Does the cloud have anything to do with desktops?

What is a cloud desktop and how does it differ from virtual desktops? Brian Madden explores these questions, and more, in this week's column.

Wow. I used to think the most overused term in IT was "virtualization." But now that everyone's talking about the cloud, it's quite possible that "cloud" is even more overused.

While this website is about desktop virtualization, I'm starting to read more and more about "cloud desktops." In this week's column, I'll take a look at what a cloud desktop is and how it differs from a "virtual desktop."

Where to begin?
I guess if we're going to look at how cloud desktops compare to virtual desktops, we should first define 'cloud desktop.' For a definition of 'virtual desktops,' check out my column "Desktop virtualization is more than VDI."

Defining 'cloud' isn't that easy since no one has really agreed on the definition of 'cloud.' The problem is that since 'cloud' is so trendy, everyone sort of creates their own definition that magically fits the products they happen to make.

So I guess all we can agree on is that the 'cloud' has something to do with getting IT services on-demand from some off-site location where the user doesn't know, or care, where the physical servers are.

How does this apply to desktops?
Cloud servers, cloud storage, cloud-based applications -- why not cloud desktops?

All of the various desktop virtualization technologies could just as easily enable cloud desktops. So if you use server-based computing to connect to an internal server running desktop VMs, we call that "VDI." But if you use server-based computing to connect to some external company to run a desktop from their servers, we call that a "cloud desktop."

If you use your own terminal servers to provide desktops, we are not excited. But if you pay another company to host your terminal server desktops, we call it the "cloud desktop."

If you use Citrix XenDesktop with Provisioning Server to stream an OS to your client devices, we call that smart. But if you pay another company to host your streamed OS images, we call that a "desktop streamed from the cloud."

Are you starting to notice a pattern here? From a technology standpoint, cloud desktops and virtual desktops are the same. The only difference is where the desktop is coming from. If it's coming from within a company, we call it a virtual desktop. And if you're paying for it from an external provider, we call it a cloud desktop.

Virtual desktops or cloud desktops: the technology is the same
This is a great advantage for software vendors who sell various desktop virtualization products, since now all-of-the-sudden they can say their products are for "cloud-based" desktops. Or even better, they can say their products let you take your desktops into the cloud.

The "real" cloud desktop players
Based on our definition of cloud desktops, all 100+ vendors in the desktop virtualization space are automatically in the desktop cloud space -- by virtue of doing a "find and replace" on some marketing slicks.

That said, there are a few vendors who legitimately are in the cloud desktop space:

  • Desktone
    • Builds technology that powers cloud desktop offerings for other companies. (For example, IBM's cloud desktop offering uses Desktone technology).
    • Uses server-based computing to provide desktops to users via a web browser
  • Nivio
    • Like Desktone for the emerging world
    • Launched a service in India where users get a little box for a few dollars per month they can use to access their own personal desktop in the cloud. This box is essentially a thin client device, and service is now ramping up.

The bottom line
The only real difference between a cloud desktop and a virtual desktop is the financial model that describes how the various components are supported and paid for. But for us as IT pros who focus on virtual desktops, if the "cloud" is what it takes to get vendors interested in virtual desktops, we'll take it!

Brian Madden, Independent Industry Analyst and Blogger
Brian Madden is known throughout the world as an opinionated, super technical, fiercely independent desktop virtualization expert. He's written several books and over 1,000 articles about desktop and application virtualization. Brian's blog,, receives millions of visitors per year and is a leading source for conversation, debate and discourse about the application and desktop virtualization industry. Brian is also the creator of BriForum, the premier independent application delivery technical conference.

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