Best Virtual Desktop Infrastructure software of 2020
Ranking the best virtual desktop infrastructure software in the marketplace...
Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) software allows you to deploy virtual desktops from a centralized server, giving you the power to manage your entire IT infrastructure without having to configure individual clients.
VDI software is becoming an increasingly popular enterprise IT solution, especially since centralized deployment allows IT managers to configure enterprise-wide changes in a flexible manner. With this convenience, many mid- to large-sized organizations have already adopted VDI software with great success.
Even small businesses can benefit from VDI software; with open-source VDI platforms and operating systems, businesses with even the leanest budgets can enjoy the convenience and flexibility of virtual deployments.
In general, VDI software allows enterprises of all sizes to use their hardware more efficiently and build a more flexible IT infrastructure.
Why use VDI software?
VDI software provides IT managers with unparalleled flexibility and control over their desktop deployments. While managers and technicians have always had this power, VDI software has made using this power easier than ever.
Managing individual desktops is time-consuming
In early desktop deployments, technicians had to manually configure individual desktops. This meant having to individually configure each (and every!) computer for every new installation and update.
Computer networking made things easier, of course, but many desktop deployments still required physical visits and maintenance. These visits were not only laborious for technicians but they also “wasted” the time of the employees whose desktops were being serviced.
In short, walking around and working on individual desktops one at a time wasn’t very efficient.
Basic maintenance was only half of the inefficiency issue, however: Inefficiencies and setbacks only compounded when individual desktops malfunctioned. In these cases, damaged or dead hardware usually resulted in employees and businesses losing extremely valuable data.
While such losses were (and still are) often remedied through enterprise intranet- and server-based storage solutions, irregular backups could spell disaster in the event of a system malfunction. Here, data and productivity were dependent on individual hardware; if an individual client somehow went offline, so did their data and productivity.
In summary: Decentralized desktop deployment is not only inefficient but it also poses a major risk to data. While most non-virtual desktop deployments are usually backed by a server- or cloud-based storage solution, the tedium of having to manually configure individual desktops is often enough to justify the switch to VDI software.
VDI software makes desktop deployment easier and more flexible
VDI software saw its first major implementations in the late 1990s. The first major players were Citrix and VMware, the latter having first coined the term “virtual desktop infrastructure.” Citrix and VMWare continue to help lead the VDI space to this day.
Servers were the primary focus of VDI software since its earliest days. As a result, most early VDI software was made specifically for large servers—the only computers with enough power to emulate multiple desktops at once. It would take several years before VDI software could run on desktops and other “small” devices, which now have more than enough power to do the job.
In any case, VDI software has been instrumental in simplifying and streamlining desktop deployments; what used to take hours of work can now be done instantly from a centralized location. This capability is not only good for deployment, but it can also help with many other IT functions.
VDI software also allows for easy backups, system restores, and more
The same power VDI software uses to deploy individual backups is also used to seamlessly implement backups, system restorations, and other contingency features with a relatively minimal effect on productivity.
While most individual desktops have some kind of system restoration or backup functionality, these recovery capabilities are often limited to the hardware of the desktops themselves. In other words, if a desktop’s hardware (or software) completely fails, then so does any chance of a working backup.
Again, while using servers for storage can help mitigate data losses in these scenarios, having to completely reset an individual desktop can do massive damage to its users’ productivity. Imagine an accountant having to completely reinstall their tax software or reorganize their workplace from scratch!
By contrast, VDI software provides a near-instant fix—even if the user’s hardware completely fails. Since VDI software hosts virtual desktops on the server, a user can be back up and running by simply redeploying another instance of the virtual desktop. As a result, hardware failures or obsoletion are no longer the obstacles they used to be; with VDI software, just find a new device, redeploy, and carry on as usual.
These very same features also have unique uses for IT security.
VDI software helps secure your network
An important idea in network security is compartmentalization—or, in other words, keeping systems separate from one another whenever possible. This way, if one system (or desktop) is compromised, the rest are relatively safe.
Centralizing desktop deployment with VDI software may seem counterproductive to compartmentalization, but it can help in several ways.
For one, virtual desktops allow for even further abstraction away from hardware and core infrastructure. Combined with IP masking and similar configurations, a virtual desktop can almost sit “above” essential infrastructure. In the event of an attack, compromised desktops are easily deleted, restored, or replaced.
Efficient and dynamic resource allocation
While we’ve already discussed convenience- and management-related benefits of VDI software at length, another benefit is dynamic resource allocation.
Since VDI software sits “on top” of server hardware, it has the capability of dynamically allocating server power and resources. So, if a server process needs a certain amount of processing power, VDI software can temporarily redirect the required resources away from its desktops and back to the server itself—and vice-versa.
VDI software can save organizations thousands of dollars—if not more
VDI software’s allocation capabilities also present massive cost savings to the entire enterprise.
Since individual desktops rarely use more than half of their storage or processing power at any given time, much of it goes unused, resulting in thousands (or more) dollars spent on contingency alone.
With VDI software, however, enterprises can save money by deploying lean desktops just powerful enough to connect to the server and run client-side VDI interfaces. In doing so, enterprises centralize processing resources and allocate them on-the-fly, thereby minimizing waste and cost.
