Cloud Desktops – What Are They and Can They Help My Business?

A lot of businesses are making the move to the cloud with the logic of “why pay for servers, licenses, power redundancy, backups and support when I can just move to the cloud?” For some businesses, moving just your files to the cloud is the right answer (for example, if you don’t have any applications that you share, such as QuickBooks or time tracking software) and there are appropriate file-sharing services that cater to business needs but more on that in another post. But many businesses like the idea of moving their whole infrastructure, shared applications and all, to the cloud. With this option, your infrastructure becomes much more simplified and your IT expenses become very predictable – – and you get the added bonus of anytime, anywhere any device access to the stuff that runs your business. Done right, this creates a truly “worry-free” IT infrastructure.

But what is the technology behind that enables these “cloud desktops”? Well, actually it is a group of technologies that, when used together, are commonly referred to as Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (or VDI) and it comes in slightly different flavors from several vendors (Vmware, Citrix and Dell among them). Regardless of vendor, they all provide the same basic functionality. Your “desktop” becomes a virtual machine (VM) in the cloud and it operates exactly the same way as your “old” desktop used to but you can access it from any internet connection using just about any device (including smartphones and tablets) and there’s nothing extra to install at your office to support this. Got an Internet connection? You are ready for the cloud. Your “old” local computer becomes just another device you use to access your cloud desktop (nothing gets stored on your local computer and you utilize all of the processing power of the cloud). Any servers or shared applications you might have (think email, QuickBooks, tax preparation applications, medical records applications, etc.) are also migrated to the cloud so even if you have 50 employees in 10 locations, it looks and feels like everyone is on the same network.

Sounds great, right? Well, that’s because it is. There are many business cases where VDI is a great solution for companies as small as three people (yes, we have three-person companies that are utilizing our VDI solutions) or as large as thousands.

So, how can this help your business?

  • No servers to maintain, backup or replace at your office
  • Complete mobility and remote access – – any time, any place, any device access
  • Desktops last longer – – you don’t have to replace them as frequently.   As long as the PC can still get on the Internet, it can be used as an access device for VDI. Need a new local computer for a new employee?   No need to buy that $800 PC, there are devices that are under $200 that can be used to access your cloud desktops
  • Lower support costs – – the VDI solutions are professionally hosted and secured so there’s less chance of a virus sneaking through. If a cloud desktop does get corrupted somehow, it’s not hours of work for a consultant to come in, backup the user’s desktop, reinstall windows and restore their data. Instead, just delete the problem cloud desktop and create a new one for the user.
  • Increased Redundancy and Reliability – – VDI hosting companies can and do put a lot more money into keeping their infrastructure up and running than you ever could – – and they’re really good at it
  • Instant roll-out – – need a new desktop, one can be created from a “master image” and the new user can be up and running with almost no effort.

So how do providers differ from each other? There are basically 3 ways of delivering “cloud desktops”:

  1. Dedicated Hardware – With this option you get individual Windows 7 (or 8 or 10) desktops for each user and all of your data and applications are on hardware that is dedicated to your company. This provides for the most secure and flexible of cloud environments but it is also the most expensive of the options.
  2. Terminal Server – In this scenario, all users are on the same “cloud” server (the “terminal server”) and you only install software once and every user immediately gets access to it.       This is a very tightly managed environment that also has relatively low hardware requirements compared to dedicated hardware solutions, which allows for some cost savings. But, on the down side, this is on shared hardware (usually) and it is not very flexible (every user pretty much has to have the exact same environment. For example, you can’t give more processing power to specific users). Because of this, if one user’s desktop misbehaves, it can negatively affect the performance of all of the other users’ desktops. Also, this based on Windows Server so users won’t actually be using Windows 7 (or 8 or 10) but rather Windows Server 2008 or 2012.       This is USUALLY not an issue but it is something to be aware of.
  3. Shared Hardware with Dedicated Desktops – This is a hybrid of the first two options. You get the cost savings of a terminal server on shared hardware but you get the performance benefits of dedicated hardware (which allows for users to have different environments and also prevents users from negatively affecting each other’s performance). Like Option 2, this is based on Windows Server technology and like Option 1 each user has their own desktop. From a pricing perspective, this option can be the least expensive of the three.

Why the complexity? Well, in short, it’s because of the way Microsoft licenses Windows desktop operating systems (e.g. Windows 7, Windows 8 or Windows 10). VDI hosting companies are not allowed to host Windows desktop operating systems on shared hardware. So you if you have to have Windows 7, for example, you need dedicated hardware (as in Option 1 above). BUT, Microsoft does allow for hosting Windows SERVER operating systems on shared hardware (hence Options 2 and 3). And, because the desktop and server operating systems are so similar, this is usually not a problem.

So, yes, there are a lot of options and yes, it can get confusing. That’s where we come in. Just give us a call and we can help you decide if cloud desktops (or other cloud technologies for that matter) are right for your organization and, if so, which flavor would work best.