Virtual Desktops vs. Session-Based Desktop: What to Use When

  • 5
    min read
  • Desktopready
  • December 9, 2020

One of the great things about remote desktops today is that there are multiple ways to go about setting them up. That means that admins can choose the method that works best for their use cases and priorities.

Among the different approaches to building remote desktops are session-based virtual desktops on the one hand, and virtual-machine desktops on the other. If you’re wondering which method is the best fit for your goals, keep reading: Below, we offer tips on the differences between session-based virtual desktops and those hosted by virtual machines.

WHAT IS A SESSION-BASED DESKTOP?

A session-based desktop is a desktop environment instance that is hosted by a server operating system, such as Windows Server.

In a session-based desktop, there is no dedicated virtual machine for each desktop session. Instead, the server simply creates desktop instances, then allows users to access them over the network.

The setup is similar to having multiple user accounts on the same PC, except in the case of session-based desktops, each account gets its own desktop environment, which can be accessed remotely. However, each session runs directly on the same host server, and can potentially access the same shared file system running on that server.

WHAT IS A VIRTUAL DESKTOP?

A virtual desktop is a desktop environment that is hosted by a dedicated virtual machine.

When you set up virtual desktops, you typically use a server to configure each virtual desktop that you want to make available to users, in a way that is similar to configuring session-based desktops.

However, with virtual desktops, you set up individual virtual machines for each desktop environment that you want to run.

The result is virtual desktop environments that are strictly isolated from each other. Although the desktops are hosted on the same underlying server, each desktop has its own virtual file system, memory, virtual CPUs and other resources.

This means that virtual desktops are more akin to a setup where each user has his or her own physical PC, rather than an account on a PC that is shared with others. The only major difference between a physical PC and a virtual desktop is that the virtual desktop can be accessed from anywhere, meaning that users don’t need physical access to a specific computer in order to use their personal data and applications.

WHEN TO USE SESSION-BASED DESKTOPS

In general, session-based desktops are easier to set up, which is their main advantage.

However, that benefit is offset by the numerous drawbacks of session-based desktops:

  • Difficulty of remote network access: Although it is sometimes technically possible to share a session-based remote desktop beyond a local network, doing so requires handling complicated firewall settings. Users would also likely need to use a VPN. Thus, session-based desktops work best only in situations where the host server and end-users are using the same local network.
  • Lower security: Because session-based desktops don’t strictly isolate each user’s files and applications on the host server, they offer less security. There is a higher risk that a user could gain unauthorized access to other users’ data, or that a security breach inside one desktop session could spill over into others.
  • Less portability: Moving a session-based desktop from one host server to another can be challenging because there is no simple image that you can copy. You’ll instead need to migrate a complex set of configuration data manually.
  • “Noisy neighbor” problems: When using session-based desktops, it’s harder to set limits on how many of the host system’s resources each session is allowed to consume. This may lead to so-called noisy neighbor problems, where one user runs workloads that are so intense that they eat up a large amount of system resources, leaving inadequate resources available to other users whose sessions are hosted by the same server.

In general, then, session-based desktops work well for teams that need just a handful of simple desktop sessions that can be accessed remotely via the local network, and in situations where security is not a priority. They are less useful for organizations that need to allow their employees to work from out of the office, and that require a high degree of security.

WHEN TO USE VIRTUAL DESKTOPS

Compare to session-based desktops, virtual desktops offer several key advantages:

  • Resource isolation: Admins can set quotas on the amount of system resources that each virtual desktop can consume, eliminating the noisy neighbor problem.
  • Security: Because each virtual desktop is completely isolated inside its own virtual machine, the risk of unauthorized access or security breaches between desktops is minimal.
  • Portability: It’s very easy to take a virtual machine image running on one server and move it to another server.
  • Remote access: Perhaps most important, because virtual desktops behave as if they are independent PCs, they can be accessed from remote locations without having to worry about firewall settings or VPNs. You can access a virtual desktop hosted on the other side of the world just as easily as you can log into one that is hosted in the next room.

Traditionally, many teams avoided virtual desktops because they were more complex to set up and manage. With offerings like DesktopReady, however, this pain point disappears. DesktopReady allows organizations to deploy virtual desktops tailored to their needs in just minutes, without having to set up the infrastructure themselves.

And, because DesktopReady virtual desktops are hosted in the Microsoft Azure cloud, they can be accessed from anywhere in the world through a simple Web browser, regardless of where your employees are located.

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  • License investment: If you’ve spent thousands of dollars purchasing Microsoft Office licenses for your local PCs, you may not want to abandon that investment by switching to G Suite or Microsoft 365 instead, where you will need to pay new subscription fees.
  • Cost: Putting aside the issue of prior investment in licensing, Web-based office software usually requires subscription fees that, in the long run, may exceed the total cost of ownership of on-premises alternatives.
  • Learning curve: Your employees are probably experts in using on-premises applications like Microsoft Word. Moving them to Web-based alternatives will require teaching them new applications and new paradigms for storing and accessing data. You may not have time to teach all of your workers these new skills without disrupting business operations. Your IT team, too, may not be as well-equipped to support a new type of office platform.
  • Security: When you use Web-based office platforms, it becomes harder to isolate sensitive data or choose to keep it offline. Files that your employees create in a Web-based office environment are typically stored on shared virtual drives that, depending on how you configure security settings, may allow users to access each others’ documents, or even expose data to anyone on the Internet.
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