VDI provides a convenient “sandbox” for testing
Need to test a new operating system or software package without affecting existing infrastructure? Or perhaps your department would like to test a new security patch or update before deployment?
For any of these cases, VDI software can provide a configurable testing ground which can be reset, duplicated, rolled back, or deleted almost instantly.
Who uses VDI software?
VDI software is a useful tool for everyone—not just the IT department.
IT departments benefit the most from VDI software. As we saw in the previous section, VDI software helps centralize resources and deployment, potentially saving IT staff massive amounts of time and money.
Because of these benefits, IT departments of all sizes are adopting VDI software for desktop deployment. However, small IT operations are seeing the most immediate benefits due to the cost savings and flexibility of lean desktop deployments. Now more than ever, small companies can deploy entire IT infrastructures easily and inexpensively.
IT Security Teams
VDI software has also become a useful tool for security teams, who are now using it to further separate desktop deployments from crucial infrastructure, particularly enterprise-wide networks and intranet.
On the network, other devices can’t tell whether a desktop is virtual or “physical;” to them, other devices are simply IP and MAC addresses.
While physical desktops have permanent MAC addresses tied to their hardware, virtual desktops do not. As a result, VDI software allows security teams to make desktops “vanish” when they’re under threat by simply reassigning the desktop’s addresses. While it’s certainly possible to change the IP addresses of physical desktops, they’re still limited by their comparatively permanent MAC addresses.
The method of “dynamic addressing” described above is just one of the many ways that security teams use VDI software to abstract desktops away from critical networks.
The levels of abstraction achieved by VDI software are also a useful tool for patch testing. While implementing patches and software updates is crucial to any security operation, enterprise-level infrastructures must also balance system stability and convenience. As a result, if a patch or update causes problems or malfunctions, then the entire network could be affected.
Using VDI software, however, IT and security teams can test new updates and patches before enterprise-wide deployment. By containing tests in a virtual sandbox, teams can safely check for issues without risking the stability of the network.
Virtual desktops are also useful as “honeypots,” allowing security teams to lure in hackers without sacrificing the network or other devices. Once the team gets the information they need, they can simply delete the honeypot.
Software Engineers, Programmers, and Developers
With VDI software, software engineers, programmers, and developers can set up a variety of development environments without using dual-booting or multiple devices. This capability is especially useful for those who use multiple languages which might prefer different operating systems or development environments.
While programmers working for a large enterprise can achieve this benefit from server-side VDI software, those working independently or in smaller enterprises often use client-side VDI software with great success. Here, software packages such as VirtualBox allow programmers to create new virtual desktops and development environments on top of their native operating systems.
Programmers can also use certain distributions of VDI software as their computer’s operating system, allowing them to perform dual-boots (or “multi-boots”) with extraordinary flexibility.
VDI software can also be useful for certain personal and home uses. For example, while someone may not work as a professional programmer, they might enjoy programming as a hobby or a side job; in this case, VDI software allows them to use a separate development environment without having to change their home desktops.
Some users also use VDI software for emulation purposes, allowing them to run legacy software (read: old video games) on compatible operating systems.
While VDI software may seem like an enterprise-level solution, it’s potentially even more useful for small- to mid-size businesses. Where smaller businesses previously had to buy individual desktops, they can now get away with purchasing much leaner devices thanks to VDI software. As a result, costs are lowered and flexibility is increased—a rare combination.
VDI software should support nearly every operating system and distribution. Most leading VDI software supports every operating system—and yours should, too.
Note that it isn’t necessarily the responsibility of VDI software to “manage” operating systems; all that VDI software does is allocate hardware resources to the virtual desktop. As a result, you should be able to use a virtual desktop in the same way that you would use a physical one. Of course, this capability also extends to being able to install any operating system you’d like.
There are some limitations, however: Since the virtual desktop’s hardware is technically the hardware of the desktop or server it’s hosted on, the operating systems and software you install will also have to be compatible with the hardware. In other words, you probably won’t be able to install 64-bit software on a 32-bit virtual desktop.
However, since this limitation is shared by physical desktops, it’s usually no problem to find compatible versions of almost any software distribution. In any case, then, you should be able to install any operating system or software on your virtual desktop that you could on a physical desktop.
VDI software should not limit the number of desktops you can deploy. You should be able to configure and deploy as many desktops as you want. After all, VDI software isn’t limited by the number of desktops it’s managing—hardware should be the only real limitation.
Think of your VDI software as a sort of “desktop bookkeeper;” it can help you configure and manage your virtual desktops, but the actual running of the desktops comes down the hardware. If you’re running VDI software on a server, then the number of desktops you can deploy is limited to your server’s processing capabilities.
VDI software should help you allocate server resources responsibly. Some VDI software may advise you on how each virtual desktop affects overall system performance.
Since each virtual desktop is allocated a certain amount of processing power from its host (e.g. server or desktop hardware), VDI software should be able to tell you how much is “too much—” but will still let you deploy all the same. After all, it’s unlikely that you’ll be running every virtual desktop at maximum capacity all at once!
