are given access to their own physical PC or virtual machine, or they can access a shared virtual machine.
A virtual machine (VM) is a virtual version of a computer system with its own CPU, memory, and network interface. VMs have all the capabilities and functionalities of an actual computer. In a way, creating a virtual machine is like creating a computer on a computer.
Virtual desktops are hosted on virtual machines. Think of a virtual machine like a master computer, and a virtual desktop as the computers that are enabled by it.
You can’t have a virtual desktop without a virtual machine, but you can have a virtual machine without a virtual desktop.
Before explaining how VDI works, we first need to go over the five key VDI components: virtualization, hypervisor, connection broker, desktop pools, and application virtualization.
All of these elements play crucial roles in delivering a virtual desktop to an authenticated user through a secure portal.
Virtualization not only refers to making a virtual version of something, but also the technology that allows users to run multiple operating systems on a computer at once.
When applied to a VDI, virtualization refers to the ability to divide an operating system into multiple layers. This way, if a system’s hardware should fail, the data stored on it won’t be completely lost because it was all virtualized.
Virtualization can’t happen without a hypervisor, which is the software that separates the operating system from its hardware. Hypervisors also host virtual machines, which host virtual desktops.
This tool creates a virtual environment so the hardware can be split into multiple different virtual machines, each with its own operating system, configuration, and applications. With VDI, hypervisors create “desktop instances,” which are essentially separate desktops that can be operated and maintained by users.
A connection broker is software that manages connections to resources. In terms of VDIs, connection brokers hook users up to their intended desktop instance.
Connection brokers are responsible for assigning users to remote desktops, checking credentials to make sure all users are authenticated, and keeping track of active and inactive desktop instances.
A desktop pool is a group of identically configured desktops that are hosted on virtual machines. Pooling a group of desktops can help automate processes for administrators, as it allows them to apply a certain configuration or application to more than one desktop at once.
For example, if your sales and customer success departments use a lot of the same software, you can pool their desktops together and apply changes to both at once.
Application virtualization is technology that allows users to access applications from a different computer than the one on which the application is installed. In terms of VDIs, IT departments can set up an application on a server, and deliver use to various other end users, so they also have access to it.
For example, if your business’ IT department installed a tool on the company’s server, instead of installing the application on the device of every person that will need it, they can also install it on the desktops of other end users with application virtualization. For both users, the experience is exactly the same.
Now that we know the different factors that work to make virtual desktop infrastructure possible, let’s dive into how the tool actually works.
First, the business looking to use virtual desktop infrastructure must virtualize everything with a hypervisor. That hypervisor will host the virtual machine, and that virtual machine will host the virtual desktop.
When someone logs in to their virtual desktop, the connection broker will authenticate the user and connect them to their virtual desktop instance. To maintain access, the end users must always be connected to the centrally managed server.
The virtual desktop image the user sees is a clone of the master desktop, which is where all applications are installed. This means that the applications on the master desktop are available to users working on virtual desktops.
If a business has a large number of users who require the same applications, they can create desktop pools that will allow them to automate application virtualization.
Should an individual or group of virtual desktops become inactive, the connection broker can turn them off, which will open up more capacity on the server to accommodate more active users.
While remotely accessing a desktop is a win for anybody, the VDI deployment your organization uses will affect the associated benefits. There are two types of VDI deployments: persistent and nonpersistent.
Persistent VDI allows for a personal virtual desktop to be created by the user. In this deployment, a user logs into the same virtual desktop image every single time. All of the changes they make to the data and applications on any device are saved to that desktop instance.
If a user has to switch devices, with a persistent VDI deployment, they can do so without worrying about losing their work. Persistent VDI is most common in business and school settings, where users regularly need to revisit the same desktop.
With a non-persistent VDI, on the other hand, you can’t count on connecting to the same virtual desktop every time you log in. When logging in, the user might be connected to the same desktop every time, or one from the same desktop pool. There’s no way of knowing.
Whatever the case may be, none of their changes are saved once they restart. Since nothing has to be saved, IT doesn’t have to manage a bunch of different virtual desktops, thereby reducing costs and allowing for simpler data management.
Non-persistent VDIs are often used in locations where users don’t want their private information stored, like public computer labs, libraries, or kiosks.
When deciding which type of VDI deployment your organization should use, ask yourself this question: “Will users require one-off access to a desktop, or will they require all the capabilities that a personal physical computer offers?”
If people at your organization will only need to login to use the computer’s applications without accessing anything personal or customizable, the non-persistent VDI deployment is your best bet. However, if they’re treating the devices at your organization like their own personal computer, deploying a persistent VDI will give them the capabilities they need.
A user remotely accessing a virtual desktop with a VDI can manage the operating system, applications, and data as if the computer storing all of it (which in this case would be a virtual machine) was right in front of them.
