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What's missing in Windows Virtual Desktop management

Windows Virtual Desktop management isn't perfect yet, especially when it comes to native management. These four capabilities aren't as robust as Citrix and VMware's offerings.

Microsoft's Windows Virtual Desktop, a new desktop-as-a-service offering on Azure, has significantly affected the desktop virtualization market, but Windows Virtual Desktop management still has a ways to go.

Microsoft has made a lot of changes to Windows Virtual Desktop (WVD) over the last year. Microsoft initially marketed it as a platform-as-a-service-only (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 introduced support for multi-user Windows 10 and, with the license entitlement for WVD, made it a compelling offering for customers that 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 hasn't been able to before and essentially separate the user profile from the underlying OS. Microsoft is now also working on MSIX AppAttach, which is an iteration of the MSIX application framework to wrap Win32 applications within a MSIX application container. This is the final piece of the puzzle to provide a complete, stateless VDI session. 

VMware and Citrix and other vendors in the EUC market have embraced WVD with support for multi-user Windows 10 as part of their ecosystems. They claim that they are supporting WVD, but this essentially means that they support multi-user Windows 10, since both VMware and Citrix's control and management plane are completely disconnected from the WVD management and data plane. 

4 limitations of Windows Virtual Desktop management

With WVD, Microsoft aimed to deliver a simplified architecture on which customers only need to manage the desktop and applications, not the surrounding components on Microsoft Azure. Compared to the competition, however, some core capabilities are missing:

  1. Image management

Out of the box, WVD does not offer a simplified way to handle image or application updates like Citrix and VMware does. IT can use capabilities in Azure to provide some similar capabilities, but this is not a core part of the WVD service. Instead IT must rely on combination of 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 that they will miss. 

  1. 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. Microsoft has built some guidance and scripts that IT can use, but it requires dedicated infrastructure to handle the scaling. 

  1. Management tools

WVD in its current state has limited management tools when it comes to controlling sessions or assisting end users who are connected to a WVD session. Those that are familiar with Citrix Director or the Horizon Helpdesk utility will notice the absence of proper helpdesk tools available. 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. Besides this, IT pros need to rely on third-party vendors to provide UI capabilities.

  1. End-user experience

At its core, WVD is an Azure-based service when it comes to the data plane. This means that all end-user traffic to a WVD desktop or application is going through Azure PaaS services. It also means that RDP traffic will be routed to where the data components are available.

Currently, WVD data components are only available in six Azure regions, which will limit the end-user experience compared to other platforms. Second, WVD is using reverse-Transmission Control Protocol (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.  

The future of WVD

Microsoft has always relied on partners to provide more capabilities and features on WVD. This was the case for Microsoft RDS, as well. 

WVD is not a true replacement for VMware and Citrix virtual desktop products, especially with its current feature set and core capabilities.

WVD is 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, it has to be embraced by the ecosystem of thin clients, printing products and other third-party vendors. Looking at the development that WVD has undergone the last year already and the interest from partners, Microsoft will likely invest in WVD to make it a fully cloud-based service that can fully use the underlying capabilities of Azure.

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