Explain IT: Season 3, Episode 2 - Windows Virtual Desktop

Playing now - Windows Virtual Desktop


In this episode we look at Windows Virtual Desktop; what it is, why it’s important and what we might see in the future from it. Host Zac Abbott is joined by Softcat’s chief technologist for digital workspace, Adam Harding, Microsoft’s Windows Virtual Desktop global black belt, Tom Hickling, and Jez Haisman, Director of SI development and Microsoft Alliances in the EMEA for Citrix. Together they look at the evolution of virtual desktops and how Microsoft and Citrix work together to bring the best capabilities to an organisation’s VDI. They also look at who these services are relevant for and how best customers can use them.

From L to R: Tom Hickling, Adam Harding, Zac Abbott, Jeremy Haisman
Zac Abbott
Zac Abbott Senior Account Manager Softcat
Jeremy Haisman
Jeremy Haisman Director of SI development and Microsoft Alliances in the EMEA Citrix
Tom Hickling
Tom Hickling Windows Virtual Desktop Global Black Belt Microsoft
Key takeaways
  • Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) is a powerful tool and will remain mission-critical for organisations for the foreseeable future. It is essential, therefore, that user experience is a top priority.
  • Windows Virtual Desktop (WVD) runs in the cloud, exclusively in Azure, managing an organisation’s estate; with virtual machines (VMs) hosting the apps and desktops for them.
  • Citrix are certified to extend and enhance WVD, offering multi-cloud, virtual apps and desktop service, and HDX and Teams optimisation for Enterprise customers.
  • It’s easy to transition, whether you have a VDI environment or not. VMs can be migrated from on-premise to Azure, but building in Azure natively directly is easier and allows you to deploy VMs in a few minutes.
  • WVD is for everyone - every organisation that has virtual desktops in their environment will benefit from moving to WVD. 
  • Citrix and Microsoft provide the best experience with WVD, with expertise stretching back decades and a firm sight on future developments and enhancements.

“It greatly reduces the complexity of application delivery which at the end of the day is what all of this is about, it's about connecting users with the applications which are the keys to the kingdom effectively of an enterprise and this is a mechanism for doing exactly that.”


Zac Abbott: Hello and welcome to Explain IT brought to you by Softcat. The show for IT professionals by IT professionals that aims to simplify the complex and often overcomplicated bits of Enterprise IT without compromising on the detail. Welcome back to another episode of Explain IT. I'm your host, Zac Abbott, and over the next 20ish minutes I'll be challenging our panel of experts to take a different area of the IT ecosystem and, of course Explain IT. In this episode we’re going to talk about Windows Virtual Desktop; what it is, why an organisation should care about it and what’s the future. Joining me today to discuss this is Adam Harding, Softcat’s chief technologist for digital workspace, Tom Hickling who is Microsoft’s Windows Virtual Desktop global black belt, and Jez Haisman who is the director of SI development and Microsoft Alliances in the EMEA for Citrix. So in the previous season we used to do an interesting fact, don't worry, no pressure, we’ve scrapped that, but if you could only eat one meal for the rest of your life, what would it be? Starting with Adam.

Adam Harding: Pick and mix.

Zac Abbott: Pick and mix? 

Adam Harding: Yeah, pick and mix.

Zac Abbott: Why? 

Adam Harding: Because it’s the gift that keeps on giving, isn’t it? You’re never going to get bored of pick and mix.

Zac Abbott: Yep. All part of your five a day as well so that's good I guess. Tom?

Tom Hickling: I have got a soft spot for Italian caprese salad on Italian toasting bread. So they make bread that you don't eat as bread, it has to be toasted and then you put your caprese salad on top.

Zac Abbott: That is beyond fancy.

Adam Harding: Makes me sound uncultured.

Tom Hickling: Can only get it from Waitrose by the way.

Zac Abbott: Other supermarkets are available. Jez?

Jez Haisman: I think for me if I go for a default or going to have something to eat it's going to be a pan-fried salmon with spinach and lentils.

Zac Abbott: That pick and mix is just so far down the line now.

Adam Harding: I'll tell you what, there’s going to be fans of that. 

Zac Abbott: Of course, I'm with you guys it would be eggs benedict obviously.

Adam Harding: You don't eat a salmon whilst watching a movie do you?

Zac Abbott: No, true.

Jez Haisman: No that's very true 

Zac Abbott: Tom first time on the podcast, so aside from expertly beating people up as a black belt, what does that role entail?

