What is Virtualization? | Nutanix

What is Desktop Virtualisation?

April 8, 2024 | min

What is desktop virtualisation?

Desktop virtualisation is an innovative technology that detaches the desktop environment, including the operating system, applications, and data, from the physical machine. When the tools are detached from the machine itself, it allows for a highly flexible and accessible computing system where the user's desktop is hosted on a server and can be accessed from anywhere.

In the realm of computing, the concept of desktop virtualisation serves as a bridge between the traditional, physical constraints of hardware and the limitless potential of digital workspaces. It mirrors the shift in our perception and use of computers and empowers users to access their personal desktop space remotely, providing flexibility and mobility unheard of in the traditional computing model.

We are no longer tied to a single location or device. Instead, we embrace the freedom to work, learn, and interact in a digital space that moves with us. Desktop virtualisation represents a significant leap towards more agile, resilient, and user-centric computing models, breaking down the barriers imposed by traditional IT infrastructure.


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How does it work?

At its core, desktop virtualisation operates by hosting a desktop operating system on a centralized server. This setup allows multiple users to access their own virtualised desktop instances simultaneously. When a user logs in, they're connected to their desktop instance running on the server. This connection can be made through various devices—be it a traditional PC, a thin client, a tablet, or a smartphone—offering a seamless computing experience regardless of the hardware used.

This versatile solution works in two primary ways: local and remote.

Local desktop virtualisation

With local desktop virtualisation, the computer's operating system is run directly on a client device, leveraging the local system resources. This approach is particularly suited for those who do not require constant network connection and whose computing needs fit within the local system capacity. When processing is done locally though, local desktop virtualisation doesn’t allow for sharing virtual machines (VMs) or external resources across a network including mobile devices and thin clients.

Remote desktop virtualisation

On the other hand, remote desktop virtualisation shines in server-based environments. It enables users to operate systems and applications housed within the secure confines of a datacentre while engaging with them on personal devices like laptops or smartphones. This setup offers IT teams the advantage of centralized management and allows organisations to stretch their hardware investments by providing remote access to pooled computing power.

Types of desktop virtualisation

There are two types of desktop virtualisation, hosted and client.

Hosted virtualisation

Hosted desktop virtualisation involves hosting desktop environments on a central server or in the cloud. This category can be broken down into several types:

  • Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) makes desktops and applications an on-demand service, allowing access anytime and anywhere. With virtual desktop infrastructure, each user receives a dedicated desktop instance on the server, which frees them up to use any device to access their instance. This method offers a high degree of personalization and performance but requires significant server resources.

  • Remote desktop services (RDS) enables multiple users to access a shared desktop and applications from a remote server. With RDI, multiple users share a single operating system instance, optimizing resource use but offering less personalization.

  • Desktop-as-a-Service (DaaS) delivers hosted desktop services from a third party. With desktop-as-a-service, organisations can give employees anytime-anywhere access to personalized desktops from virtually any device. This cloud-based service shifts the burden of managing the backend responsibilities of data storage, backup, security, and upgrades to the provider. DaaS offers scalability and flexibility as hybrid environments are increasingly common, making it an attractive option for small to medium-sized businesses.

Client virtualisation

The other type of desktop virtualisation, client virtualisation, brings a different approach, focusing on running the virtualisation technology directly on the user's device. This category can be separated into two types:

  • Presentation virtualisation separates the application layer from the graphical user interface, displaying the application on the user's device while it runs on a server. It can support resource efficiency and management and is useful in settings where many users need to access a standardized set of applications and where the central control and management of these applications are critical.

  • Application virtualisation separates an application from the underlying computer hardware it is stored on. With application visualisation, applications are allowed to run without being directly installed on the operating system. This method simplifies application deployment and management and is useful in settings where apps need to be accessed remotely on varied devices.


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What are the benefits of desktop virtualisation?

Desktop virtualisation offers numerous benefits especially as the nature of work environments and data management continues to evolve and change:

  • Enhanced security - Storing business critical data within a datacentre enhances security because it eliminates the risks associated with data that is stored on local devices. With data and applications stored in secure datacentres, the risk of data theft from lost or stolen devices is minimized. Furthermore, desktop virtualisation allows for better control over access to sensitive information, as data never leaves the datacentre and can be quickly wiped from devices if an employee leaves the company.

