What is virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI)?

Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) is the hosting of desktop environments on a central server. It is a form of desktop virtualization, as the specific desktop images run within virtual machines (VMs) and are delivered to end clients over a network. Those endpoints may be PCs or other devices, like tablets or thin client terminals.

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How does VDI work?

In modern digital workspaces where numerous apps must be accessed on demand, VDI facilitates secure and convenient remote access to help boost employee productivity. It also enables a consistent experience across multiple devices. In all VDI deployments, the following characteristics apply:

  • Virtual desktops live within virtual machines on a centralized server.
  • Each virtual desktop includes an operating system image, typically Microsoft Windows.
  • The virtual machines are host-based, meaning multiple instances of them can be housed on the same server within the datacenter.
  • End clients, such as PCs, tablets, or thin client terminals, must be constantly connected to the centrally managed server so they can maintain access to the virtualized desktops they’re hosting.
  • The connection broker—a software layer that acts as an intermediary between users and virtual resources—finds a virtual desktop within the resource pool for each client upon successful access of the VDI environment.
  • Meanwhile, a hypervisor creates, runs, and manages the various host machine VMs that encapsulate individual virtual desktop environments.

Persistent vs. nonpersistent VDI deployments

Under persistent VDI, a user always logs into the same desktop image, with all changes to applications and data retained for full personalization. In contrast, nonpersistent VDI doesn’t save any changes.

Persistent VDI works as follows:

  • A user is assigned a standardized desktop from the resource pool the first time they log on.
  • Each subsequent time they access the VDI environment, they are connected to the same desktop with all of their changes retained in the virtual OS image—even after the connection is restarted.
  • For users with complex and fast-paced digital workflows, this means they can easily pick up where they left off and benefit from extensive personalization of the desktop’s virtual apps and settings.

In contrast, nonpersistent VDI works as follows:

  • The end client may be connected to the same desktop every time OR to a randomized one from the pool.
  • In either case, no changes are saved upon restarting.
  • Since nothing is saved once the connection is terminated, IT does not have to maintain a large number of customized OS images, allowing for simplified data center management and reduced costs.

A nonpersistent VDI implementation is well-suited for one-off access to a desktop, since it streamlines device management for kiosk and task workers who don’t need to save anything. Persistent VDI, on the other hand, is best for users that need to interact with virtual desktops exactly as they would with their physical counterparts.

What are the use cases for VDI?

VDI is an important technology for many types of workers across numerous industries. Remote employees, hybrid workers, contractors, kiosk and task workers, field technicians, medical professionals, teachers and many others regularly rely on VDI to access a reliable virtual desktop from one or more locations. Thanks to the versatility of VDI across its different deployment types, this virtualization technology can work equally well as a way for users to have access to standard, nonpersistent desktops or to turn their virtual desktop into a highly personalized digital workspace.

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What are the benefits of VDI?

VDI supports enhanced user mobility and remote access, as a standardized desktop can be reached from almost any approved and compatible endpoint in any location. For workers who are frequently on the go and need to pull up a virtual desktop containing a full range of virtual apps and data, VDI is like having an office available on-demand. In that regard, it fits right into digital workspace workflows that already feature regular consumption of cloud, web, and mobile apps across multiple contexts—especially if it’s persistent VDI.

Cost savings

VDI technology can also be a strong cost-saving measure for IT. Because the lion’s share of processing in VDI is server-based, relatively expensive or cutting-edge hardware is not needed. VDI access can instead take place from an inexpensive thin client, which might be an old PC that has been repurposed for the task and thereby had its lifespan extended. This saves IT the need to make as many new purchases or major adjustments to budget.

Improved security

VDI offers security improvements compared with running everything locally. All data from a VDI connection lives on the server, not the device. So if an endpoint is ever stolen, there’s nothing to exfiltrate from its local storage. In addition, the VDI environment is fully and centrally controlled from a data center.

Centralized management

Administrators can apply software patches and updates, change configurations, and enforce policies for all virtual desktops across the deployment. In this way, VDI allows for fine-tuned control and secure isolation of OS images from a central server, which is a less complicated setup than managing laptops running OS locally.

What are the limitations of VDI?

While there are many benefits to virtual desktop infrastructure, security cannot be taken for granted with VDI. The OS images have to be properly managed and updated, and end client authentication must be rigorous. Digital workspace solutions can help in this regard via SSO, improved endpoint security, and encryption for data in transit.

Performance is another key consideration with VDI. When it first became widely available in the mid 2000s, typical performance for VDI lagged behind that of a local OS. Over time, this gap has closed significantly, but users might still feel they’re not always getting the best possible experience. Occasional performance-tuning and reviews of the VDI deployment are advisable to make sure that solvable technical problems are addressed.

How does VDI support digital workspaces?

Assuming all supporting infrastructure is functioning as intended, a user who remotely accesses a VDI solution from their endpoint can interact with applications and data as if they were running locally. This setup lets users safely access everything they need from virtually any device, without requiring specific hardware.

Augmented by solutions for convenient single sign-on (SSO) and secure remote access, virtual desktops can also be run and managed alongside the growing spectrum of cloud, web, and mobile apps that are integral to modern workflows. Employees get a unified experience that enables greater productivity, while IT avoids silos and mitigates the risk of unauthorized logins.

In other words, VDI in the context of a digital workspace platform contributes to a superior working environment without compromising on security. A reliable, economical VDI solution helps scale key applications and services to today’s increasingly mobile and remote teams. As part of the digital workspace experience, it delivers a consistent experience across devices including PCs, tablets, smartphones, and thin clients, giving employees and contractors a high degree of freedom in how they work.

Citrix solutions for VDI

Citrix offers a diverse portfolio of desktop virtualization solutions serving organizations of all types and sizes. Citrix Virtual Apps and Desktops makes VDI intuitive and affordable and ensures that users have access to the apps they need to remain productive within today’s digital workspaces. Alongside Citrix Workspace, it can ensure the best possible VDI experience by giving employees comprehensive and secure access to everything they need to stay productive from anywhere.

Explore the benefits of VDI with Citrix Virtual Apps and Desktops