In Depth

Desktop-as-a-Service: Your BYOD assist

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Credit: Nik Merkulov (devices) and Svitlana Pidburtna (heart)

People are using more kinds of devices to get work done than ever before. Yet business apps aren't always available on users' devices of choice.

Desktop as a service (DaaS) is turning out to be one way to solve this problem.

DaaS delivers virtualized desktops from the cloud; desktops can be customized for groups of workers -- say, around specific job levels or functions. Commercially available for nearly a decade, DaaS was initially intended to offload management chores and spread out the costs of traditional virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI).

But DaaS has only recently begun to grow at a healthy clip. According to Scott Ottaway, an analyst at 451 Research, desktop hosting is now a $2 billion market for cloud service providers. (It is possible to create a DaaS setup on in-house servers, too, similar to creating a private cloud.) The market grew by 30% in the last year and should continue to grow at a similar pace through 2017, he says.

Many factors -- acceptance of cloud, device diversity, a mobile workforce and ubiquitous Internet access -- have combined to make DaaS attractive to some businesses. And there are more brand-name suppliers: In mid-2012, Dell bought Quest Software, which offers DaaS among other services. Since then, VMware has acquired Desktone, a DaaS provider, and Amazon has launched its WorkSpaces virtual desktop service.

Why now?

There are a few reasons why the concept has been attracting renewed interest.

"There is an increasingly mobile workforce working on an increasingly wide range of devices, and IT organizations are desperate to mitigate the affects of that complexity yet still provide access to systems people need when they need it," says Forrester analyst David Johnson.

Many applications aren't available on a user's device of choice, like an iPad. "The vast majority of enterprise apps are still Windows-based," says IDC analyst Brett Waldman.

While SaaS apps can help users get work done anywhere with any device since they are browser-accessible, SaaS doesn't entirely solve the problem because so many enterprise apps aren't yet available in SaaS form, Ottaway explains.

In contrast, DaaS delivers a Windows (or Linux) desktop experience, as well as Windows-compatible apps, to devices including iPads.

In addition, more businesses are getting comfortable with cloud services. When DaaS first came out, businesses tended to be more wary of using the cloud, Ottaway explains.

Plus, connectivity has improved over time. With DaaS, users require an Internet connection to access their desktops and related apps. Internet connections have gotten faster and the technology providers have optimized protocols to work over less-capable connections, he says.

Also, DaaS relieves the management burden that came along with traditional VDI. With an on-premises VDI deployment, businesses have to manage physical servers and related software as well as storage and networking.

The complexity involved with managing VDI, coupled with the cost of having to buy hardware and software up front, is one reason that VDI hasn't taken off the way that some observers had expected.

"The 'year of desktop virtualization' has been touted for almost a decade," Michael Warrilow, an analyst at Gartner, wrote in a research report in late 2013. In fact, there will never be a "year of desktop virtualization," he predicts. Instead, he anticipates some increased adoption around specific business cases, including giving workers the option to use devices of their choosing or for an easier way to support workers in remote offices.

Still a niche service

All the activity doesn't mean DaaS is for everyone. "It's not something you'd deploy broadly across an entire organization unless you're small," Johnson says. "Or, it's good as a secondary desktop or at the departmental level in a large business."

It's difficult to find examples of large deployments, at least with people willing to talk about their experiences. But smaller businesses rave about the benefits of DaaS.

Take Cardoni Waddell. The CPA firm has 19 people using DaaS offered by Simplified Innovations, a service provider that uses Citrix technology to deliver the offering. "I can't say enough good things about it," says Greg Schuessler, a partner at Cardoni Waddell.

Businesses like Cardoni Waddell are turning to DaaS mainly because it takes the headache out of managing desktops and applications internally, with remote access for workers being a secondary benefit. "We went through a period where we were constantly updating servers, constantly updating desktops. We'd have employees here until all hours of the night trying to update our systems," he explains.

Also, employees can now work from home; that's particularly useful for some employees who live more than an hour away, Schuessler says.

