It could be a boon for Desktops as a Service (DaaS).
Cloud-hosted virtual desktops have been a low-cost option to virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) for years, but not widely used due mainly to fear of poor cloud security. With the trend toward IT consumerization and increased comfort with cloud services, IT managers could warm up to cloud-based VDI.
Cloud-based apps vs. VDI
Server-hosted VDI provides centralized desktop management, the security of the data center and the ability to deliver full desktops to end users on Internet-connected devices. But the up-front infrastructure costs for supporting hundreds or thousands of virtual desktops is high and it takes years for companies to see a ROI.
Cloud-based applications cannibalize part of the need for server-hosted VDI because Web apps provide some of the same benefits: access to desktop apps anywhere, on any device -- but without any of the infrastructure requirements, explained Carl Brooks, a cloud computing analyst with Tier1 Research in Boston.
For example, office productivity suites such as Google Apps, Microsoft Office 365 and Zoho give users and IT practical features that would otherwise come from a virtualized desktop environment. Specifically, a virtual workspace where users can freely share files and collaborate, Brooks said.
"VDI gives me flexibility and control but requires some heavy lifting," Brooks said. "Cloud gives me easy access to apps and features, but requires I park my stuff with Google or whomever."
But cloud service benefits don't completely overlap with VDI benefits. Virtualizing desktops in-house is primarily about satisfying demands for better security, lower desktop management costs and more agile maintenance and support. When companies bring in SaaS to supply an application or a complex IT service (such as GoodData), it's all about satisfying the demands of end users and the organization as a whole, Brooks said.
"VDI is for the good of the computer monkeys; cloud services are for the good of the chair warriors," he said.
And while enterprises replace some locally installed applications with cloud apps and new businesses use cloud from day one, it's unlikely that established companies will replace all of their desktop applications with cloud apps in the foreseeable future, said Simon Bramfitt, founder and principle analyst of Entelechy Associates, a workspace technology consultancy in Concord, Calif.
Cloud-based virtual desktops
Meanwhile, Desktops as a Service (DaaS) appear to offer the best of the virtual desktops and cloud worlds.
DaaS providers, such as Desktone, deliver full virtual desktops and apps from the cloud to any device with an Internet connection, and the list of DaaS providers is growing. IBM provides hosted desktops using Desktone's platform and Dell hopes to cash in on the trend with its cloud-based offering called Virtual Desktop-as-a-Service. Also, VMware teamed up with Desktone in October to deliver its View 5 virtual DaaS.
DaaS hosting providers still need to address the issue of latency and performance for the end user, but "if they can hit that, they have a chance at peeling off some serious business," Brooks said. "It's not a stretch to consider VDI then consider outsourcing the whole thing."
One organization recently did just that. Freed-Hardeman University (FHU), a liberal arts college in Tennessee, recently chose cloud-based virtual desktops over Citrix XenDesktop.
DaaS vs. VDI
FHU already used cloud services including Google Docs and Google email and all student learning systems are Web-based.
"We try to eliminate any client installs on systems," Greg Maples, director of FHU's network operations. "We also try to run everything from the Web browser, which has helped get us to the point where it doesn't matter what type of device students have -- they can use anything."
The university recently moved from Windows desktops to Macs and each freshman at the 1,500-FHU-student campus receives a Mac book -- which students love because many of them use other Apple devices. But the move was a challenge because the faculty continued to rely on Windows apps and dictated students use certain Microsoft programs.
Maples tried to solve the problem with Parallels virtual machines that run Windows on student Macs, but that approach steals resources and drags down performance, he said.
"Users didn't like it," he said. "We needed a better way."
FHU tested Citrix XenDesktop but could not justify the upfront infrastructure cost for deploying a small number of desktops -- about 150 to start. He looked into cloud-based virtual desktops from Desktone and rolled out a few desktops. The proof of concept was a success.
"When we did the numbers over five years, we saw the savings compared to the Citrix [XenDesktop] model, and the equipment we would have bought would have lost value over time," Maples said. "With leasing, you know you will always be leasing the best equipment."
The FHU students sign into their desktops via a browser and IT manages virtual desktops in the same manner. He said bandwidth latency problems slow desktop performance at times because IT hasn't perfected the inexact science of bandwidth allocation. It's still a moving target because FHU continues to add desktops.
The school raised and then downplayed its concerns about cloud security. "We felt confident that if it's okay for Merrill Lynch, which surely has more security concerns than us, then it's secure enough for us," Maples said.
All in all, he said the benefits of cloud-hosted virtual desktops outweighed the downsides.