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The downsides of cloud desktops

Cloud desktops have lots of benefits, but they aren't flawless. Reliability, latency, licensing and security issues can all present problems that make DaaS a poor match for your company.

Cloud desktops are a good alternative to VDI for some IT shops, but DaaS isn't without some disadvantages.

Desktop as a service (DaaS) is a desktop delivery model where a cloud provider hosts and delivers virtual desktops to users. It's gaining popularity in IT shops looking for a low-cost, easily scalable way to provide desktop virtualization to employees on the go. Some shops are starting to look at DaaS as an alternative to virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), but cloud desktops come with disadvantages such as potential problems with latency, security and licensing costs.

What are the limitations of DaaS?

Being that DaaS is cloud-based, it comes with all of the concerns that accompany the cloud: provider reliability and latency, bandwidth increases and security complications.

When you implement DaaS, users are at the whim of your provider and the connection between them. There are no guarantees that your cloud desktop provider will not suffer a disaster or outage at some point, leaving your data inaccessible and your users unable to do their work. Even excluding the worst-case scenarios, latency is still a regular problem for many, and it can affect work performance with little recourse for customers. Add to that the costs of potential bandwidth increases to handle the extra traffic that comes with a cloud desktop and you may need to stick with VDI. This is especially important for companies that do graphics work to consider because moving terabytes of data over the cloud may not be efficient.

Furthermore, it's important to ask yourself if you trust your information with a third-party. They can make promises that your data will be safe, but at the end of the day you'll need to remember that no firewall is perfect. If the cloud provider is compromised, it could result in headaches for you.

Why is DaaS licensing so complex?

Licensing is a pretty sizeable barrier to DaaS adoption. Microsoft licensing rules for desktops and for VDI are notoriously hard to get straight, and when it comes to DaaS, service providers and customers aren't spared that complexity. Microsoft has the Service Provider License Agreement (SPLA), which lets providers charge customers on a monthly basis for access to Microsoft software. But there isn't an SPLA for Virtual Desktop Access, the license you need to give devices access to virtual desktops. This means that DaaS providers can't rent you Windows desktops, and that you'll need to provide your own Windows licenses. That cost isn't built into the price of a DaaS subscription. At $100 per device -- in a world where each user wants to access his desktop from a laptop, smartphone, tablet and who knows what other devices -- those costs can add up fast. For this reason, DaaS might only be an appropriate alternative to VDI in small companies or in a setting where you only need to supply a small number of users with virtual desktop access.

Is VDI better than DaaS?

VDI is certainly far more complicated to implement than DaaS is. In some cases, however, the things that make DaaS simpler to implement are also a detriment. For example, while DaaS' scalability makes license management easier, licensing is still necessary and it's now accompanied by subscription costs. Costs of licensing are increasing, as well. If scalability is a minor concern, then these downsides may not be worth it.

More on cloud desktops

Differences between DaaS and VDI

What DaaS customers need to know before implementing cloud desktops

Having VDI servers on-premises means that security and reliability are in your own hands, and this can be reassuring for some. You control your own security policy and backup procedures, you're responsible for keeping sensitive information safe and identity management is easier. You also won't need to worry as much about bandwidth when most of the traffic takes place across your own network. This means that VDI is particularly advantageous to companies working with large files on a regular basis.

There's also the chance that regulations for your industry -- for the financial and healthcare fields, in particular -- may not allow for cloud desktops or may make their implementation cost-prohibitive (due to requirements for a private cloud, for example). If compliance issues mean that DaaS isn't allowed, then VDI might be your only option to deliver virtual desktops to users.

Is DaaS right for me?

In the end, whether or not cloud desktops are right for you depends entirely on your needs and your comfort level with a third party handling your information. There is no one right answer in the DaaS vs. VDI discussion, and the best virtualization strategy for you may be a combination of the two. Take some time to evaluate your company's needs and your trust in the potential cloud desktop providers before moving forward.

This was first published in June 2014

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