What a week at Microsoft Ignite 2018 in Orlando! I cannot remember any previous Ignite or its predecessor TechEd that had more sessions on Remote Desktop Services (RDS) and the modern workplace presented by the RDS product team.
Plus, Microsoft invited me and my fellow RDS MVP Freek Berson to present three remote desktop-related theater sessions, covering RDS automation with ARM templates, RDS community tools, and remote end-user experience benchmarking using REX Analytics. In addition, the RDS product group had four demo stations in the expo hall.
I felt like I was enjoying a five-day RDS fireworks show.
Keynotes: A push toward Azure adoption
But, let's start from the beginning. In his opening vision keynote, CEO Satya Nadella focused on tech intensity and security. While security is pretty obvious, the term "tech intensity" requires some further explanation. It's about the fact that almost every aspect in a person's life is now dependent on fast-changing IT, defined by digital transformation and IoT. Satya suggested that all attendees get prepared for the next platform shift by adopting the latest and greatest (Microsoft) technology and by building their own tech capabilities.
My first thought was that this was just a general Azure marketing statement. But later in the vision keynote and then in the technical keynotes, it became clear that Microsoft is pushing customers more and more towards Azure adoption—the "next platform.” A good example is the Windows Virtual Desktop (WVD) service introduced in both the Microsoft 365 and the Azure technical keynotes. The foundation of WVD is the technology formerly called Remote Desktop modern infrastructure (RDmi), which was initially announced at Ignite last year.
Remote Desktop Services breakout sessions
After the keynotes, there were numerous breakout sessions on all the different remote desktop aspects throughout the week. Here's what I learned:
Windows Virtual Desktop
Windows Virtual Desktop is a pure Microsoft offering. It is part of Microsoft 365, which includes Windows 10, Office 365, and Enterprise Mobility + Security (EMS). A WVD technology preview will be available in Q4 2018, while general availability is planned for early 2019. The WVD service allows customers to run “legacy” Windows apps and desktops remotely, with all components running on Azure and the control backplane managed by Microsoft.
The WVD backplane components (broker, load balancing, web access, gateway, and diagnostics) are based on Azure Web Apps, with multi-tenancy as a key design element. In a WVD environment, virtual desktops and remote apps are delivered through host pools. A host pool is a collection of Azure VMs based on Windows Server RD Session Host, Windows 7 (yes, that's no typo), Windows 10, or the brand-new version of multi-session Windows 10. Windows 7 virtual desktops delivered in the context of WVD will get extended security updates until January 2023.
For all Microsoft 365 E3, E5, or F1 customers, the usage of the WVD backplane is included, but they have to pay for the Azure consumption generated by running the WVD VMs in the host pools. It is possible to reduce the costs by using Azure Reserved VM Instances (RIs). Customers can purchase one-year or three-year term RIs with a single upfront payment which is 40% to 70% lower than on-demand VMs. This model provides guaranteed capacity and a consistent monthly price per user.
Multi-session Windows 10
But wait, what exactly is the new multi-session Windows 10 that can be used in a WVD host pool? It is Windows 10 Enterprise with a multi-user extension, optimized for Office 365 ProPlus and refreshed in the semi-annual cadence. It comes with Windows Desktop Search optimized for multi-user mode (finally!) and supports UWP apps (including Edge and Cortana). And in contrast to Windows Server, multi-session Windows 10 allows running .NET 1.1 applications. So it's all about app compatibility, Windows 10 look and feel, and user density per VM. It is important to note that multi-session Windows 10 is only available as a part of WVD, so it too is a pure Microsoft Azure offering.
Users remote into host pool VMs through the WVD backplane. The goal is to host legacy Windows apps on Azure and deliver a modern desktop experience that is optimized for Office 365. The RDP remoting client is available for all major client operating systems, such as Windows, Android, macOS, and iOS. In addition, there is an HTML5 implementation that is compatible with all major web browsers and does not require any client installation.
In a nutshell, WVD allows customers, cloud service providers, and system integrators to lift and shift legacy apps to Azure and combine them with modern mobile apps, leveraging a wide spectrum of modern workplace scenarios. Additional WVD functionalities are provided by an ecosystem of partners, including Citrix, FSLogix, ThinPrint, Lakeside Software, Liquidware, CloudJumper, and People Tech Group.
But what about on-premises remoting infrastructures?
All Remote Desktop Services roles will still be available in Windows Server 2019 which will be released later this quarter. In addition, there are some new or updated RDS features. Built-in or attached video cameras are redirected and video is always using hardware acceleration. This will be particularly beneficial for online video conferencing.
Windows Server 2019 RDSH and Windows 10 version 1809 both include new user input delay performance counters. In the context of GPU acceleration, Windows Server 2019 RDS comes with improvements in Discrete Device Assignment and will add the concept of GPU partitioning. RemoteFX will be deprecated and is only available in Windows Server 2019 when migrating from an earlier version of the host OS with RemoteFX-enable VMs.
The good news is that all Windows Server RDS enhancements will also move over to multi-session Windows 10. But, I have also learned that Windows Server 2019 RD Session Host will not be a supported platform for Office 365 ProPlus. On the other side, the official support for Office 365 ProPlus on Windows Server 2016 RDSH was extended to October 2025. This shows that with the introduction of Windows Server 2019 and multi-user Windows 10, Microsoft wants to start a new era.
Customers must decide if they want to combine Windows Server 2019 RDSH plus Office 2019 with Exchange Server 2019 on premises (long-term service branch) or multi-user Windows 10 plus Office 365 ProPlus on Azure (semi-annual cadence). This seems to be the only way to satisfy both cloud-based agile companies and conservative large enterprises for the next five years.
But there was more in the context of Windows desktops. An exciting announcement was the Win32 app support in Microsoft Intune. The underlying idea is to wrap a legacy Win32 application installer package into a ZIP container and deploy it through Intune. This makes line-of-business Win32 apps first-class citizens of a modern workplace.
Microsoft Managed Desktop (MMD) was also introduced. MMD is almost like a "Windows Appliance as a Service"; it bundles Microsoft 365 E5 (Windows 10 and Office 365 ProPlus) and a hardened Microsoft Surface with no third-party agents allowed. Device configuration, security monitoring, app deployment, update management, desktop analytics, and 24/7 end-user support are all backed by Microsoft. Windows Virtual Desktop is included in the MMD offering and allows remote access to cloud-hosted legacy Win32 apps.
Final thoughts on Microsoft Ignite announcements
In summary, Microsoft introduced a brand-new way to deliver remote Windows desktops and applications from Azure. The underlying WVD architecture was "born in the cloud" and has nothing in common with Azure RemoteApp that was deprecated two years ago. In a nutshell, Microsoft found a smart way to combine the modern workplace and enterprise mobility with legacy Win32 applications.
Such a move was long overdue as Remote Desktop Services on IaaS already shows a year-over-year growth rate of 230% and is responsible for approximately 10% of the overall Azure consumption. So, there is a huge market opportunity for a "proper" remote desktop offering on Azure. At the same time, Microsoft listened to their more traditional enterprise customers and provided an on-premises RDS solution for at least five more years.
In addition, Microsoft has created a WVD partner ecosystem to fill the gaps they still have in image deployment, user profile handling, application management, print management, web access, global load balancing, monitoring, and more.
If WVD is successful, it can be instrumental for a smooth digital transformation from on-premises Remote Desktop Services deployments to the cloud. To me, it looks like the majority of exciting new RDS features will only be available in Azure while there are not many changes for on-premises RDS. But I wonder what the CSPs will do who were waiting to control the RDmi backend and now cannot.