New desktop management options will help make Windows 8 VDI more viable, but the OS still has a ways to go.
A few weeks ago, Microsoft released a document that listed many new features in what was formerly codenamed Blue. While it's essentially Windows 8 Service Pack 1, the new nomenclature represents a turn toward a more modern versioning strategy for Microsoft that puts it more in line with the rest of the industry (think Android and iOS). After all, 8.1 has a certain edginess and conciseness that Windows 8 Service Pack 1 would not have.
Windows 8.1 is not a new version of Windows, but there are many changes focusing on mobility and device management. Unfortunately, some of the things that people wanted, such as a classic Start Menu option, are still nonexistent. However, a few changes that affect the desktop management side of the house could have an impact on VDI adoption.
The problem with Windows 8
There are a few complaints about Windows 8 that are preventing adoption, and they're particularly relevant in a VDI environment.
Under the hood, at least as it relates to traditional Windows, Windows 8 is just like Windows 7. It runs the same apps and is managed the same way. Still, there are two barriers to Windows 8 adoption. First, people are still hyperfocused on getting off of Windows XP and don't have time to change up the process. Second, the user interface (UI) is too big of a culture shock for everyday users.
Microsoft is meeting us halfway on the whole Start Menu thing.
I've talked a lot about the first reason before, so I'll skip it rather than go off on another soapbox rant about how you have until April 8, 2014, before Windows XP goes away. The point about the UI change, though, is an important one to make no matter how tired you are of hearing it.
Users can be a finicky bunch. I frequently talk to family members and friends who have gotten a new laptop with Windows 8, and they want the desktop to show up when it boots; they want the Start Menu back. These are home users who are presumably just surfing the Web or playing the odd game, so you can imagine what users think when the new UI stands in their way at the office.
If we look at the list of complaints about the UI, the lack of a Start Menu is undoubtedly at the top. Since this isn't going to change, you'll need to look to a product like Classic Shell to bring that functionality back. Still, Microsoft has addressed some of the usability concerns around the Windows 8 experience in Windows 8.1 -- bringing VDI back into the realm of possibilities.
Changes in Windows 8.1
Windows 8.1 brings back the Start button but not the Start Menu; clicking the button simply takes users to the horrific new Start screen.
The most notable change is that Windows 8.1 will now allow you to boot directly to the desktop. Microsoft is meeting us halfway on the whole Start Menu thing. I think the company assumes that what we really want is access to the desktop, when in reality we want access to our files and applications in a way that's not 100% different than it used to be. Still, it does help alleviate the abrupt shock a user would feel when turning on a new Windows 8 system.
Microsoft has also made changes to both the desktop and Start screen to make them easier to use with a keyboard and mouse. Anyone who has tried to use Windows 8 on a non-touch device knows this problem, and anyone who has ever run Windows 8 in a windowed virtual machine (VM) probably immediately abandoned the OS entirely. Hopefully the changes in this area will not rely on complex mouse gestures or hidden items in various locations on the screen.
More on Windows 8
Windows predictions for 2013
Approaching a Windows 8 upgrade
How to sell a Windows 8 upgrade
So how does this relate to VDI?
It's no secret that Windows 8 VDI has a significant advantage over Windows 7 in terms of storage. Being able to use Windows 8 in a VDI setting would be more cost-effective from a density and storage standpoint because each VM requires fewer storage resources. The problem is that part of a VDI project requires the users to buy into the environment as well, which they aren't likely to do if the first thing they see is a bunch of funny-looking animated squares with no indication of how to navigate it.
The ability in Windows 8.1 to boot straight to the desktop could be a shot in the arm for Windows 8 and lower storage costs for VDI, but is it a big enough shot without the inclusion of a Start Menu? The keyboard and mouse enhancements will also be welcome.
Combined with the added benefit brought by RemoteFX and Hyper-V 3, we could start to see an upswing in Windows 8 VDI by the end of the year, especially as companies wrap up their XP migrations. I think the real test for Windows 8 adoption will be in Q2 of 2014, though, when Windows XP is finally off our minds entirely and users will be more familiar with the OS.
Of course, we don't have to migrate off of Windows 7 until Jan. 14, 2020, so maybe there's no rush.
This was first published in July 2013