Unlike servers, disk arrays, network switches and many other common IT assets, desktop PCs have yet to be transformed by the cloud revolution. Most desktop architectures look the same as they did 30 years ago, composed of local workstations that run locally installed operating systems. Thanks in part to the pandemic, this may finally be changing. The market surrounding cloud desktops and virtual desktop infrastructure is rapidly expanding, giving companies more and better ways of replacing traditional workstations with cloud desktops or services.
Here’s a look at the state of the cloud desktop market, and what to expect as it continues its rapid evolution.
The What and Why of Cloud Desktops and VDI
Cloud desktops are virtual machines hosted in the cloud. They’re just like cloud servers except that they run desktop software, like Windows 10, instead of a server operating system. This type of solution is sometimes called desktop as a service, or DaaS.
Virtual desktop infrastructure, or VDI, is very similar to cloud desktops. The main difference is that, in the case of VDI, the virtual machines that host desktop environments run on a local server instead of in the cloud.
Both types of solutions may be referred to as hosted desktops.
It’s easy to see the benefits of these types of architectures. Above all, they give employees the freedom to access their workstations (and the data and software they host) from any location, rather than being dependent upon a specific PC to do their work. They also help to simplify desktop management and support operations by consolidating all desktop software into a central location, rather than having it spread among hundreds or thousands of individual PCs.
The State of the Cloud Desktop and VDI Market
The idea of hosting desktop environments on remote servers is not at all new. It dates to the 1980s, which saw the advent of architectures that eventually became known as thin clients.
Despite this long history, the market for cloud desktops and VDI solutions has been relatively quiet for most of the past several decades. That’s not for lack of interest among vendors; on the contrary, software companies like Citrix and VMware have long sold VDI solutions, and each of the major public cloud vendors--including Amazon, Azure and Google--has had a cloud desktop offering for the better part of the last 10 years.
But, in other respects, the cloud desktop and VDI ecosystem has been relatively stagnant for most of its history. Despite predicting in the early 2010s that 40% of business PCs would run under a VDI or cloud desktop architecture by 2013, Gartner by 2018 was reporting less momentum in this space, especially for cloud desktops.
The most recent outlook from Gartner, however, suggests that dramatic change is finally afoot for the cloud desktop market in particular. Gartner in July 2020 predicted that the DaaS market would grow by 95.4% over the course of 2020, compared to a mere 6.3% growth rate for the cloud computing market as a whole. This makes DaaS the current fastest-growing category of all cloud services, according to Gartner, which also thinks the DaaS market by 2022 will be four times as large as it was in 2019.
Why Cloud Desktops and VDI Are Changing
Will Gartner’s predictions of explosive growth surrounding hosted desktops turn out to be right this time? My money is on yes, for two main reasons.
The first and most obvious is the pandemic and the sharp increase in remote workers that has resulted from it. In a world where most businesses are not sure when they can reliably bring all of their employees back into the office again and be confident they’ll stay there, the ability to run desktops in the cloud and allow employees to access them from anywhere is worth much more than it was in pre-pandemic times.
The second, more important reason is that the market for cloud desktops and related products has evolved in ways that lower the barrier to entry. Traditionally, most VDI and DaaS platforms catered to large enterprises. Solutions like Citrix Workspace or Amazon WorkSpaces are designed for companies that need large-scale deployments of hosted desktops, and that are able to launch and manage those desktops mostly on their own. These platforms are akin to virtual machine services running in the public cloud in that they give users a virtual hardware environment, along with some software if the user chooses, but they leave the task of starting and managing that environment mostly up to the customer.
That has begun to change as smaller vendors have entered the hosted desktop market. For example, Anunta, a cloud services and end user computing vendor, recently debuted a cloud desktop offering that is packaged as a fully managed service, freeing users from the burden of managing cloud desktops themselves. Workspot stands out as another vendor in this space that focuses on usability.
And then there are companies like Cameyo, which aim to liberate users from the complexity of conventional cloud desktop and VDI platforms entirely by virtualizing desktop applications in a way that makes them accessible from any Web browser. With this type of solution, you don’t need to run a full virtual desktop environment at all to give employees access to their apps from anywhere. You can virtualize just the apps themselves, and serve them over the Web (even if the apps themselves are, for example, Microsoft Office, rather than a Web-based app).
These offerings, which were conceived before the pandemic (and are thus not merely efforts to capitalize on the sudden surge of interest in hosted desktops), suggest that the market surrounding cloud desktops and VDI is now becoming more diverse and dynamic. Rather than simply extending the concepts behind virtual servers to virtual desktops in a way that works well only for enterprises, which is what conventional VDI and DaaS platforms do, these newer offerings reflect efforts to simplify the architectural and/or support and management overhead that define how hosted desktops can be used.
Just as the Year of the Linux Desktop has been frequently foreseen but has never come to pass, the hype surrounding hosted desktops has failed to match reality for the past several decades. 2020, however, may be the year when that finally changes, thanks both to the sudden rise in demand for remotely accessible desktop environments and (especially) the newer, user-friendlier types of hosted desktop solutions that have entered the market.