It's not always been a perfect setup. Cardoni Waddell has occasionally had latency issues that slow down users' access to their desktops. The company switched Internet providers, from Verizon to Comcast, and that helped, Schuessler says. In addition, it reports latency issues to Simplified, which has made changes that improve performance, he explains.

Overall, Cardoni Waddell has saved money by switching to DaaS, since it now buys cheaper hardware when replacing user machines. "You don't need that disk space," Schuessler says, of the more expensive computers.

He felt comfortable choosing Simplified as a vendor because its salesman had worked as a CPA previously. "He spoke our language. That was very comforting. He knew the programs we used and he knew how our operations worked with them," he says.

Businesses in vertical industries that require specialized software are good candidates for DaaS, 451 Research's Ottaway says. In fact, he's stopped using the term DaaS, favoring "workspace as a service."

IDC's Waldman suspects that service providers will begin focusing on specific verticals like oil and gas, manufacturing or healthcare. That way they can offer customers a package of targeted apps in addition to traditional business productivity software.

Another business in a vertical industry benefiting from DaaS is Skyview Farms, a trucking company with 80 trucks that operates in the U.S. and Canada. It has 30 people in its offices using virtualized desktops delivered by RTI Technology Solutions, a service provider offering DaaS based on Citrix technology.

Like Cardoni Waddell, Skyview turned to DaaS as a way to simplify IT management. In fact, it no longer needs an in-house IT person, says Ben Rickertsen, Skyview CEO.

Also, he gained a sense of security by moving the company's desktops, plus apps and data, to the cloud. In the past, he worried that an event like a fire in the offices would completely bring business to a halt. "Now, I could go find a couple of iPads and I'd be back in business," he explains.

He likes that using DaaS means he can predict costs. "If I run a server and it goes down and I have an $8,000 server bill that I didn't budget for, that's a problem," he says.

DaaS typically costs around $40 per month per user, plus potential additional costs for applications. In other words, the base price is to run only the OS. You'll pay more to run applications, primarily for licensing.

Using DaaS has also made it easy for him to try new software before rolling it out to everyone. "I'll make sure it works the way we want it to before we set up other seats," Rickertsen says.

Performance hasn't been an issue for the company. "We did get fiber a while back and that helped, but even before that it wasn't terrible," he says.

Big business

So is DaaS suitable for large deployments? Some analysts say not yet.

One holdup is that while DaaS was designed to take away some of the headaches of managing an on-premises VDI deployment, some businesses aren't yet ready to give up all control, for performance reasons or due to regulatory issues. The result is a hybrid setup.

For example, a business could run DaaS internally -- along the private-cloud model -- to serve users who are in the corporate headquarters or to serve a set of users who are working with data that must be stored in a corporate-controlled data center. At the same time, a business could use DaaS offered by a service provider to workers who are travelling or based in a remote office. The two setups can be integrated so that IT has a single management console.

In addition, the Windows licensing rules aren't ideal for all companies, and can mean that DaaS isn't cost effective. "It's been a barrier," Forrester's Johnson says.

There are two potential setups. One is for a DaaS provider to use Windows Server with multiple user sessions running, meaning that multiple users are accessing their Windows desktops from a single instance of Windows Server.

Alternatively, a provider can run individual Windows desktop instances for each user. However, Microsoft requires that in these deployments, the hosting hardware is physically dedicated to a single customer. That ends up being very cost-ineffective, says Wes Miller, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft.

One potential downside to the Windows Server-based approach is that some applications may not run correctly in that environment. But it's not a problem with most apps, Miller says, so it's not enough of an issue to "justify the cost premium" of the Windows client implementation.

Also, while latency isn't currently an issue for the businesses interviewed for this story, it can be for some organizations. As a result, Johnson recommends that businesses use DaaS for employees who will almost always be on a high-speed network. This shortcoming, too, should improve, as communications protocols evolve to be more tolerant of network latency, he says.

"It's not a one-size-fits-all model," says IDC's Waldman. "It's not going to be appropriate for every user in your company."

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