Tom Hickling: So a global black belt in Microsoft is a person and a team that are dedicated to specific workloads. There's only a small number of them. So for example networking in Azure is a complex topic and always had a dedicated global black belt team or new incubation products, so WVD is a new product, it requires deep technical knowledge and hence gets a global black belt team, of which I am one of them, in EMEA, and we go around karate chopping people to start adopting WVD.

Zac Abbott: Lovely and Jez your role as Director of SI development and Microsoft Alliances. It's quite a lengthy job title, what is it that you actually do?

Jez Haisman: Everyone loves a job title! So realistically my job is all about driving the relationship between Citrix and Microsoft. I built the relationship in the UK, I come from a background, I was 17 years at Microsoft, so I was ideally placed to take the relationship on to the next level from a Citrix standpoint, that’s developed even more as our organisation is transforming, as we are becoming more and more of a cloud first organisation. Our business was basically built on Microsoft from the start and we’ve diversified from that but our relationship with Microsoft and our investment in Azure is key to our growth, so I now have a team of individuals around EMEA who are all aligned and dedicated to driving that in their geographies.

Zac Abbott: So Adam what is VDI and where is relevant?

Adam Harding: Let's go back a little bit, let's talk about what a virtual desktop is from the beginning. So really what virtual desktop infrastructure is about and virtual apps is about is abstracting the operating system, the application and the data from devices that were in people's hands then hosting them within data centres, whether they be your own, whether it be a co-lo, whether it be one of the hyperscale clouds, and presenting it back to people via a browser or an agent so they could access it from anywhere, at any time, from any location. So that's the heritage of the virtual desktop infrastructure. Windows Virtual Desktop is different because it joins the parade of cloud desktops - that’s how I'm referring to them anyway - and really that's about taking the I out of VDI, the infrastructure, and letting somebody else do that work for you. So you will see this in Microsoft Windows Virtual Desktop, you’ll see this in Citrix’s Citrix cloud, you'll see it in AWS workspaces, you'll see it in VMWare Horizon Cloud, they're all different, but it's about abstracting the infrastructure and them looking after the bit that was, and has been historically, very complex to design, deploy, optimise and operate and very costly to get going, there's a lot of top grade infrastructure that is the bed beneath all of these things. So VDI is a powerful tool and it's going to remain relevant, if not mission-critical, for a lot of organisations for a long time to come. As an industry we’re under massive pressure to appease the risk-averse and paranoid, whilst empowering mobility, collaboration, productivity and the work-life balance, and also supporting the obsessive drive for that consumer grade user experience, because this is all about user experience. To strike the right balance, some organisations are going to need tools that allow people to access the applications and data they need without that data ever leaving the boundaries of the DC or in this hyperscale instance. Most are going to also need a fistful of get out of jail free cards to enable users to consume those legacy applications in ways that they were never intended to be consumed and many will still need their people to have the freedom to securely access all of the services from whatever type of device the user picks up next.

Zac Abbott: Perfect and Tom how does Windows Virtual Desktop differ from other solutions that are out there?

Tom Hickling: So let’s gives the short answer - WVD is a Microsoft owned and operated PaaS service effectively for the management and orchestration of that estate that Adam just mentioned, virtual machines hosting the apps and desktops for the organisation. The slightly longer answer is that WVD is the next evolution, the major evolution, of our RDS capability which has been around for about 30 years. It runs exclusively in Azure, so it's, like I said, that Microsoft service that the customer just consumes. So the customer no longer has to do any forecasting for virtual machine and infrastructure usage, they don't have to do any procurement, any deployment, any patching, any break-fix, it's an evergreen service for that management. So the customer still has to manage the virtual machines that are hosting their apps on the desktop so not quite there yet with the full end-to-end desktop as a service, but those virtual machines will reside in the customer's Azure subscription and it basically connects up to the WVD management service that also is operating in Azure. So the customer then has to go and deploy these virtual machines, install the applications and then present that out to their user base. Now they can choose any of the virtual machines that are currently available in the Azure region or Azure regions that they want to deploy into, so they can choose any of the current 54 Azure regions that are available to them to go and distributes these VMs globally, if they've got users dotted around the globe, but have that managed from that one single management plane that Microsoft operate, so we are effectively providing them with an evergreen management service with an evergreen operating system in Windows 10, also with an evergreen version of Office, so Office 365 ProPlus has been optimised specifically for the WVD workload.

Zac Abbott: And Jez, how does Citrix synergise with WVD?