A lot of people are looking to securely access the contents of a computer virtually, but there are five common use cases where VDI is used in the modern-day digital world.
The amount of people working remotely in the United States has skyrocketed. Whether they are out on the road selling or just working somewhere other than the office, they need to be able to access their desktop applications.
Luckily, with VDI, remote workers can access an identical desktop on any device, from any place, at any time. What’s more, the IT department from their business can manage it.
Tip: While the connection broker within your VDI system authenticates users, with cybercrime continuously on the rise, it’s always best to have an added layer of security. Use single sign-on software (SSO) to make sure your information being hosted on virtual desktops is secure and only visible to the intended users.
Shift work is an employment method designed to provide 24-hour service. For businesses that implement shift work, such as call centers, VDI enables their IT department to manage all the desktops in use and provide necessary tools all from a single location.
Shift workers typically don’t require their own personal computer. As they come in to work, they can log in to a device, access their own virtual desktop, go about their business as usual, log off, and the next person can do the same thing on the exact same device.
As stated above, VDI requires a connection broker to authenticate users trying to access a certain virtual desktop. In an industry like healthcare, where privacy is a primary concern, VDIs can customize permissions for each virtual desktop, only giving access to authenticated personnel.
With VDI, medical professionals can access their patient records using their virtual desktop on any device in the office.
As schools adapt to today’s technological advances, they still might have a limited number of devices that can’t accommodate every single student. With VDI, this isn’t a problem.
Students can each receive their own login credentials, giving them access to their own virtual desktop from any device within the school. As students move on and leave their school, IT can simply delete their virtual desktop, opening up more room for new incoming student users.
On top of that, IT can limit what students have access to from a central location, so website and application restrictions don’t have to be applied to every single device.
It’s not uncommon for employees to be given more than one device to work on. If this is the case for your business, you can implement VDI so professionals can access their virtual desktop from any device they are expected to work on.
If you’ve decided that you want to implement VDI software at your organization, then great! It’ll only make the lives of users at your organization easier. Here’s how you should go about it.
First, you need to understand the unique needs of the users that will be using the VDI at your organization.
Will they require customizable desktops? Or will a generic desktop do? What is going to be required of the virtual desktop instances in terms of capacity and applications?
Determining how your organization will be using the VDI, and more importantly the virtual desktop instances it provides, is the first step in implementation.
Once you’ve gained an understanding of what the users at your organization will need in a VDI, head over to G2 and check out your options for a product.
Everything is ranked based on real-life user reviews, so let the actual customers speak for the product, and find one that suits the needs of your business. Make sure to take things like available features, market segment, and user satisfaction into account.
With a tool in mind, you should then prepare your network. Because the performance of your VDI depends on that of your network, it needs to be ready for use. As you implement your VDI, take note of periods of peak usage so you can make sure your network has the capacity to handle it.
As with any other new software implementation, test it. Make sure your bandwidth is provisioned sufficiently, and make adjustments where needed. Don’t forget to ask for feedback from other users within the organization - they might notice a hiccup that you missed.
VDI offers a user experience that mirrors having access to everything at your office at any time, from anywhere.
For users that are on the go, or those that maybe don’t have a personal computer, VDI can relieve their pain points of feeling disconnected. In the digital workspaces of today, VDI is becoming more of a “must-have” solution rather than a “nice-to-have.”
But that doesn’t mean that VDI isn’t still nice to have. It certainly is! Let these benefits speak for themselves.
First and foremost, the main reason people use VDI is because it enables users to access their desktops remotely from any device.
Better yet, no matter the gadget they use to access their virtual desktop, the user interface will look the same. This will avoid bumps in the road when users log in to their virtual desktop for the first time on a particular device, reducing the learning curve.
Another reason people use VDI is for the feeling of knowing that although their personal desktop instance can be accessed from anywhere in the world, the data within it remains secure.
All of the information that becomes accessible to the users is stored on the virtual machine’s server, not the device currently in use. There is a difference between where things are accessible and where things are stored. Again, because the desktop instances are stored on the central server, there is no concern about individual devices being used to access them.
Also regarding security, admins, who are usually found in your IT department, can control what users have access to on their virtual desktops. If policies change, entry to applications or certain data can be given or taken away just like that.
Besides the benefits VDI provides for users, the software also relieves pain points of IT costs and time sucks.
First of all, IT isn’t required to purchase and set up a device for each user. Instead, applications and updates for each tool their organization uses can be installed once rather than for each device in use.
This will not only free up your IT department’s time so that they can focus on more pressing issues, but it cuts the need to make continuous hardware purchases and improvements.
