Nutanix Glossary

What is Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI)?

July 18, 2023 | min

What is VDI?

Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) makes desktops and applications an on-demand service, anytime and anywhere. A remote server in a datacenter hosts the desktop environment and applications; users access these resources remotely through a variety of end-user devices, including desktop computers, laptops, tablets, and phones. The virtual desktops are derived from pools of identical virtual machines (VM) that an administrator configures for particular job functions. When end-users log in and create a session, a connection broker assigns the session to a virtual desktop from the appropriate pool.

How does VDI work?

VDI works by means of a hypervisor, which is software that runs and manages virtual machines (VMs) on a computer server. The VDI hypervisor segments the server into VMs, which in turn host virtual desktops. End users access these virtual desktops remotely from their devices. The users are able to sign on to their virtual desktop instances using a connection broker—a software-based gateway that functions as an intermediary between the user and the VDI server.

Why use VDI?

The world where office work happens almost exclusively at an office desk, via a company-issued desktop or laptop computer, is fast receding. The near ubiquity of internet access and the availability of newer, more portable devices allows work to happen almost anywhere. Workers increasingly access applications remotely, as a service, either from the enterprise datacenter or from various cloud providers. Whether the organization has 50 or 100,000 employees, it is difficult and expensive for IT to keep all end-user devices maintained, updated, and connected to vital applications and resources. Possibly the biggest problem is security, as devices often contain sensitive company data; nearly half of security breaches.

VDI use cases

Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) has several use cases across various industries and scenarios. Some common VDI use cases include:

  • Remote work - VDI allows employees to access their virtual desktops from anywhere, enabling remote work and telecommuting. This use case is one of the most common ways VDI is implemented today. During the COVID-19 pandemic, VDI was extremely helpful in enabling many employees across the world work easily from home. 

  • Bring your own device (BYOD) - By combining BYOD with a VDI solution, you can provide your end users the flexibility to work from virtually anywhere and on a wide range of devices, all while maintaining security standards. IT can manage the desktop right from the data center, which eliminates the need to manage every individual device. 

  • “Hot desk” environments - Hot desking refers to a workstation that isn’t assigned to a single user. Various employees use the station throughout the day, so no one has personalized settings. This type of use case is most commonly seen in shift work and non-permanent workplaces, such as kiosks in shopping centers or at local events. 

  • Centralized desktop and apps management - VDI centralizes such tasks as software installation, OS updates, and management, enabling automated processes that help maintain an up-to-date environment and provide easier rollbacks in case of issues.

  • Call centers - VDI works well in call centers because agents don’t typically need personalized settings or applications. They do need different scripts and phone number databases to be loaded in periodically, and VDI makes that easy. It also allows IT to provide agents access to only the applications and systems they need, while limiting or preventing access to anything else. 

  • Employees with multiple PCs - Some work requires a person to have two or more computers. In these cases, VDI is ideal because it allows the person to have a consistent desktop experience across all of their PCs and they only have to update the virtual desktop to make any changes. 

  • Graphics-heavy applications - Using a VDI deployment for employees who work on applications that deal with graphics, IT can share and manage GPU resources across a number of desktops as needed. Pairing VDI with a GPU can also enhance the performance of some operating systems (depending on how they use graphics). 

  • Security and intellectual property - VDI consolidates data and applications, simplifying the implementation of security protocols and adherence to compliance standards. User applications are no longer required to be locally installed or operated on individual devices. Corporate data is securely housed within your data center or the cloud. In the event of a device malfunction, users can seamlessly transition to another device and resume their work without interruption.

  • Software development and testing - VDI environments can be quickly provisioned for software development, testing, and quality assurance, ensuring consistency and ease of collaboration among development teams.

  • Education - In the education sector, VDI provides students with access to software and resources from designated devices and allows them to work and research topics whether they’re on or off campus. VDI enables administration to limit student access to only the applications and systems they need throughout the day, and makes it simple to assign a device to another student by simply deleting the previous virtual desktop and loading it with another. 

  • Healthcare - VDI ensures secure access to electronic health records (EHR) and patient data, allowing healthcare providers to work from various locations while adhering to strict data security regulations. From a single, centralized location, IT can configure individual virtual desktops with the right permissions and rules based on employees’ roles to aid adherence to privacy and HIPAA regulations. Medical personnel can switch to different devices throughout the day, call up their personal desktops, and have access to specific information about their patients and/or tasks. 

  • Manufacturing - In a manufacturing environment, many people need occasional access to a desktop, such as engineers, technicians, and production line workers. VDI gives employees a way to access their desktops and applications from a range of devices, which helps keep them mobile and productive on the factory floor. 

Benefits of VDI

  • Centralization - VDI has a wide range of benefits. Generally speaking, VDI helps you centralize and improve the overall security, availability, and efficiency of your desktop environment.

  • Flexibility - VDI also provides users excellent flexibility, as they can access their desktops anytime, anywhere, and from a wide range of devices. This in turn facilitates greater user productivity.

  • Security - VDI is much more secure than traditional desktop environments because user desktops run inside your datacenter. Because users access their desktops through a client, no data leaves your datacenter. This feature largely eliminates the risk associated with users losing their devices.