Being able to deploy any number of desktops is also a major benefit of using VDI software, especially for personal or small business use. This very capability is what allows users on a single physical desktop to run any number of unique virtual desktop configurations on the same hardware.
Q: What is VDI software?
A: “Virtual desktop infrastructure” (VDI) software allows you to configure and deploy virtual desktops, making it possible to host multiple desktops on the same hardware. As a result, VDI makes it possible to extend the capabilities of any physical desktop or server beyond the limitations of its hardware.
Q: What is a virtual desktop?
A: A virtual desktop is a desktop environment that uses VDI software to run as an application “on top” of an existing operating system. Depending on the VDI software, virtual desktops take the form of executable files.
Once run, a virtual desktop doesn’t “know” that it’s virtual; instead, virtual desktops operate almost the same as their physical counterparts. To the virtual desktop, hardware is hardware, and it’s the responsibility of the VDI software to allocate resources from its host machine to each instance of a virtual desktop.
Since virtual desktops are easily configurable, users can configure, deploy, restore, or delete virtual desktops much more easily than they would physical desktops.
Q: What are some common virtual desktop solutions?
A: Popular virtual desktop solutions include VMWare, VirtualBox, Citrix, and Windows Virtual Desktop.
Q: What is Citrix Virtual Desktop?
A: Produced by Citrix Systems, Citrix Virtual Desktop is a desktop virtualization software designed for Windows systems and applications. Launched in 1995, Citrix Virtual Desktop is one of the most longstanding virtualization solutions on the market.
Citrix’s virtualization software also includes Citrix Virtual Apps, which specializes in virtualizing individual applications rather than entire desktops. In this case, the same benefits extend to applications and software, allowing for on-the-fly resource allocation beyond the capabilities of the individual desktop (virtual or otherwise).
Q: What is VMWare? Can VMWare virtualize physical machines?
A: VMWare is a software company specializing in virtualization software, most of which is sold under the VMWare label. Though launched in 1998 (three years after Citrix), VMWare has become a leading name in virtualization software. Their primary virtualization solution, VMWare Workstation, is one of the most popular enterprise-level VDI software available.
Q: What is VirtualBox?
A: Launched in 2007, VirtualBox is a free, open-source virtualization software developed by Oracle for x86 environments.
Despite its enterprise-level capabilities, VirtualBox has become extremely popular for individual users looking for a lean, low-cost virtualization solution. Here, VirtualBox runs as an application on the user’s operating system, allowing users to easily configure virtual desktops on top of their host desktop.
Q: What is Windows Virtual Desktop (or Azure Virtual Desktop)?
A: Windows Virtual Desktop is a virtualization solution developed by Microsoft specifically for Windows operating systems and applications. Windows Virtual Desktop is primarily based on Windows Server and the Azure cloud infrastructure.
Windows Virtual Desktop has become a valuable tool for enterprise-level cloud migration, especially for enterprises already using Windows software. Once migrated, Windows Virtual Desktop allows for rapid scaling and deployment of Windows software, including both current and legacy operating systems and applications. The software also features multi-session capabilities.
Q: What is the Windows Virtual Desktop pricing structure?
A: Windows Virtual Desktop uses a scalable pricing structure based on deployment options and user requirements. Pricing structures are split into two major categories: personal desktop and multi-session desktop.
While prices can rack up quickly, Windows Virtual Desktop often remains the ideal Windows-based VDI software for most large enterprises using Windows products. For small- to mid-size companies uncertain of their future capacities, Microsoft also offers multi-year pay-as-you-go pricing options.
Q: What is a virtual desktop server?
A: A virtual desktop server is any server using VDI software to deploy and manage virtual desktops. Since most enterprises already use a server, any server can be a virtual desktop server—all it takes is VDI software and the right deployment methods.
However, enterprises looking to adopt VDI software as a virtualization solution should carefully consider their server’s capabilities. Since every virtual desktop will be using server hardware and resources once deployed, it’s important to plan for certain use cases.
While virtualization is usually a far more efficient way of distributing processing power, it’s still possible to overwhelm servers during peak usage times. IT teams can accomplish this task by placing low (but flexible!) limits on each virtual desktop’s memory and storage, as well as making sure each deployment is relatively lean.
Q: What are some server virtualization solutions?
A: Server virtualization uses VDI software to divide a physical server into multiple virtual servers, extending the server’s capabilities and scope in the process. Popular server virtualization software includes VMWare vSphere, Hyper-V, and Azure Virtual Machines.
Q: Is desktop virtualization worth it for small businesses?
A: Yes! Desktop virtualization is not only achievable for small businesses, but it may also be the most cost-effective solution to implementing IT. Using VDI software, businesses can purchase a single server instead of multiple desktops, potentially saving thousands in the process. Plus, with the added flexibility of virtualization, businesses can easily transition between different operating systems and use legacy software securely.
VDI software allows you to use a single piece of hardware (such as a server) to deploy multiple virtual desktops, thereby centralizing most processing and system administration. While VDI software is often sold as an enterprise-level solution, home users can also benefit from using client-side VDI software to deploy a variety of virtual desktops from their native operating system.