Jez Haisman: So Citrix as an organisation are certified to extend and enhance WVD which is important and going back to Tom’s point, from an RDS perspective, and over the last 30 years we've been doing exactly that from an on-premise perspective we've... if your customer was happy with RDS, fantastic, if you need anything more complex Citrix was the solution of choice to actually enhance that. So from a Citrix virtual apps and desktops perspective, Tom mentioned that it’s native Azure; we bring all of the Enterprise capability on top of that, ie we have many enhancements to Windows Virtual Desktop, and other key ones here are a) is multicloud, so you can use any cloud provider, if you have a hybrid environment, and I would wager that most Enterprises probably have a hybrid requirement, then we allow that and from a legacy on-prem, Tom mentioned Azure Stack, if you can afford Azure Stack, that’s fantastic, but if you want to be more cost-effective then Citrix virtual apps and desktops service will provide that. Also our HDX capabilities and our Teams optimisation, so there are lots and lots of capabilities on top, but it's the traditional story where Microsoft have gone 80% of the journey and actually Citrix have added the 20%, really, to drive all of that enhanced capability that your Enterprise customer is going to need.

Zac Abbott: And if they already have a VDI environment, is it easy to transition?

Tom Hickling: It's relatively easy if you wanted to do a lift and shift so you can migrate virtual machines from on-premises up into Azure, so we've got a lot of customers that do that. In reality it's probably easier just to build in Azure natively directly because of the scale and the ability to deploy these virtual machines in five, six minutes. So we do find lots of customers starting on that migration route and then realising that it’s actually easier just to build new.

Zac Abbott: Do you think there are disadvantages to WVD?

Adam Harding: I don't think it's necessarily a disadvantage but there’s certainly limitations. At the moment WVD is an Azure native service so therefore if you would like to get access to Windows 10 multi session on premise, unless you go down the Azure Stack route…

Tom Hickling: Correct yeah, that's the only option

Adam Harding: ...Then you can't deliver that and that's where the partner ecosystem that's always supplemented Microsoft's offerings, get involved.

Jez Haisman: And I think that's exactly right and I think Tom spoke about the management plane capabilities and I think we're looking at WVD, this is first iteration, it'll grow, it will develop over time, but in true partnership style, Citrix and Microsoft are really focused on bringing the best capabilities to whatever the customer’s requirements are. Now if you look at WVD currently, as Adam rightly said, it's Azure only and the management plane itself is, I would say, has a basic functionality and it will deliver basic capabilities, now if you're a customer that has those basic capabilities, fantastic, you really have got gold dust, but if you're a customer that really has more of a complex environment, most Enterprises I would say would be challenged around things like legacy on-prem applications, they will probably have a hybrid requirement, and I think we're seeing now multi-cloud is probably the de facto way that most Enterprise organisations will operate, they will have some of their workloads in AWS, in Google and they'll be specific about where they put stuff into Azure, now the Citrix virtual apps and desktops and our management plane really does enhance the capabilities of WVD and delivers that capability for the Enterprise. So all of the stuff, if you have a basic use requirement with Microsoft, fantastic, just like RDS and Microsoft are still investing in RDS as Tom said, they want it to be the best desktop experience that you have in the cloud with Windows Virtual Desktops. We will make that the best experience you have with the capability that we build and bring with Citrix virtual apps and desktops on top of Windows Virtual Desktops.

Zac Abbott: One of the words that has been thrown around a lot by you guys is customers. Just wanted to ask what kind of organisations do you see benefiting from Windows Virtual Desktop… or is there a specific…?

Tom Hickling: I wouldn't say there is a specific organisation. Every customer that has virtual desktop in their environment will benefit if they moved to WVD. So it's a broad capability and it fits for a large chunk of users. So WVD is future proof as well as cognisant of the fact there's lots of users, lots of Enterprises out there with legacy infrastructure. So one of the great things about WVD is it will support Windows 7 and Microsoft will provide customers that are moving Windows 7 VDI to WVD with three years of free extended security updates free of charge, so I've seen some quite eye-watering bills for customers who are doing this on premises, so that cost is being completely and utterly removed for customers that want to shift those Windows 7 VDIs up into Azure. In the future there's going to be a whole load of new cloud first capabilities, so Intune support - cloud based management for these devices, removing any of the legacy requirements. So one of the things on the road map that’s coming at some point in the not so distant future is Azure AD only authentication, so no requirement for active directory. Now lots, in fact probably all organisations out there have Active Directory, but in some point in the future they're going to want to move off that and be fully Azure only. So having a desktop in Azure, using Azure AD for authentication, using Office 365 from the Microsoft cloud without any requirement coming back to on-premises data centres or any other legacy infrastructure.