There are plenty of reasons for implementing a VDI in your organization. While it offers many benefits, there are some reasons to also not use a VDI. These drawbacks aren’t being highlighted to deter you from using VDI, but more as a forewarning of issues you might have to combat.
You should also keep these faults in mind when selecting a VDI solution. There might be a product that handles one of the following problems particularly well.
Without hesitation, one of the most significant drawbacks of VDI is the high implementation and management costs.
The price of constantly upgrading the network equipment and hardware will add up over time, and soon enough, the expenses might be equivalent to buying all of the people within your organization a brand new personal computer.
While being able to troubleshoot problems from one location (as opposed to the amount of devices in use within your organization) is convenient, VDI also poses the risk of system-wide errors.
Such a problem can keep all users connected to the central VDI server from accessing their virtual desktop, harming productivity. One issue, and your workplace could come to an instant halt.
The needs of users accessing your VDI might vary, and this can create a headache for IT departments.
If someone needs a unique set of programs or applications, IT will have to step in and create a separate desktop image. Should many people need personalized desktops, you might exceed your storage limits – not to mention the bandwidth of your IT department.
Before you implement a VDI, you’ll need to ensure that it can handle your network’s requirements.
If VDI users are working in spreadsheets or other documents, the VDI network won’t require too much. However, if people are working with graphics or streaming a lot of video, your server is going to need to be ready to manage that traffic.
With all of the above information in mind, you might be ready to finally purchase a VDI solution for your business.
* Below are the five leading virtual desktop infrastructure software from G2’s Spring 2020 Grid®️ Report. Some reviews might be edited for clarity.
VirtualBox is a free and open source VDI solution. Based on user reviews, VirtualBox is best suited for enterprises and larger organizations.
“Its interface is very instinctive and easy to use. It allows detailing each characteristic of the virtual machine that you want to create and currently supports a large number of Windows and Linux systems for virtualization. It also has add-ons that allow the screen of the virtual machine to adapt to the screen of the host machine.”
“It has been difficult for me to virtualize the Mac OS operating system. Installing an operating system other than Linux or Windows is very difficult. I think that in that aspect they could expand and improve on that.”
- VirtualBox Review, Edwin F.
Citrix Workspace provides a secure digital workspace, allowing users to work from just about anywhere. Feature that Citrix Workspace offers is seamless integration with your existing systems and file syncing between desktop and mobile devices.
“Citrix allows me to log in remotely and complete my to do list. All of my applications can be accessed from my remote devices. The receiver allows me to do work without clogging up my personal device or slowing down my speed.”
“Our Skype account isn’t accessible through Citrix, so we are unable to connect and see certain projects remotely. Also, the resolution seems like it could be a bit better when logging into the online portal.”
- Citrix Workspace review, Jose C.
Fusion is a VDI solution that specializes in running Windows programs on a Mac.
“I liked that I could swipe back and forth between my screens on my Mac to access PC-only programs. I could access all my computer’s files from it.”
“It takes up a huge amount of space and would “suspend” if I was going over the bandwidth and interrupt my work. Also encountered a glitch where sometimes I couldn't access the Internet from the Windows application even though my Mac was connected just fine. Resetting the network wouldn’t always fix it and often would have to reboot the whole system to hopefully fix it.”
- Fusion review, Megan T.
Workstation Pro is a VDI tool that allows users to develop, test, demonstrate, and deploy software by running multiple operating systems on the same PC at the same time.
“Great tool to create, edit, mount, run, and share virtual machines. Easy change and installation of OS, like Windows and Linux. The ability to work with the enterprise level of this product allows multiple virtualization, virtual machine sharing, integration with vSphere, remote connection and simple integration into cloud.”
“It’s necessary to have a good PC to run this program because computers with low resources can present an immense lag and bugs when VMs are stressed.”
- Workstation Pro review, John C.S.
Microsoft Hyper-V server provides a simple, reliable, and cost-effective way to virtualize your desktops and access them remotely without the need to worry about security.
“Hyper-V virtualization is very easy to set up, very easy to manage, and very stable. The management interface is very intuitive, just like using Windows 10 on your PC."
“Some larger businesses will probably deploy a lack of very large company options, such as load balancing and instant fail over."
- Hyper-V review, Simon C.
Software is here to enable people within your organization to be productive, and virtual desktop infrastructure works to do exactly that. Being able to access a potentially personalized desktop from anywhere in the world is indeed a modern luxury, but that doesn’t mean your organization’s users shouldn’t have it.
If you’re using VDI to enable your remote workforce, check out 33 other solutions that will make them as productive as if they were in the office. Maybe even more so.
Mary Clare Novak is a Content Marketing Specialist at G2 in Chicago, where she is currently exploring topics related to sales and customer relationship management. In her free time, you can find her doing a crossword puzzle, listening to cover bands, or eating fish tacos. (she/her/hers)
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