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Powering productivity at home with desktops in the cloud

Jisc members and customers are under increasing pressure to deliver great user experiences to those who are working or studying remotely. Productivity suites have become an established means of delivering several applications and services remotely, across a range of platforms and devices. Email, calendars and collaboration tools, for example.

But with the disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic, productivity platforms are just one piece in the puzzle. Now there is a need to deliver the desktop experience one would expect on campus or in the office – but to students or staff at home.  Furthermore, what about specialist or resource-hungry applications that might typically be accessed via a powerful workstation in a university lab, for example?

So where does the cloud fit into all of this?

Desktop-as-a-Service (DaaS) and managed VDI (virtual desktop infrastructure) services are yet another use-case in the ever-growing list of capabilities on offer from the major cloud providers.

But why would I want my ‘desktop’ in the cloud too?

If your organisation currently has a desktop virtualisation solution on-premises (e.g. RDS, Citrix), the cloud presents opportunities to provide the scalable and resilient infrastructure that is required to support an increased number of users, working from multiple remote locations.

In a time when SaaS productivity and collaboration is so important to the enterprise, you can benefit from robust integration between a cloud-based virtual desktop solution and your choice of Google GSuite or Microsoft 365.

Chromebooks and Google GSuite for Education are popular in the Jisc membership. Nutanix Frame not only supports Google Cloud Platform (as well as AWS and Azure) for deployment, but also goes further with direct integration with Chromebooks and Google Drive. Users can sign into their Frame desktop using their usual login as Google is supported as an identity provider.

You may opt for a hybrid cloud scenario. For example, you could extend your VMware Horizon virtual desktops by deploying them to AWS.

At Jisc, we have seen an increased interest in ‘native’ cloud products that have been developed by Microsoft and AWS. These are Microsoft Virtual Desktop, Azure Labs Services, AWS Workspaces and Amazon AppStream 2.0.

Windows Virtual Desktop

Microsoft Windows Virtual Desktop (WVD) is a desktop and application virtualisation service that runs on the Microsoft cloud. It provides an agile and secure means to deliver Windows 10 desktops and applications to end users.

Where you have existing Microsoft E3, E5, A3 or A5 licenses, your users can already benefit from accessing Windows 10 virtual desktop environments.

Providing a secure, prepared Windows desktop or application is obviously a key benefit of this technology. But WVD does not necessarily have to be a replacement for a user’s desktop; it can be complimentary to deliver certain applications. In effect, a hybrid environment for desktop deployments and machine images.

For example, if you needed to provide access to a single secure application, you could deliver it via WVD, then shut down all the cloud servers providing those virtual desktops outside business hours.

To perform user acceptance testing for an application, you could just deploy to certain users via WVD and then destroy the environment when no longer required.

If you need to continue operating Windows 7 desktops, WVD also provides inclusive extended support via Azure if you go this route.

Even for organisations that already have established RDS environments on-premises, Windows Virtual Desktop provides a pathway to take a more agile approach to remote desktop infrastructure and experiences – aside from licensing, everything is a pay-as-you-go operational cost, after all.

Azure Labs Services

On the other hand, if you need a way to manage virtual computing environments for academics, students or classes, then Azure Lab Services is a good option.

Less of a fully configurable virtual desktop solution like WVD, Azure Labs Services focusses on ease of use.  It manages the underlying compute, storage and networking required to provide a fleet of virtual machines to students who would, in normal times, make use of physical computing labs.

Azure Labs Services is flexible too, with options to configure virtual machine specifications, Linux and Windows operating systems, customisable machine images, and a dashboard to keep track of usage and costs.

Microsoft provide a very useful comparison of Windows Virtual Desktop and Azure Labs Services here. Earlier, this article mentioned Citrix – it’s worth noting that they provide a WVD solution as well.

Amazon Workspaces

AWS provide two different solutions to deliver desktops and virtualised applications via the cloud. These are Amazon WorkSpaces and Amazon AppStream 2.0.

WorkSpaces is a managed, secure Desktop-as-a-Service (DaaS) solution. It is very convenient if you need to provide Linux as well as Windows desktops to students or staff, and you can scale the service to cater for the number of users you need to support. Again, there is no upfront commitment here – you pay either by the hour or each month.

Amazon AppStream 2.0

AppStream 2.0 lets you deliver specific applications via streaming technology. Useful for cloud-based virtual computing labs, AppStream lets you provide specialist or hardware-intensive applications to Chromebooks, Macs and PCs. If you want to learn more about this service, take a look at this in-depth post by Alex James, an AWS solution architect here at Jisc.

Workspaces and AppStream 2.0 are both options available to deploy as proof-of-concepts via the AWS Partner Guided Onboard (GO) Program.

Next steps

At Jisc we have a wealth of experience implementing these cloud-based desktops, as well as application streaming solutions.  Get in touch via cloud@jisc.ac.uk if you’d like to know more.

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