How to choose the best desktop-as-a-service solution

With the future of work moving from office cubicles to the home, DaaS is becoming a more attractive choice than ever.

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Thanks to the pandemic, working from home no longer languishes as a rare option for a few workers. It’s mainstream business practice. Just ask Google, Facebook, Netflix, or the U.S. government: They’re all either delaying office reopenings or shifting to remote or hybrid work.

With this work transformation, the desktop is also changing. Decades ago, we used dumb terminals attached to mainframes for corporate work. Then, 40 years ago, we moved to the PC. We still have PCs on our desks, but increasingly, we’ve been moving back to the centralized model.

Today’s Windows PCs are far more likely to run software-as-a-service (SaaS) offerings such as Microsoft 365/Office 365 or Google Workspace than they are old-style office suites such as Office 2019, WordPerfect Office, or LibreOffice. Indeed, by Statista’s latest count of office productivity software market share, office software that’s hosted on-premises barely counts. Microsoft 365/Office 365 has 47.5% of the market, followed by Google’s application family, with 44.56%.

The natural next step in IT evolution is to move not just productivity software, but also the desktop itself, to the cloud.

Why? Because just as cloud-based SaaS made better financial sense for companies than the old models, the same is true of DaaS. Or, as your CFO might say, DaaS trades capex license spending for opex subscription costs.

For example, to run Windows 11, most users will need brand-new PCs. But if you elect to go with Windows 365 Cloud PC — Microsoft’s new, easy-to-use DaaS Windows service — you can run it on your existing hardware.

Furthermore, the DaaS approach cuts down on system maintenance charges, such as backups, software updates, and security. All of that’s taken care of by your DaaS provider. Again, with a remote workforce, these advantages count even more.

Scalability has long been the cloud’s biggest selling point. The same is true for DaaS. With most DaaS offerings, it doesn’t matter what hardware your home workers are using. For example, while you wouldn’t want to run Windows 365 off iPhones, iPads, or Android smartphones, you could.

This points out yet another reason why DaaS makes perfect sense for a remote workforce. Unlike with a standard office PC setup, if a PC gets fried by a lightning bolt, all the user needs is another working computer of some kind to get back to work. Disaster recovery is built right in.

How to choose a Windows DaaS

What business software you’re already using should be your guide for your cloud-based desktop. While an array of big-name and smaller vendors offer Windows DaaS, most Windows-centric offices will find one of the following three options to be their best bet:

Citrix Workspace

Citrix has been providing remote MS-DOS and Windows desktops since 1992. With decades of working hand-in-glove with Microsoft, Workspace works very well. Of course, then, as now, to run it well you really must run Windows PCs as clients.

One of its major advantages is that you can maintain security on remote systems with end-to-end contextual security. This is a zero-trust approach. It protects users, user groups, and the client platform. From a user viewpoint, its defenses are transparent. As a big believer in making security as easy as possible for users, I find this an excellent approach.

To connect your desktop efficiently with its virtual server counterpart, Citrix uses its proprietary HDX and ICA protocols. This optimizes your network traffic so that the most network-hungry applications, such as dedicated real-time Zoom calls, get the lion’s share of the bandwidth.

For all of this, Workspace users frequently complain that its most common problems are network-related. In particular, people find that poor latency can often cause application faults and even complete desktop disconnects. Slow desktop session launches, an annoyance first encountered in the ‘80s, is still present today.

Still, if you want a tried and true remote desktop solution for your company, Workspace deserves your consideration.

To use Citrix Workspace, you must license at least 25 users. While you can start at a mere $2 per user per month, practically speaking you’ll probably want the Workspace Premium option, which costs $18 per user per month. Pricing, as you’ll see with all DaaS offerings, varies wildly depending on your number of licenses and the level of service you want from your provider.

Azure Virtual Desktop

Microsoft has long had its own DaaS offerings, starting with Terminal Server (which was based on Citrix’s WinFrame). The latest take on this is Azure Virtual Desktop.

This is a comprehensive, Azure-cloud-based desktop and SaaS. It offers simplified management and multisession Windows 10 desktops, and it’s optimized for Microsoft 365 Apps for enterprise (formerly Office 365 ProPlus). You can use it on many operating systems including Windows, macOS, iOS, and Android.

To manage it, you call the shots from the Azure Portal. From here, you can deploy new apps, change network settings, and adjust security settings. But it’s difficult to set up and manage Azure Virtual Desktop. If you’re going to run this, your company will need expert Windows system administrators. And even then you’re going to face a difficult learning curve.

