Microsoft Windows Virtual Desktop: A cheat sheet


Cloud-based DaaS offers several advantages to a remote workforce. This smart guide to Microsoft Windows Virtual Desktop assesses the platform and what it can offer.

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Unprecedented conditions surrounding COVID-19 and the accompanying global pandemic have left many business enterprises scrambling to find ways to accommodate an increasingly remote and virtual workforce. Some businesses have discovered that workforce productivity is the same, if not better, under a virtual scheme. These enterprises are likely to adopt platforms like Desktop as a Service (DaaS) and virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) going forward, even after the pandemic has subsided.

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Cloud-based DaaS and VDI services are offered by a number of vendors including Microsoft through its Azure cloud platform. Microsoft Windows Virtual Desktop is offered as a free service to certain Microsoft 365 and Azure subscribers. Licenses for individual Windows Virtual Desktops are also available with costs that vary with server location and type of virtual machine.

The are many advantages to Windows Virtual Desktop, but there are also several caveats to consider before your business decides to adopt the platform. Like all business decisions, planning and analysis before making any decisions is warranted and highly recommended. This Microsoft Windows Virtual Desktop: A cheat sheet from TechRepublic will help you assess what the platform is and what it can offer, so you can make the best decision possible for your business.

SEE: All of TechRepublic’s cheat sheets and smart person’s guides

What is Windows Virtual Desktop?

Leveraging the power of Microsoft Azure, Windows Virtual Desktop is an instanced virtual machine hosting a desktop and app virtualization service running on the cloud. Windows Virtual Desktop delivers a virtual desktop experience and remote apps to any device. Depending on how it is configured, the platform can bring together Microsoft 365 and Azure to provide users with a multi-session Windows 10 experience, which includes scaling and reduced IT costs.

Windows Virtual Desktop can be configured to run Windows 10 Enterprise, Windows 7 Enterprise, or Windows Server 2012 R2, 2016, 2019. Windows 8 and Windows 8.1 are not supported.

The following Remote Desktop clients support Windows Virtual Desktop:

SEE: Software as a Service (SaaS): A cheat sheet (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Why is Windows Virtual Desktop important?

Whether out of necessity or as part of an overall productivity strategy, the modern workforce is increasingly a remote and mobile workforce. To gain access to the systems and applications it needs to do its jobs, the workforce grows more and more dependent on cloud platforms and virtual machines which can be accessed from anywhere, at any time, by any device.

Windows Virtual Desktop provides a workforce with access to a virtual Windows computer running whatever apps a typical IT-sanctioned Windows computer should be running for your business. By taking advantage of Azure’s cloud infrastructure, businesses can setup multi-session Windows 10 deployments optimized to run in multi-user virtual scenarios.

From a worker’s perspective, their Windows Virtual Desktop is exactly the same as a traditional PC setting on their desk. From the enterprise’s perspective, the cost of purchasing, setting up, deploying, and securing physical hardware can be saved by entrusting Microsoft and Azure to handle those specifics in the cloud.

SEE: Microsoft sees surge in demand for cloud services during coronavirus outbreak (TechRepublic)

What are the benefits of Windows Virtual Desktop?

Whether by choice or by happenstance, if your employees are working remotely, sensitive company data will likely be transferred and stored locally at some point, even if only briefly. Even with best practice security precautions, this transfer of sensitive data is risky. Add the variabilities of employees using their own personal devices and networks for work activity and you have a recipe for disaster.

Windows Virtual Desktop allows employers to deploy virtual machines, configured exactly how they need them to be, that are securely instanced in the Azure cloud. In essence, sensitive company data is never transferred out of the company’s control structure because any data transfers are merely between Azure cloud instances. Within the Microsoft Azure cloud, data is protected by all manner of built-in security protocols, including Azure Firewall, Azure Security Center, Azure Sentinel, and Microsoft Defender ATP.

