What is a virtual desktop?

A virtual desktop is a software emulation of a hardware device that runs on a physical or virtual machine at a remote location, hosted either on premises or in the cloud. Virtual desktops—such as Azure Virtual Desktop—enable end users to access their unique desktop environments remotely over a network. This can include operating systems and applications, which are accessed through client software or a web browser on the endpoint devices of their choice.

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What are the different types of virtual desktops?

Virtual desktops rely on a technology called desktop virtualization, which separates the desktop environment and its applications from the physical device used to access it. The primary types of virtual desktops are determined by whether the operating system runs on local hardware or remotely. Although local desktop virtualization allows offline access, remote desktop virtualization is more common (and the focus of this page) because it offers key advantages for connecting to operating systems and applications, including:

  • Support for a wide array of endpoint devices including standard PCs and laptops as well as low-cost thin clients and mobile devices
  • Secure data storage in the datacenter or cloud with only keystrokes and clicks transferred from the endpoint device
  • Support for a greater number and types of desktops than would be possible on most local devices alone
  • Centralized management and control for data, settings, and more
  • Device agnosticism to minimize the impact of instances when devices are lost, stolen, or malfunctioning
  • The ability to seamlessly roam sessions from one device to another in real time

Remote virtual desktops are traditionally delivered through Microsoft Remote Desktop Services (RDS) as the underlying technology. A single operating system instance installed on a server is shared by multiple remote users connecting over a network. Virtual applications and desktops are then displayed on client devices through a special set of data transfer rules defined within a remote display protocol. With RDS, the Microsoft Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) is used to access a shared group of remote servers based on a consistent virtual machine image within one or more resource pools.

Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) is another variation of the client-server model of desktop virtualization in which desktop operating systems run inside a virtual machine, either on on-premises servers or within a public cloud. With VDI, users access individual desktops and the applications that reside on them, in a 1-to-1 mapping. Windows 10 Enterprise multi-session is an exception, though, as it’s an Azure-only version of Windows 10 that accepts multiple simultaneous user connections.

For customers who desire a more turnkey and managed solution for their VDI environment, desktop as a service (DaaS) is a VDI delivery model from the cloud. Popular DaaS offerings, such as Microsoft’s Azure Virtual Desktop, provide managed services and other features designed to simplify onboarding and maintenance.

Learn more about the future of virtual desktops through our on-demand webinar.

What is Azure Virtual Desktop?

Azure Virtual Desktop is a DaaS offering delivering virtual apps and desktops from Microsoft’s Azure public cloud. It goes beyond traditional VDI by providing a turnkey offering with Azure virtual machines, cloud services, templates, and more to support a wide range of use cases—and by allowing companies to rapidly deploy cloud-delivered virtual desktops within minutes. Azure Virtual Desktop is unique in that it allows users to take advantage of Azure exclusive features, such as Windows 10 enterprise multi-session, which lets multiple users connect concurrently to a single Windows 10 virtual machine for a consistent user experience. In addition, many users add Citrix to Azure Virtual Desktop to increase security and enhance the user experience.

Read through our white paper to learn more about how Citrix DaaS can enhance your organization's Azure virtual desktop experience.

How does virtual desktop software work?

Virtual desktop infrastructure uses virtual machines to deliver virtual desktops to a variety of connected devices and is implemented in two primary ways: persistent and non-persistent.

With a persistent virtual desktop, each user has a unique desktop image dedicated to them that they can customize with apps and data. All applications and files are stored across reboots and the user’s settings are preserved and appear at each login. This consistency provides a similar experience to a physical PC environment, which eases user adoption and is well-suited to power users. Individual customized virtual desktops require different lifecycle management considerations for storage and software updates compared with non-persistent virtual desktop solutions.

With a non-persistent virtual desktop infrastructure, users can access a virtual desktop from an identical pool of available desktops. Non-persistent virtual desktops are clones of a shared golden desktop image where users receive a fresh instance every time they log in. Non-persistent virtual desktops are personalized through user profiles, scripts, or special software. Any customizations that users make within their sessions, such as installing apps, are discarded. Less storage is required, as user configuration settings and data are stored separately, and once the user logs out of their session, the virtual machine reverts back to its base image state ready to accept connections from another user. Non-persistent desktops are easier for administrators to manage because the underlying image remains consistent. For this reason, non-persistent desktops are often more popular than persistent desktops.