  • Simplification - VDI dramatically simplifies desktop and application administration. The desktops and applications run on virtual machines, which are all the same, doing away with the complexity of managing desktop variability.

Limitations and drawbacks of VDI

Its strengths notwithstanding, VDI does come with some limitations and drawbacks. Application performance can be an issue. Running VDI can also strain an endpoint’s CPU. Other drawbacks to VDI include:

  • Downtime affects everyone - If a VDI server goes down, then all users relying on that system for their desktops will be offline. This can affect productivity and operations.

  • Backups can be challenging - This is not an insoluble problem, but backup managers must develop and implement a specific backup plan for VDI assets.

  • Applications may need to be adapted - Not every application works well on VDI. It may be necessary to modify them to be on VDI or buy VDI-supported versions, which can be difficult or even impossible with older software.

  • Training - VDI does require training versus standard desktop operating systems, which are assumed to be well understood by all users.

  • Security - While VDI avoids many of the endpoint vulnerabilities that affect standard desktops, the security risk in VDI is now centralized. The VDI server is an attractive target for malicious actors, partly because it contains sensitive information, but also because a VDI outage will disrupt operations. Security managers must define and enforce security policies to harden VDI infrastructure.

How does VDI support digital workspaces?

VDI is a natural fit for the digital workspace. After all, a digital workspace is an interface that brings together the digital tools an employee needs to do his or her job, so a desktop is essential. A user can remotely access a digital workspace that includes VDI. The virtual desktop surfaces in the digital workspace interface. The user should be able to access the virtual desktop on any device.


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Persistent vs non-persistent VDI deployments

VDI can be deployed in two essential modes: persistent or non-persistent. With persistent VDI, the user is assigned a permanently reserved VDI resource. The same VDI instance is available to him or her at log-on. This way, the user can establish personal settings like shortcuts, screensavers, and stored passwords. They can also save files to their personal, permanent desktops. In contrast, when VDI is set up as non-persistent, the user gets a fresh VDI image each time he or she logs on. 

The advantages of persistent VDI include the ability to customize the desktop for the user’s individual preferences. The personalized nature of persistent VDI also lends itself to greater usability. The user is more familiar with the desktop, so it’s easier to use. Desktop management also becomes easier, as the persistent desktop can be administered in the same way as physical desktops. The benefits of non-persistent VDI are that it’s easier to manage and requires less storage.

What are the parameters of VDI?

  • Security has to be considered from the beginning to ensure that your digital workspace solutions help via SSO, encrypting data, and improved end-user security.

  • Performance is essential to friction-free EUC and is made so you can deploy desktops and applications based on performance requirements or compliance requirements.

VDI implementation on HCI

VDI technology has been around for years, but many VDI projects have failed due to underlying infrastructure. The complexity of many legacy infrastructures can make VDI projects take months to pilot and a year to get into production. Unplanned infrastructure downtime and weak performance can have major impacts on end-user experience - slow or unavailable desktops and applications can bring user productivity to a halt. Finally, legacy infrastructures often force IT to spend the majority of its time conducting maintenance and troubleshooting, instead of helping deliver new applications and services to end-users to improve their productivity.

HCI can offer:

  • Improved end-user experience through strong and consistent performance, including low boot time and fast application response.

  • Reliable desktop and application availability through increased uptime.

  • Faster and easier scaling through simpler infrastructure expansion - as little as a node at a time. Does away with expensive, time-consuming, and inefficient capacity planning. No need to overprovision or rip and replace if you outgrow your deployment.

  • Lower TCO and faster time to value through fast deployment, easier operations, and lower power, cooling, and space requirements due to a smaller physical footprint.

  • Improved security from network microsegmentation and role-based access controls (RBAC).

What is the difference between VDI and desktop virtualization?

Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) goes beyond desktop virtualization to integrate compute, virtualization, storage, networking, and security.

Desktop Virtualization is used to allow end-users access to simulations of workstations to access enterprise resources and provides security in removing OS and application constraints that would typically affect end-user devices.

What is the difference between VDI and remote desktop services?

Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) allows you to scale nodes instead of disparate hardware devices and then helps enhance network functionality and security.

Remote Desktop Services has constraints when providing end-users the applications they need virtualized by providing a limited number available. RDS does not provide a full simulation of Windows, Mac or a Linux desktop, the applications are then used through a local device on its own OS.

What is the difference between VDI and desktop-as-a-service?

Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) is a complete remote work solution from the datacenter to the edge, that can provide cloud-like simplicity and flexibility with infrastructure on-premises.

Desktop-as-a-Service (DaaS) is a digital workspace that provides greater flexibility, so that employees can access the applications and data they need securely—from any device at any location.

What is the difference between VDI and virtual machines (VMs)?

Virtual Machines (VMs) are virtual representations of a physical device. Hypervisor software enables this functionality, splitting the resources of a physical server (machine) dynamically so that one or more VMs can run on that single piece of hardware.

Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) is an application of VM technology. VDI makes it possible for VMs to function as remote desktops, with multiple virtual desktop VMs running on individual physical servers.

Explore our top resources

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