Jez Haisman: Just coming back to what Tom said there, Windows 7 has now gone end of life so there will be, as Tom said, there's some eye-watering bills over three years for you to support Windows 7 on premise. Now moving your Windows 7 estate to Windows Virtual Desktops is going to give you free security patches, updates for three years which is going to allow you and your environment to migrate to Windows 10 in the correct time frame and get it right. Now I think just coming back to this remember, why is that important? I think because if you have those Enterprise skews and if you have that capability, you're not paying for anything, there's no additional cost for you to do that, so why wouldn't you? So from a Citrix perspective, just coming to the basic element of it, VDI and virtualisation now is really being looked at and it's a comedy moment for me really, because as I said, virtualisation - we've been doing it for 30 years. All of a sudden, Windows Virtual Desktop has come along and it's the new shiny thing, which is great and absolutely, really driving that momentum, but why would you not look at that if you have actually invested in the capability to do it and it's going to get you out of trouble from a Windows 7 perspective.

Adam Harding: And I would just say, Softcat have been helping with virtual desktops for 15-years, 20-years, something like that. It's been a long time and I've never known more organisations contact us about a development than they have since Windows Virtual Desktop was even announced in public beta. 

Jez Haisman: The groundswell and momentum around customer interest in this is actually overwhelming. I knew it was going to be big, but I’d downplayed it a little bit, but it's huge, it's everything that everyone is talking about

Adam Harding: And I think we have to try and help the community out because there's a lot of demystifying that's got to go on here, because people are selling Microsoft short from the first instance, ‘oh it's just VDI in Azure that I’m getting included in some licences that I have’, that's not true, it's a real evolution on the underlying platform. People are selling the Citrix, and to be fair to our friends at VMware and other places, they are selling those guys short because they don't actually understand how they can take that on further to help customers solve the niggles and the real-world challenges that, in its native form, Windows Virtual Desktop doesn’t meet.

Tom Hickling: And the reality is every enterprise out there has a desktop of some flavour, lots of organisations have lots of services that they can go and move to the cloud but every organisation has a desktop; that might be virtual, or it might be some physical desktop, there's a future roadmap and capability for that kind of workload moving forward into the next 30 years potentially, for doing something completely different and this is providing new runway effectively for that virtual desktop estate that the customer no longer has to manage. So you're right, it's not just the next version of something, this is…

Jez Haisman: It's a step change.

Tom Hickling: It’s a substantial evolution in the overall lifecycle of this kind of capability.

Jez Haisman: And I think as we come back to the Citrix and Microsoft story, customers with both Citrix and Microsoft, you will get the best experience now with Windows Virtual Desktops and that will evolve as this new direction actually becomes de facto across the way that customers consume their desktops for their organisations and for customers, so it's a very exciting time for us and as we're coming back to what Tom and Adam were saying, the actual momentum and I know Tom and I have spoken around the overwhelming weight of requests that you have direct from customers, Tom, there's not enough time in the day at the moment.

Zac Abbott: So we've gone through what WVD is and why organisations should consider it and how they can benefit from it, but something you briefly alluded to Tom, the future for WVD, obviously it's been around since September 2019, what does the future look like, are there any plans for increased capabilities, I know you've mentioned a couple already, but is there any further?

Tom Hickling: So there is a long list of items that are on our road map, as well as a longer list of items that are on a list that are not quite on the road map at this point in time. What I would say is, going back to my original point around RDS being dependent upon Windows Server. Windows Virtual Desktop is dependent on Azure now, completely and utterly different beast, now Azure gets updates, in fact multiple updates, every single day, so there's hundreds if not thousands of updates that get put into that service over a year. Now WVD can now take advantage of all of those capabilities that Azure and Office 365 provides to customers, so, and it also enables the development team to be dropping in updates to WVD specifically onto the platform whenever they deem fit effectively. So customers are on the cutting edge of technology that Microsoft develops and then tests and then introduces into our production platform. So some of the things that are definitely coming, like I mentioned, Azure AD only support, Intune support, things from our acquisition from FSLogix, so one of the new game changers is this thing called AppAttach, so this is the capability of presenting MSIX applications to a virtual machine, in fact it's really to the user, so these VHDs follow the user, they get mounted when the user logs in and those applications, whilst not physically installed in any way, shape or form appear to the OS and to the user as if they are completely and utterly installed, so no impact on the virtual machine in terms of installation, that application is packaged up, put into an MSIX application, onto a VHD, VHD is mounted to that VM, that VHD can be shared across multiple users, so it greatly reduces the complexity of application delivery which at the end of the day is what all of this is about, it's about connecting users with the applications which are the keys to the kingdom effectively of an Enterprise, and this is a mechanism for doing exactly that. Now there's additional Azure regions, so we’re currently, I think it's only in about five today, there's another four that are being currently built out, but that long list of other Azure regions is going to increase as well as dropping into new Azure regions which aren't even complete yet, so lots of things that are coming that could never have happened before without this migration to Azure.