  • Simplified management and workflows - IT departments can manage and update desktops and permissions centrally, reducing the complexity and cost of desktop management. Desktop personalization eliminates the need for manually setting new desktops for each user, since IT can easily deploy a packaged virtual desktop to the user’s device. The process for updating across devices is much less involved for IT teams when application and operating systems data is stored in centralized locations, instead of on individual users’ machines.

  • Cost savings and resource management - Organisations can save on hardware costs by extending the lifecycle of older devices and reducing the need for expensive client hardware and upgrades. When users’ machines no longer need to do all the computing internally, companies can save money on device capabilities with more affordable machines. From a people ops perspective, centralizing desktop management can significantly reduce IT overhead and bolster revenue margins.

  • Flexibility and streamlined experience - Users can access their desktops and applications from any device, anywhere, at any time. The ability to access your personalized computer from anywhere and using any device, one of the most tangible benefits for end-users, is a game-changer for remote work, education, and even personal computing. This flexibility improves employee experience and affords new possibilities for how and where people can work.

What challenges come with employing desktop virtualisation?

Despite its many benefits, desktop virtualisation also presents a few challenges.

  • High touch engagement - The infrastructure required for desktop virtualisation can be complex to set up and manage. The initial setup and ongoing management of desktop virtualisation requires a deep understanding of both the technology and the specific needs of the organisation.

  • Performance issues - Ensuring high performance and low latency can be difficult, especially over wide-area networks. Graphics-intensive applications or usage in low-bandwidth environments can frustrate users and hamper productivity.

  • Upfront cost - The cost of implementing a desktop virtualisation solution can also be a barrier. While there are long-term savings to be had, the upfront investment in server hardware, software licensing fees, and network infrastructure can be significant.

  • Ongoing complexity - Navigating the complex licensing agreements for virtualised desktops can be a challenge for some IT departments.

Considering the various challenges of desktop virtualisation allows teams to implement strategies and plans for successfully mitigating and overcoming them.

Use cases

Desktop virtualisation is highly versatile, catering to several use cases:

  • Remote work - Facilitates secure and efficient remote access to work environments. In today’s world of hybrid and remote roles, it allows employees to access their work environment securely from anywhere.

  • Education - Provides students access to learning resources from any device. Desktop virtualisation enables the virtualisation of computer labs, providing students with access to specialized software without the need for high-end personal computers.

  • Healthcare – Ensures critical information is always available for key staff at healthcare institutions. Doctors and staff can access patient records and applications securely and efficiently, from any location.

Desktop virtualisation shines across industries  in any scenario where flexibility, security, and management are paramount.

Desktop virtualisation and the cloud

The convergence of desktop virtualisation and cloud computing is perhaps one of the most exciting developments in IT. Cloud-hosted virtual desktops, or Desktop-as-a-Service (DaaS), reduce the need for on-premises infrastructure, making desktop virtualisation more accessible to smaller organisations without the resources to manage a complex IT environment.

The integration of desktop virtualisation with cloud computing has expanded its capabilities and accessibility. This integrated approach enhances scalability, as organisations can quickly add or remove desktops based on current needs, paying only for what they use. Cloud-hosted desktop virtualisation supports business agility and the quick provisioning of resources.

Desktop virtualisation software

Selecting the appropriate software is an important step in setting up a desktop virtualisation infrastructure, and the choice hinges on the specific virtualisation path you want to pursue.

In the case of VDI, you'll find the desktop operating system, typically a version of Microsoft Windows, running within the controlled environment of your datacentre. Here, a hypervisor takes charge on the host server, facilitating each user's access to a virtual machine via the network. Additionally, you'll employ connection broker software to manage user authentication, establish connections to virtual machines, monitor engagement, and reallocate resources once users log off. Depending on your setup, this connection broker might come integrated with the hypervisor or need to be a standalone purchase.

For RDS or RDSH deployments, you can utilize the integrated features provided with the Microsoft Windows Server operating system, which supports such server-based virtualisation natively.

Opting for a DaaS solution? Then you can leave the heavy lifting to the cloud-hosted service provider. They'll handle the nuts and bolts—installing, configuring, and maintaining everything from your applications and operating systems to your files and personal settings.

Whatever your virtualisation path, there are many tools available to create, manage, and deliver virtual desktops. They offer features to optimize performance, enhance security, and simplify management, catering to the diverse needs of businesses and organisations as they navigate the rapidly changing landscape of IT infrastructure and data management.

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