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Anyone who has spent much time in an enterprise computing environment has played with a virtual machine (VM) at some point. Local virtual desktop infrastructures (VDIs) were the standard, but today’s bandwidth availability and cloud options make Desktop as a Service (DaaS) much more practical, and COVID-19 is making DaaS more attractive than ever.

What is VDI?

Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) has been around for a long time, and traditionally was the only way to run a virtual desktop. Slap a server in the data center, load it up with virtualization software, turn on some machines, and you’re good to go.

Since VDIs are centrally located, the IT team is responsible for managing them. That means the hardware, software, licensing, and deployment are all handled in-house. Latency is minimal, the IT department has complete control, and even if access to the internet goes out, work can still get done.

SEE: Virtualization policy (TechRepublic Premium)

But that’s not to say VDI doesn’t have its drawbacks. While it’s convenient to manage hardware and software internally, VDI systems require dedicated IT staff to handle all possible contingencies. Hardware failure, software issues, and anything else that could go wrong has to be handled in-house, and that can get expensive.

What is DaaS?

DaaS, as Citrix’s Kenneth Oestreich said, is “VDI that’s someone else’s problem.” At its most basic level, that’s true: DaaS is a VDI that is hosted in the cloud by a company like Citrix, Amazon, VMware, Microsoft, or Google. With DaaS, all of the hardware is managed by the provider, so you won’t have to worry about rackspace, hardware breakdown, or maintenance.

DaaS systems are subscription based and are generally charged by seat. It can be tempting to rush into a DaaS system to clear the clutter of a data center and the calendars of IT staff, but there are quite a few reasons why that may not be the best idea.

“There are two types of DaaS providers: Those that give bare bones systems and those that are business ready,” Oestreich said. Most DaaS providers offer the most basic of systems that only come with standard Windows software–anything users need to do their jobs still has to be supplied and configured by the IT department.

SEE: Top reasons why businesses should deploy Desktop as a Service (DaaS) (TechRepublic)

Is the DaaS revolution upon us?

Infrastructure, software, and computing platforms are all increasingly being hosted in the cloud, so surely desktop computers are only a step away, right? Not necessarily, at least if you ask Gartner’s Nathan Hill.

Long-term pricing, Hill says, is a major impediment to greater DaaS implementation. “The pricing of DaaS can often be misleading, as the entry point price … often covers a very light resource profile for not much more than OS or workspace hosting.”

Hill said that DaaS is great for agile computing needs, but as a replacement for the average employee’s desktop it isn’t going to always fit the bill. “To replace a permanent desk-based employee today is invariably going to result in a higher total cost of ownership, so the question becomes can organizations justify increased investment for the agility the platform can bring,” he said.

TechRepublic’s Bill Detwiler, writing about the top DaaS providers in 2020, notes that predictions for DaaS market growth forecasted by Gartner in 2016 haven’t kept up with more recent findings: In 2016 Gartner predicted 50% of new business VDI deployments transitioning to DaaS by 2019, which hasn’t happened.

Gartner’s Market Guide for Desktop as a Service, released in November 2019, indicates that DaaS adoption has been slower than expected, with the company forecasting only a 20% move from VDI to DaaS by 2023.

2019 was a big year for DaaS industry announcements, with Microsoft’s DaaS offering, Windows Virtual Desktop, going into general release, and Citrix’s DaaS product, Citrix Managed Desktops, doing the same. These moves came prior to Gartner’s market guide, meaning it was still predicting slower growth as of late 2019.

SEE: Microsoft Windows Virtual Desktop: A cheat sheet (TechRepublic)

That may have changed with the spread of COVID-19, however: An article on digital workplace trends from Gartner published in August 2020 lists DaaS as one of six trends to keep an eye on, largely because of how quickly the pandemic accelerated shifts to remote work.

“COVID-19 highlighted the value and business continuity strength of DaaS in its ability to rapidly enable remote work where on-premises options have stalled. The pandemic is likely to accelerate adoption of DaaS, and it may even perpetuate as a delivery architecture when employees return to the office,” Gartner said.

What are good use cases for DaaS?

Both Oestreich and Hill agree that business-ready DaaS systems can benefit certain kinds of organizations. Schools can use DaaS for student computing in labs and as follow-along training tools; temp workers can be given a workstation without hardware setup; and anyone needing to test hardware and software profiles can benefit from a completely cloud-based system.

Oestreich said that Citrix partners offering vertical integration have had success, which he sees as the eventual path of DaaS offerings. Partner companies like Approach Technology and TekLinks offer industry-specialized DaaS platforms, and they continue to grow rapidly. These specialized providers can offer industry-specific software bundled right into DaaS machines, taking all the licensing and implementation out of a company’s hands. Amazon WorkSpaces, Evolve IP, and MTM Technologies AnywhereApp also offer compliance options for various industries.

SEE: Business continuity policy (TechRepublic Premium)

Should I wait to invest in DaaS?

“When you add all the service components for a fully managed service,” Hill said, “DaaS can often climb to $100 per user per month or more.” The cost, he says, is one of the biggest reasons why VDI isn’t going to vanish overnight.

The initial investment in DaaS can seem cheap, but that’s for the most bare-bones system; in those cases, IT staff are going to still need to manage software installation and VM deployment. Couple that with costs in the hundreds per seat, and you might not save any money.

Think of local VDI systems as a car you’ve already paid off: All you need to worry about are maintenance costs. A new car might seem appealing, but the monthly fees can quickly outpace the annual cost of repairs on the older model. Likewise, a large chunk of cash spent on VDI servers might seem like a lot, but spaced out over a year, it’s much more affordable.

“DaaS is a commodity,” Oestreich said. “A lot of businesses spend time chasing prices for no more advantage over a locally installed VDI.” To get the maximum benefit out of DaaS, a business needs to invest a lot of money monthly, and then there are still problems of latency, data hosting, and regulations.

Fields like government, healthcare, and financial services haven’t always been able to adopt DaaS because vendors weren’t compliant with industry standards; that has changed, with several vendors mentioned in Detwiler’s DaaS providers article offering multiple compliance options for different industries. Hill suggests that IT staff monitor the changing face of the DaaS market, and when considering a move think about the benefit to specific employees, not the whole organization. IT professionals should also check with potential vendors to verify they offer connections that meet industry regulations.

How does COVID-19 affect VDI vs. DaaS decision-making?

DaaS is still a newer technology, and it’s growing along with the rest of the Everything as a Service (XaaS) world. In the future, it’s entirely possible that work desktops will all be thin clients connected to the cloud, but we’re not quite there yet, especially in light of Gartner’s data that DaaS adoption has been slower than expected.

“The reality is that VDI and SBC as technologies are more mature than DaaS,” Hill said. Maturity may not matter if COVID-19 keeps businesses distributed to home offices. Gartner made another excellent point in favor of DaaS adoption in its digital workplace trends article: It’s costly to invest in VDI. DaaS prices vary widely from vendor to vendor, but with remote work likely to be permanent even after the pandemic ends, those costs may be preferable to in-house deployments.

If pandemic-triggered remote work trends continue, many physical offices may never reopen, which is another nail in the coffin for the data center in favor of a complete transition to the cloud.

Editor’s note: This article was updated to reflect the latest information about VDI and DaaS.

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