In VDI, the creation of multiple virtual machines from a single physical machine is handled by software called a hypervisor in on-premises environments. The hypervisor provides server operating system isolation, intercepting the commands sent to the underlying hardware. It enables multiple operating system instances through the use of virtual machines (VMs), all sharing a single hardware platform. Within public clouds, the hypervisor and underlying infrastructure are abstracted, and administrators work directly with the virtual machines and cloud-native actions and APIs.

Because virtual machines perform just like physical machines while relying on the resources of only one computer system, virtualization allows IT organizations to run multiple operating systems on a single server or within a single public cloud account, from Microsoft Windows 10 or Windows Server 2019 to Linux and FreeBSD. The hypervisor or public cloud allocates computing resources—such as CPU, RAM, and disk space—to each virtual machine as needed. This server virtualization serves as the foundation of cloud computing.

Why do you need virtual desktops?

Enabling remote work is a key consideration for many organizations focused on business continuity and employee experience. Virtual desktop solutions support enhanced mobility and remote access, allowing IT to deliver desktops securely to a wide variety of endpoints in any location. IT maintains centralized control of corporate resources and the ability to deploy them rapidly, while users have the flexibility to work on available devices and networks and to use cloud, web, and mobile apps across multiple contexts on demand. Regardless of device, users have the same experience of their desktop and work environment each time they log in, a consistency that promotes productivity.

Virtual desktops also improve cybersecurity and reduce IT overhead. With data breaches becoming more frequent and costly, virtual desktop isolation and centralization is a critical factor in a multilayered security strategy. It also removes the risk of having sensitive corporate data stored locally on client devices.


Harness the virtualization technology that’s right for your business

See how you can make IT more secure and flexible with Citrix DaaS (formerly Citrix Virtual Apps and Desktops service) and Microsoft Azure.

What are the top virtual desktop benefits?

Virtual desktops offer significant advantages over physical desktop machines.

Improved user experience with virtual desktops

IT professionals tasked with setting up new desktops for employees or contractors can deliver 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. The virtual desktop environment allows for personalization, so users may access a familiar experience of their “home” desktop from whatever client device they choose, including BYO devices.

Enhanced security

Virtual desktops offer significant security advantages. VDI allows for fine-tuned control and secure isolation of data, which is not stored on endpoint devices and therefore less vulnerable to theft. Since sensitive data remains in the data center, IT can perform audits and more easily control security incidents, which enables compliance that is especially important in highly regulated industries.

IT efficiency

Since the VDI environment is centrally managed from a datacenter or public cloud, administrators can apply software patches and updates, change configurations, and enforce policies for all virtual desktops across the deployment. This isolated environment also enables developers to test applications without risk to the production environment.

Cost savings

Though users interact with applications on a virtual desktop as if they were on a physical device, virtual desktops are hosted inside virtual machines running on servers in an on-premises or cloud datacenter. Since the processing power happens in the datacenter, virtual desktop technology enables organizations to choose lower-cost endpoint devices over high-performance desktop clients. 


A reliable VDI solution helps scale key applications and services to increasingly mobile users and remote teams. Whether staffing up temporarily, as in the case of seasonal workers or contractors, or making a permanent shift to a more distributed remote workforce, organizations can expand the VDI environment quickly, enabling users to be functional within minutes with immediate access to enterprise virtual desktop workloads and their respective apps.

Citrix virtual desktop solutions

For companies looking to support the distributed workforce, Citrix offers the most comprehensive DaaS and VDI solutions available.

  • Provide the best VDI experience on any device or network. Citrix VDI solutions give teams reliable access to all the apps and information they need, whether they’re working in the office or thousands of miles from the data center. Users have access to a reliable, high-definition experience that helps them be productive at all times, and IT can lower costs and safeguard sensitive data by providing the right level of access to each user.
  • Get the most from your Microsoft investments. Citrix HDX optimizations and robust management tools extend the capabilities of Azure Virtual Desktop, an Azure-native remote desktop and application virtualization service that makes it easier to move desktop-based workloads into the cloud. A single Windows 10 virtual machine can host dozens of end user sessions, and Citrix deployment tools enable IT to reduce time to value and centrally manage both on-premises and Azure desktops.
  • Manage Windows and Linux virtual desktops side-by-side with Linux VDI support. With an increasing number of mission-critical apps running on Linux, the open-source operating system is playing an increasingly prominent role in the workplace. Linux VDI enables users to be as productive as possible, and with Citrix Virtual Apps and Desktops, administrators can deliver Linux virtual desktops in record time and manage them alongside Windows apps and desktops from a central console.