Desktops as a Service, or DaaS, have been around for about a decade and have, for the most part, underperformed against expectations. Some analysts believe that this all changed in 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic shone the light on DaaS's virtues, and companies around the world began turning to it to ease remote work.
So is 2021 the year DaaS definitively establishes its utility in the enterprise? It may be poised to take advantage of the circumstances that have stretched IT pros to figure out how to provision and support a workforce whose machines they can't ever lay hands on.
Defining Desktops as a Service
DaaS takes the end-user desktop environment and turns it into a cloud-hosted service. Those environments are provisioned with an operating system like Windows 10 and can run the same productivity applications that employees would use on a traditional PC. Workers log into their DaaS workstations over the internet, typically via a web browser that makes DaaS environments as easy to access as any website.
In this way, DaaS allows businesses to ditch physical workstations. Because employees' desktop environments are hosted in the cloud, they have anywhere, anytime access to business apps and data. DaaS also eliminates security concerns around virtual private networks (VPNs) and Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) servers, allows for remote troubleshooting of desktop problems, and provides a simple process for spinning up new desktop environments.
DaaS is similar to so-called virtual desktop infrastructure, or VDI, which is another way to make desktop environments available to remote users. However, VDI typically involves using a local server (such as a Windows 2019 Server) to serve desktop sessions to users within the same local facility. In other words, there is no cloud involved. VDI can also be used to serve individual applications instead of a full desktop environment over the network, a practice that is less common – albeit theoretically possible – when using DaaS.
COVID and the Resurgence of Desktops as a Service
DaaS is not a new idea. Platforms like Amazon WorkSpaces, the DaaS solution in the AWS cloud, have been around for the better part of a decade. More generally, the idea of serving desktop environments over the network harkens back to the 1980s, when what would eventually become known as thin clients came into vogue.
Some analysts believe DaaS is on the verge of making much larger inroads in the cloud computing market. Gartner expects DaaS's revenue nearly to double between 2019 and 2020 and pins DaaS as the fastest-growing segment of the cloud ecosystem at present.
The major driver of this sudden increase in DaaS growth, according to Gartner and other observers and vendors in the DaaS space, is the coronavirus pandemic. The need to provide remote employees with desktops that they can access from anywhere makes DaaS an attractive solution at a time when the incidence of remote work has doubled.
In addition, as Gartner pointed out, DaaS may be attractive from a financial perspective. By allowing companies to instantly scale up or down the number of workstations they use, and by transforming workstations from a large capital expense to a lower, ongoing operating expense, DaaS provides for more flexible budgeting than do on-premises workstations. DaaS may also allow companies to reduce their dependence on full-time, in-house IT staff because having fewer on-premises, local desktops reduces the need to manage physical desktop hardware or deploy employees onsite when providing desktop support.
What's Really in Store for DaaS Adoption?
That said, heady predictions about explosive growth for the DaaS market are not new, and those from previous years never panned out. Will this time prove different?
Frantz Civil, lead engineer and founder at MobileNOC, which provides remote management solutions for IT teams, said at Interop Digital 2020, "I think it's hype."
That's not to say that desktops as a service won't see any rise in popularity. The solution "makes more sense for a startup where you have five or seven users" and can spin up a handful of cloud-based workstations for them, Civil said. But for the Fortune 500 companies that are responsible for the lion's share of spending on cloud services, DaaS adoption is not likely to match the hype anytime soon, simply because those companies can't convert to a DaaS infrastructure model overnight.
One key hindrance is that, even if you move your workers' desktop environments into the cloud, they still need physical devices for accessing those desktops. Although an enterprise could request its employees make their personal machines available for installing the DaaS client, that presents a range of security and logistics headaches.
Alternately, an enterprise can supply employees with devices for logging into its DaaS service. But then the IT staff still has physical hardware to purchase and maintain, thus perpetuating the management and budgetary challenges that come with them. Another key hardware-centric hindrance: Companies that already own Windows servers may prefer to use those machines to serve remote desktop sessions, rather than spend more money in cloud-based alternatives.
Yet an enterprise that already has its hardware in the hands of its employees and has a robust support client can decide to shift its resources to DaaS and eliminate some of the hassle of desktop support. As we continue in a workplace that has normalized remote work and is now moving to ensure that its IT pros are able to provide security and support to systems they may never actually set up in person, it seems likely that desktops as a service will experience some growth over the coming year. Look for smaller companies that are not already heavily invested in conventional desktop infrastructure and can easily migrate to DaaS to lead the way – but don't count out larger enterprises finding DaaS to be a creative solution to a number of provisioning and support issues.