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Microsoft has made some significant changes to Windows Virtual Desktop and new features via the general availability release of the Azure Resource Manager, but the service still has some management components that need improvement or are missing altogether.
This release made Windows Virtual Desktop an Azure-native citizen, but there are still some notable missing components that WVD admins should be aware of. Microsoft initially marketed WVD as a PaaS offering where customers could set up the management components within their own Azure environments in addition to the desktops.
For the final design and architecture, however, Microsoft took back the control and management layer and is now delivering this as a multi-tenant desktop as a service (DaaS). All customers need to worry about is how to maintain the desktops and applications they want to deliver.
Microsoft also provides support for multiuser Windows 10 with the license entitlement for WVD; this makes the bundle a compelling offering for customers who are moving their infrastructure and applications to Microsoft Azure as the main cloud platform.
Microsoft also acquired FSLogix to handle profile management, especially in combination with Office 365. With FSLogix profile containers, Microsoft could now solve something it has not been able to before and, essentially, separate the user profile from the underlying OS.
Microsoft's Windows Virtual Desktop offering is a strong option for many organizations -- but the licensing, deployment and management can get very confusing. IT admins should learn the details of how WVD works, how to account for licensing and TCO, and how to ensure users have a positive UX.
Microsoft is now also working on MSIX app attach, which is an iteration of the MSIX application framework to wrap Win32 applications within an MSIX application container. This is the final piece of the puzzle to provide a complete, stateless VDI session.
WVD requires customers to run their workload in Azure. Therefore, WVD customers have to move their existing toolbox from existing infrastructure to an Azure-based toolbox. The visual below is an example of how much can change moving to WVD with Microsoft Azure functionality.
IT admins should look at the current capabilities of WVD and pay close attention to what is still missing from the WVD ecosystem before considering it an ideal alternative to Citrix and VMware.
Limitations of Windows Virtual Desktop management
1. Image management
Out of the box, WVD does not offer a simplified way to handle image or application updates like Citrix and VMware do. IT can use features in Azure to provide some similar capabilities, but this is not a core part of the WVD service. Instead, IT must either rely on a combination of Azure Resource Manager (ARM) templates, VM Scale Sets and other community-based tools.
For smaller and static environments, this might not matter much. For larger environments or environments in which IT pros must handle multiple updates and applications, however, this is one of the features they will miss.
Alternatively, IT pros can use Azure Image Builder to build VM-based images using configuration files and a command-line interface. However, this does not provide the same streamlined approach as Citrix and VMware do. Administrators should consider a DevOps-based approach to handle image management for WVD environments. Still, Microsoft is pushing in the right direction regarding image management.
2. Proper auto-scaling mechanisms
Since WVD is a cloud-native service, one of the core capabilities should be the ability to handle auto-scaling and provisioning. Azure virtual machines are billed per second, so being able to scale down an instance after hours or scale up when needed should be a part of the core feature set, like VMware and Citrix have.
Microsoft does not offer these capabilities yet as part of the core service. However, it does provide a set of scripts that run as Azure automation runbooks, and these scripts provide some of the same capabilities that can ensure customers are running cost-efficient infrastructure. Microsoft is introducing another new capability called Start VM on Connect, which automatically starts a VM when a user is logging into the session. This feature is currently in preview as of March 2021 but will be available soon.
3. Management tools
From a management perspective, not much has changed from 2020 to 2021. In 2020, Microsoft did, however, make the significant change of transitioning WVD into the status of ARM-native citizen, as noted earlier in this article. This means WVD customers have a lot more options to build management processes in an automated fashion.
It also means customers have more options to provide monitoring capabilities on WVD-based environments, where there are lots of standardization services in Azure, namely, Azure Monitor. WVD customers can, for example, use performance metrics and log data to provide dashboards on the current environment.
However, WVD still does not have the same capabilities to provide real-time monitoring of the environment because Azure Monitor data can have a delay up to 15-20 minutes before data displays on the dashboards. It also lacks real-time user analytics. Hopefully Microsoft will create an agent extension to provide real-time insight into the user sessions and health of the environment, but this is not currently available.
Those who are familiar with Citrix Director or the VMware Horizon Help Desk utility tool will notice the absence of proper help desk tools available as well. Microsoft, as of now, is providing PowerShell cmdlets, which can provide some functionality to control sessions. Microsoft is also building a new management UI, which IT needs to install as an add-on. Aside from this, IT pros need to rely on third-party vendors to provide UI capabilities.
4. End-user experience
At its core, WVD is an Azure-based service when it comes to the data plane. This means all end-user traffic to a WVD desktop or application is going through Azure PaaS services. It also means Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) traffic will be routed to where the data components are available.
Microsoft has been expanding the core WVD components -- control and data plane -- to multiple regions around the world. This means traffic flow will be optimized for most geographical regions. By default, WVD is still using reverse-TCP WebSocket-based connections, which limits data transport to only use TCP. This also affects end-user experience when it comes to heavy workloads such as audio and video and GPU-based applications.
However, Microsoft has also introduced a new feature called RDP Shortpath, which is currently in preview as of March 2021. Shortpath allows sessions to use transport based on User Datagram Protocol (UDP) instead. For this to work, however, the client must establish a direct connection to the back-end server, which is mostly ExpressRoute connections or UDP-based VPN connections. This means WVD can provide similar end-user experiences, like the other protocols. Microsoft has also offered Teams video and audio offloading to provide better meeting experiences.
The future of WVD
Microsoft has always relied on partners to provide more capabilities and features on WVD. This was the case for Microsoft Remote Desktop Services, as well.
WVD is still not a true replacement for VMware and Citrix virtual desktop products, especially with its current feature set and core capabilities. Microsoft might see WVD as a standalone service in the growing service catalog in Azure, but VMware and Citrix view their offerings as part of a larger ecosystem.
For WVD to succeed on a larger scale, it needs to be embraced by Microsoft's ecosystem, and Microsoft has taken significant steps to achieve this with little sign of slowing down. Looking at the vendor ecosystem, many partners are now providing products and tools that are enhancing the current capabilities that WVD is providing, rather than pushing standalone products. Vendors such as Nerdio and NetApp are filling in some of the feature gaps that WVD is lacking, such as monitoring and provisioning.
Looking at Microsoft's roadmap for WVD, it appears Microsoft still wants to focus on the partner ecosystem, rather than building everything out as a first-party feature or service. But Microsoft has added some promising new capabilities, and WVD customers have reason to be excited to find out what Microsoft has up its sleeves for the future.