Desktop-as-a-service: Will you soon be running your ‘desktop’ from the cloud?

Both Google and Microsoft want your desktop running on the cloud. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, they may just be successful sooner than you think.

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I cut my computing teeth on terminals and mainframe computers. Then CP/M, Apple and IBM PCs in the early '80s changed everything. Computing power lived on your desktop, not on distant VAXen and IBM Big Iron. Forty years later, your IT work is changing its location once more. This time, it's moving from your PC to the cloud.

Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, working from home has never been more popular. Today, about 75 million US employees are working from home.  A Glassdoor survey showed "67% of employees" like this idea. They support working "from home indefinitely." 

Many businesses are just fine with this trend. Google, Facebook and Zillow, the online real-estate company, are already planning on having their staff working from home until 2021.

Even before this latest trend, some work remained in data centers. Starting in 1989, when former IBM operating system maestro Ed Iacobucci founded Citrix, this company has long led the way in virtualizing the Windows desktop. Today, with products such as Citrix Virtual Apps and Desktops and Citrix Managed Desktops, Citrix is still making billions from remote desktops.

They're not the only ones profiting from Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI). Morris Tabush, President of the Tabush Group, a VDI provider for small to midsize businesses in law, real estate, construction, investment management and professional services, has done well with these vertical markets.

Tabush explained, "We built and run our own [Desktop-as-a-Service] DaaS platform called Boxtop. We have our own cloud infrastructure and use VMWare Horizon View as the main ingredient to manage and deliver full persistent Windows desktops (Server 2016 in ‘desktop mode’). We don’t use any public cloud resources. Our goal from the beginning was to make our DaaS platform look and feel as fast or faster than a local PC, so people didn’t feel the lag of cloud, Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP), or LogMeIn, or the typical pains of a traditional Citrix session."

While Citrix, LogMeIn, VMware and Tabush have all been successful, two much larger technology companies have also been betting on DaaS for some time: Google and Microsoft.

2020's DaaS powers: Google

Google set its claim on the desktop market with its DaaS Chromebook, the Samsung Series 5 in 2011. At first, Chromebooks were dismissed as just browsers in a box. But over time, people began to realize that even if that's all they were, that was more powerful enough for business purposes.

With the rise of Software-as-a-Service and the decline of shrink-wrapped PC software, businesses realized that for most practical purposes, Chromebooks were all the computers their staff needed. In particular, the education vertical has shifted permanently from Apple to Chromebooks. By 2013. Chromebooks were catching up with Apple. Macs and iPads becoming an afterthought. In 2018, Chromebooks had 60% of the educational laptops and tablets market

Google had bigger things in mind: The enterprise. Together with Dell and the Chrome Enterprise initiative in 2019, Google laid out the argument for why businesses should turn from Windows to the Chromebook for the office. According to John Solomon, Google's VP of Chrome OS, "Automatic updates that don’t disrupt work. Boot-up in seconds so you can get up and running fast. Security by default, with multiple layers of defenses, so you’re protected against threats. AI enhancements that help you work fast, and smart. And a cloud-native experience today’s workforce increasingly expects. The modern OS is not a vision, it’s already a reality for businesses today with Chrome OS."

In addition, Chromebooks do far more than just web browsers. Today, Chromebooks also run Android, Linux, and Windows apps. A high-powered business Chromebook can do more than just about any other laptop on the planet.

But, the true secret of its success isn't the processor under the keyboard. It's Google Cloud. Thanks to that cloud and all the services, such as Google Docs, Google Drive, Gmail and G Suite that go with it, if you run over your Chromebook with a car, buy a new one and you're right back to work without one word lost. Try that with traditional Windows.

It's not just the users that reap these benefits. Chromebooks also don't require the constant and costly attention from IT admins, security specialists and help technicians that Linux, macOS, or Windows require. This lowers the total cost of ownership (TCO), and that's always a win in the CFO's office.

All of these virtues play well in today's work from the home world. But,you don't have to take my word for it. Stephen Baker, NPD VP, tweeted, "Chromebooks which normally outgrow the market saw a 400% increase during the week of March 21 compared to 113% for the full consumer notebook category." A Google representative said, "We have seen a 109% year over year growth in unit sales in the US for Chromebooks, and ~155% year over year growth in commercial Chromebooks in Q1 2020."

Solomon wrote it's clear why this is happening. "The idea of having cloud-based devices that can be accessible anytime and anywhere is no longer a nice-to-have, it will likely become a necessity for many businesses as they adopt a more versatile way of working. What we thought would be five years out is now happening far more quickly."

For Solomon, "COVID-19 has proven to be a tipping point, and what was looking to be a steady evolution is now a revolution. Companies of all sizes have implemented work from home and are running nearly all functions, including mission-critical ones, remotely."

In short, Solomon continued, "COVID-19 is completely changing business continuity planning, and mission-critical remote work has moved from a dusty paragraph at the back of audit compliance manuals to the front page for every enterprise worldwide. Remote work has not just been reprioritized, but it’s been redefined."