Zac Abbott: So what would you say other vendors are doing? Are there any competitors emerging?

Adam Harding: There are obviously other people in the space. Amazon have Workspaces, VMware have Horizon Cloud. The reality is, it’s still an emerging market, and when you get under the covers, have widely varying capability. There are things that really make the Windows Virtual Desktop stand out is that Windows multi-session, so we can benefit, as Tom said, from application compatibility that you get from a VDI, but also the scale and the cost control that you'd get from RDS on the Windows server platform. We have Windows extended support till 2023, as Jez has spoken about at some length, which is something you're not going to achieve elsewhere outside of that Windows Virtual Desktop world. It is a licence entitlement from Microsoft, so your G Suite customers aren't going to be entitled to it, so there are differentiators about this specific service.

Jez Haisman: I think Adam’s spot on there, this is an emerging market, GA was very recent, we've spoken about day one support, we're in a position ourselves where we are a little bit ahead of the game working with Microsoft at the moment because we are the only organisation currently who can extend and enhance WVD. Our friends at VMware will come to market, surely in the middle of this year at some point with a solution, but reality dictates that the motion at the moment is landing very heavily with us. Actually we spoke about earlier about Citrix and Microsoft, why do I need Citrix anymore? That conversation has moved on since GA actually, and being at Microsoft Ignite. The customer actually comes to us now and actually really does understand the capability of where Microsoft stop and where Citrix begin. When it first started there was obviously limited collateral out there and information and people didn't understand, but everyone understands now. It's been great for Citrix because now customers, large global banks are asking us about our innovation and asking us about where we're going, which is great for us, so the market will evolve, new players will come in, I know Tom will look at me and going up against Amazon Workspaces is key for those guys, and G Suite I'm sure, and Google, will have an answer at some point, but it's embryonic, it's actually, it's I wouldn't say wild west but it's settling now into defining that path and what it's going to be, it's that early.

Zac Abbott: So if we fast-forward five or ten years, do you see this as being standard for every organisation? Do you think it's unavoidable? Windows Virtual Desktop in some capacity will be used in every organisation?

Tom Hickling: So in some respects absolutely yes. We've got customers that not only are they moving out of their data centres, some of them, some of these big Enterprises are actually selling their data centres to Microsoft and they then end up becoming Azure regions. That just shows that organisations are moving away from the traditional data centre because that’s not what they do as a business, so why do we run these massively expensive data centres when there's someone else that can do it far better and at a much cheaper cost? Like we've said, every organisation has a virtual desktop or a desktop of some flavour, that is also going to be moving to the cloud. It is effectively inevitable. So I see the future of virtual desktop being in the cloud with all of the same vendors providing the same choice to those customers so that they can, in some respects, stick with the same paradigm that they've already got it, but now they've taken advantage of the development that Citrix and VMware and the others are providing but with the scale and the future proofing that Azure will be providing to those customers.

Zac Abbott: Ok, well that is about it for the episode, before we go, Adam, quickly, 10-second summary. What is WVD, why is it important and what is the future for it?

Adam Harding: So Windows Virtual Desktop is a virtual desktops and virtual apps abstracted up into Azure with the control plane and the management plane owned and controlled by Microsoft so you essentially get a turnkey service for VDI. It's important because it makes it accessible to a whole new raft of organisations that could neither afford to deploy virtual desktop infrastructure historically and didn't have the skills to deal with the complexity. And the future is greater innovation for all of our customers at the pace that Microsoft can drive and Citrix can drive and the other partners in the ecosystem. It's great at visibility, it’s great at cost control and it's great at reach.

Zac Abbott: Great, thank you very much. That is it for this episode of Explain IT. Adam, Jez, Tom, it has been really interesting talking to you, thank you very much for your time. If anything in this show has piqued your interest and you’d like to talk about it more with someone at Softcat, do get in touch [email protected], and don't forget to subscribe wherever you get your podcast. Thank you very much for listening to Explain IT from Softcat.