SEE: How SMBs build their tech stacks (TechRepublic)

Under Windows Virtual Desktop, access to desktop instances is controlled by conditional access protocols, including multi-factor authentication. Azure infrastructure can be deployed to enable role-based access control (RBAC) and detect threats using Azure Security Center. Windows Virtual Desktop certified compliant with ISO 27001, 27018 and 27701, PCI, FedRAMP High for Commercial, and HIPPA.

If your enterprise already subscribes to Microsoft 365 or an enterprise version of Windows, it can establish a desktop instance for each user for free with Windows Virtual Desktop. Therefore, at no extra charge, your remote users can access a ready-made virtual machine running Windows from anywhere, at any time, from any device.

Because Windows Virtual Desktop is managed through the Microsoft Azure Portal, your enterprise can scale desktop instances to meet business needs on the fly. Admins can increase virtual CPUs, add virtual RAM, allocate more virtual hard disk storage, etc., with a few mouse clicks and an admin login account.

What are the caveats of Windows Virtual Desktop?

The primary caveat to consider when deciding whether to deploy Windows Virtual Desktop for a remote workforce is the quality of network connections. No matter how well you plan and design your virtual desktop instances, they are only worth the effort if your employees have the ability to effectively reach the cloud. Slow internet connections, intermittent connections, and no internet connections are all a real possibility, and all must be mitigated for cloud-based virtualization to work efficiently.

SEE: DaaS and VDI: New report underscores the high costs and challenges of virtual workforces (TechRepublic)

Beyond the technical aspect of network connections, employers must also consider how much employee training will be necessary. Tech-savvy employees and IT pros will likely have no trouble connecting to Azure and Windows Virtual Desktop servers, but some employees may need at least some instruction to complete the connection. Who will provide that help, how will they provide it, what if it is not effective? These questions must have acceptable answers.

Other questions to be answered include, once in operation, how will employees ask for additional resources if they need them? Will there be a ticketing system with IT department personnel responsible for their resolution? Is that infrastructure in place? Setting up procedures to handle the maintenance of a Windows Virtual Desktop system should be completed before deploying the actual virtual instances.

Who are the major competitors to Windows Virtual Desktop?

Competition among cloud vendors in the virtual desktop space is fierce and includes dozens of different companies, many of which are prominent and familiar. Obvious competitors include the usual major cloud services suspects of Amazon AWS and Google Cloud Platform. Other prominent competitors include Citrix and VMware. Other smaller competitors offer specialized desktop services for engineers, architects, artists, and scientists that require specific features.

SEE: Research: SMB IT stack decisions based on fulfilling business needs (TechRepublic Premium)

Here is a short list of virtual desktop competitors:

With all of this competition, Microsoft will continue to feel pressure to keep costs and fees low for its Windows Virtual Desktop service. This competitive pressure helps explain why Microsoft is willing to offer Windows Virtual Desktop free to existing customers already subscribed to Microsoft 365 or enterprise versions of Windows.

How do you get Windows Virtual Desktop, and when will it be available?

Windows Virtual desktop is available through the Microsoft Azure Portal. For current subscribers to Microsoft 365 and enterprise versions of Windows, desktop instances are available for each user at no extra charge. Non-subscribers will have to pay a subscription fee determined by the specifications of the virtual machines used for each desktop instance.

Subscribers to these existing services have free access to Windows Virtual Desktop instances running specific operating systems on a per user basis:

Operating system

Required license    

Windows 10 Enterprise multi-session or Windows 10 Enterprise    

Microsoft 365 E3, E5, A3, A5, F3, Business Premium or Windows E3, E5, A3, A5    

Windows 7 Enterprise    

Microsoft 365 E3, E5, A3, A5, F3, Business Premium or Windows E3, E5, A3, A5    

Windows Server 2012 R2, 2016, 2019    

RDS Client Access License (CAL) with Software Assurance    

For enterprises without a pre-existing subscription, the price of a Windows Virtual Desktop through Azure will depend on the specifications chosen for each desktop instance. For example, a pay-as-you-go instance with 2 CPUs, 8 GB RAM, and 50 GB of storage is estimated to cost $137.29 per month. A quote from the Azure price calculator that is significantly more than a Microsoft 365 Business Premium subscriber paying $12.50/month/user.

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