2020's DaaS powers: Microsoft

Microsoft would agree with this assessment.

"What!?" you say. Isn't cloud-based DaaS a mortal threat to Microsoft?  Isn't Windows vital to Microsoft's income? Actually, no. No, it isn't.

In Microsoft's latest quarter, Windows, which is still getting a boost from the move to Windows 10 from Windows 7,  brought in $5.2-billion. But, and this is vital, Windows came in far behind Microsoft Office with cloud services, $8.9 billion, and server and cloud services, $10.5 billion.

“We’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said in a statement. “From remote teamwork and learning to sales and customer service to critical cloud infrastructure and security — we are working alongside customers every day to help them adapt and stay open for business in a world of remote everything."

Note that word "remote?" Microsoft continued, "cloud usage increased, particularly in Microsoft 365, including Teams, Azure, Windows Virtual Desktop, advanced security solutions, and Power Platform, as customers shifted to work and learn from home.”

Let me underline this for you. Last year, Jared Spataro, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for Office and Windows group, told users Not to upgrade to Office 2019, saying its features are frozen in time. While, “Office 365 includes fully installed Office applications ... and these apps keep getting better over time, with new capabilities delivered every month.”

The folks at Redmond crew have been pushing Windows to a DaaS model for years now. Recently, with the release of Microsoft 365 and Windows Virtual Desktop (WVD), there's no question Microsoft wants you to move your office work to the cloud.

Your computing device, whether it's a PC, Chromebook, tablet, or even a smartphone, is far less important to Microsoft than getting you subscribed to its SaaS applications or using the Azure-cloud based Windows Virtual Desktop. As Brad Anderson, Microsoft's corporate vice president for Microsoft 365, and Julia White, corporate vice president for Microsoft Azure, blogged recently, "The Windows Virtual Desktop client is already available across Windows, Android, Mac, iOS and HTML5. In addition to these platforms, we’re releasing a new Windows Virtual Desktop software development kit (SDK) to our development partners to support the creation of Linux-based thin clients."

Linux!? Yes, even Linux.

"Windows-as-a-Service," as well-known Microsoft journalist, Ed Bott, pointed out years ago," isn't "just a marketing ploy," it was a fundamental shift on how Microsoft was working with the PC desktop. Now, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, Simon Binder, a Microsoft endpoint manager at Truesec, recently tweeted there are “6 times more [WVD] users active today than expected during 2020.”

True, a Microsoft spokesperson said, "We believe the best Windows experience is on a device running the Windows 10 operating system. One billion people around the world agree."

But, they continue, "For regulated industries like financial services and healthcare, a virtualized desktop experience ensures compliance regulations are met and access to sensitive data is securely managed. For mobile workforces and Firstline Workers, desktop virtualization makes managing and provisioning access to corporate data and apps easier. It also gives IT options in supporting scenarios such as giving access to specific apps to certain employees. For these scenarios, Windows Virtual Desktop provides the best-virtualized Windows and Office experience delivered on Microsoft Azure."

Problems and solutions

Of course, not everyone loves this idea. Many people really, really dislike giving up control of their PCs. There will always be some -- power users, gamers and Linux users -- who will stick to a traditional PC model. But, for businesses with workers at home, DaaS, no matter which kind they use, is very attractive.

Another problem is bandwidth. Sure, many rural areas have inadequate Internet broadband. Traffic caps can also make DaaS a non-starter.

But the last is not a new problem and it's been solved. Jason Perlow, a former IBM systems architect, said, "This was a workable technology in the 1990s even over dial-up internet, that is how Citrix made a name for itself. There's a lot that can be done with compression, WAN acceleration, etc."

Edge computing, which brings cloud-server power much closer in terms of bandwidth and latency, also makes DaaS more practical for remote users. Alan Conboy, Office of the CTO, at Scale Computing, called "VDI and edge computing a match made in heaven." That's because. "Deploying VDI is easy and practical when utilizing edge computing solutions, even for small IT teams that support numerous users."

In VDI's early days, as Tom Henderson, managing director of ExtremeLabs, pointed out, it "had lots of problems. Racks and racks of servers and licenses were sold, then admins found out they had to maintain those fleets of virtualized sessions, permanent/persistent vs. transient. Patch and fix/update routines had to be remotely deployed, which today, is more trivial."

Today, though, Henderson continued, "People like a well-designed DaaS. Response times are great and the complexity is behind-the-curtain as the Wizards of DaaS hide the plumbing in their online Oz."

Henderson believes DaaS's "popularity, oversold in the olden days, is increasing. Will we have more pools of online desktop use? Yes. But it's a linear increase, and not the logarithmic increase that the salespeople tout."

In part that's because, "The dangers and privacy implications, along with policy issues and security concerns are huge. It's a non-trivial exercise, and it's a philosophical change for organizations."

True, those problems are there. For example, if your users are running a DaaS on their home PC, who's responsible for its security? 

That said, as Google and Microsoft's numbers show, DaaS is no longer a niche technology. It's becoming the future, and indeed the present, for the IT desktop.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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