So, why would you do it? Because Azure Virtual Desktop gives you excellent security and, once you’ve mastered its management, great control over your desktops.

That said, another reason to be wary of this Windows DaaS is that its pricing is complex. True, if you have Microsoft 365 or Windows Enterprise, you have access to Windows Virtual Desktop at no additional charge per user, but that’s only the start. You must also have Azure Active Directory, VMs, cloud storage, and networking. That’s a lot of components, and none of them are cheap.

What will it end up costing you? Start by looking at the Azure Virtual Desktop pricing details and then move on to the Azure pricing calculator. Fair warning: This is going to take a lot of work. You may well want to turn to a Azure Virtual Desktop-savvy managed service provider (MSP) for help.

Still, if you have in-house Windows DaaS expertise and you want iron control over your remote desktops, Azure Virtual Desktop is worth your time and money.

Windows 365 Cloud PC

But what if you don’t have a certified Azure Virtual Desktop Specialist on staff? Microsoft finally has a solution for you, too: Windows 365 Cloud PC.

Here, Microsoft sets up Windows 365 for you. You control how to scale your Windows 365 instances and monitor Cloud PC’s performance, but you don’t need to be an Azure Solutions Architect Expert to create and manage your new virtual Cloud PCs. The critical difference between the two Microsoft DaaS offerings is that Azure Virtual Desktop is optimized for flexibility, while Windows 365 is set up for ease of use.

Windows 365 pricing is also much simpler, while at the same time being very flexible. You can change the configuration at any time. Thus, you can add or remove resources as needed while changing your monthly subscription price.

You can use Windows 365 in a browser on pretty much any operating system you care to name. Your best experience, though, will come with Microsoft’s Remote Desktop client, which you can download from a separate page on the Windows 365 dashboard. There are apps available for Windows, Mac, iOS, and Android.

Windows 365 Cloud PC isn’t for everyone. Microsoft’s guidelines for sizing Cloud PCs recommend at least 2 vCPUs and 8GB of RAM for virtual PCs in a work-from-home scenario. At about $41 per month, a small business might find that not worth the cash. Larger businesses faced with buying, shipping, and supporting multiple managed corporate PCs might find net savings.

Of the Windows DaaS options, if all I wanted was vanilla Windows desktops for office workers, Windows 365 Cloud PC looks like the best option.

Other options

While Citrix Workspace, Azure Virtual Desktop, and Windows 365 Cloud PC are your main choices, there are other options. These include Amazon WorkSpaces and VMware Horizon Cloud service.

Amazon WorkSpaces is a proprietary cloud desktop service. It runs on top of an Amazon Virtual Private Cloud (VPC). On this platform, you can run either Windows or Linux desktops on a wide variety of virtual hardware and storage configurations. You connect your devices to it using Teradici PC-over-IP (PCoIP) streaming protocol by default, or the new Amazon WorkSpaces Streaming Protocol (WSP).

You can run your virtual desktops from Windows, macOS, or Ubuntu Linux computers; Chromebooks; iPads; Amazon Fire tablets; Android tablets; and supported web browsers. Your users’ applications and data remain persistent, so they can easily switch between devices without losing their work.

Amazon WorkSpaces desktops come in seven different default bundles and pricing levels — Value, Standard, Performance, Power, PowerPro, Graphics, and GraphicsPro. Windows 10 desktop prices start at $7.25/month + $0.22/hour (or a flat fee of $25/month) with WorkSpace supplying a Windows 10 Enterprise license, or $7.25/month + $0.17/hour (or $21/month) if you provide your own license. (Linux desktop prices start at $7.25/month + $0.17/hour or $21/month.)

VMware's Horizon Cloud DaaS offers Microsoft’s Windows Virtual Desktops. You can run these on the VMware Cloud on AWS, Azure, Google Cloud, IBM Cloud, or another VMware partner cloud. VMware is not, however, a Microsoft Cloud Solution Provider (CSP). That means VMware doesn't resell Windows licensing.

You can run these virtual Windows desktops on a variety of end-user platforms. These include Windows PCs, Macs, tablets, and smartphones.

What's different about VMware’s approach is that it decouples desktop and application components and manages them independently. Horizon then reincorporates them on demand to deliver a personalized user workspace.

When the user logs in, a virtual desktop can assemble itself on the fly by combining an instant clone of a golden virtual machine (VM) image with a user environment profile and one or more containerized applications that attach themselves to, but are not installed in, the VM. From a user's viewpoint, these look like persistent desktops, but the desktop itself is destroyed on logout. When they log back in, the desktops are automatically recreated.

VMware offers Horizon on a one-time license basis. It starts with VMware Horizon Standard for 10 users for $3,116. There are also 100 user packages.

The Chrome OS option

According to IDC’s market share numbers for 2020, for the first time, Chrome OS grew to become the second-most popular desktop operating system worldwide, at 10.8% — 3.3% ahead of macOS. Because macOS’s share also grew, ChromeOS’ growth is clearly at the expense of Windows — which slipped to a 75% share in Q1.

While DaaS has been around for decades, it was only when Google introduced the Chromebook more than a decade ago that the concept went from being a business-only approach to one that anyone, anywhere could use.

Chromebooks represent the cheapest way to deploy a complete software/hardware DaaS corporate solution. Chromebooks have also been converting people to DaaS approaches. For example, we all know now that if your corporate Chromebook gets run over by a truck, you can just grab Junior’s school Chromebook and be back in business in a minute. Just try that with any Windows laptop.

By offering free versions of most of its services, Google also has a ready-made user community for its corporate Google Workspace offerings. If your people already know how to use Google Docs and Gmail, they’re ready to be Workspace users. You can argue until the cows come home whether Workspace’s features are better than those of Microsoft 365, but no one questions that they’re comparable.

You can, of course, use Google Workspace on any web-enabled device. It works best with the Chrome web browser, but now that almost every browser is based on Chromium, that’s not much of a requirement. True, Workspace works even better with Chromebooks, but Google — by buying Neverware and its Chrome OS clone CloudReady — has made it possible to convert any old PC you or your employees have lying around into a Chrome OS workstation.

Workspace pricing, unlike that of the Windows family, is very straightforward. It starts at $6 a month per user and runs up to $18 month per user. There are even higher tiers if you want your users to have unlimited storage.

Linux desktops with Shells

Who uses desktop Linux? Well, its market share never seems to grow beyond 2%, but desktop Linux — in the form of Ubuntu, Mint, Debian, and the rest — has its niche among software developers and wild-eyed enthusiasts around the world. Shells, a DaaS startup launched last year, makes hosting Linux desktops in the cloud a snap.

You’ve always been able to run Linux remotely. It’s in its Unix DNA. But if you want to run Linux (or Windows, for that matter) VMs without managing the server side, Shells offers you an alternative that’s easy to deploy, manage, and use.

Shells relies on web browsers for its interface. Thus, you can run desktops from any internet-capable device. You can even use a smart TV with a keyboard and mouse.

The company offers multiple Linux distributions, including the popular distros Debian, Mint, and Ubuntu. The company does not, at this time, support the Red Hat desktop distro family, such as Fedora Workstation. Shells also offers Windows 10 Pro.

Users on a budget may find Shells attractive because of its pricing. The most inexpensive annual subscription, Shells Basic, costs only $9 a month. This cloud desktop comes with only a single CPU, with 40GB of storage and 2GB of memory. While that’s pathetically low-powered for Windows, it’s more than enough for a line-of-business Linux desktop.

For developers and power users, the annual Shells Pro plan at $25 a month gives you a virtual desktop with four CPU cores, 160GB of storage, and 8GB of memory. That’s more than enough resources for desktop Linux users to get serious work done.

Finally, Shells offers free daily backups covering up to seven days. It’s a nice little feature, and on many other DaaS platforms, it would cost an additional fee.

For Linux users, Shells is well worth the money. It’s also worth checking out if your shop needs only a few Windows virtual desktops.

Making the best call

There are still situations where a DaaS is not an appropriate choice. If your office or employees still subsist on sub-10 Mbps DSL internet connections, for example, DaaS will not be your friend. 

But with so many remote workers, and with security threats looming larger by the minute, DaaS makes a good deal of sense for many businesses. Certainly some users will always need full-powered PCs on their desktops — think video and audio producers, graphic designers, and the like. But ordinary office workers? For them, DaaS makes perfect sense.

Which DaaS depends on your current stack. Microsoft-oriented offices should check out, in this order, Windows 365 Cloud PC, Citrix Workspace, and Azure Virtual Desktop — and, if those don’t suit, one of the alternative options. For Google or Microsoft users looking for a less expensive option, Chrome OS and Google Workspace demand your attention. Finally, if you want to try something affordable and super secure, look to Shell’s cloud-based Linux desktops.

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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