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Best virtual desktop services 2021

Representational image of data security
(Image credit: Kingston)
PRICE
VERDICT
REASONS TO BUY
REASONS TO AVOID
VERDICT
REASONS TO BUY
REASONS TO AVOID

The best virtual desktop services and Desktop as a Service (DaaS) providers make it simple and easy to ensure secure and cost-effective solutions for remote working.

Desktop as a Service (DaaS) is not an entirely new phenomenon, but it’s certainly experienced significant growth in the past few years, both in terms of technology and market share, and especially more recently due to the pandemic.

The reason for their take-up is that virtual desktops are a secure and flexible means for businesses to support a remote work staff and Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) practices. Of course, the pandemic and move to working from home has also accelerated take up of this technology.

In a DaaS framework, a provider takes care of the technical and logistical aspects of cloud desktop and app environments, and a business rents these services for less than the cost of building and maintaining them itself. We’ve combed through the many DaaS providers on the market and chosen six of the best, based on services, security, scalability, and cost. 

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(Image credit: Amazon)

1. Amazon WorkSpaces

Highly flexible pricing with payments by the hour

Reasons to buy
+Scale CPU, GPU, and storage as needed+Hourly pricing: pay what you use+24/7 phone/chat/email customer support+Includes AWS Security Hub and Application Manager
Reasons to avoid
-No text/data transfer from local machine to VM-Additional technical support is paid-Can only add users/assign desktops manually

Amazon WorkSpaces is an industry leader in DaaS, with great features and pricing options for small businesses. It makes use of a PCoIP protocol for compression and encryption of data transfers, and WorkSpaces also uses Amazon’s SDX protocol. 

Customers can provision Linux and Windows virtual machines, while AWS runs on Windows, macOS, Chromebook, iPad, Amazon and Android tablets, Chrome and Firefox. Both operating systems come bundled with default software like Internet Explorer, while Microsoft Office and others can be added for a monthly fee.

One of the biggest advantages with Amazon WorkSpaces is the flexible pricing. Businesses that are interested in trying out the services can take advantage of a free tier with two workspaces, for up to 40 hours per month. There are several payment options based on disk size, number of CPUs, memory, and whether you bring your own licenses (BYOL).

Bundled services can be charged monthly or even hourly, so you pay for what you use. There are no one-time fees and no commitments: you can cancel your subscription at any time.

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(Image credit: Citrix)

2. Citrix Virtual Apps and Desktops

A trusted name in DaaS, well suited to a mobile workforce

Reasons to buy
+Great BYOD support+Supports remote access to physical machines+Encrypted data, never stored on device+Good centralized management
Reasons to avoid
-Minimum of 25 users-No autoscaling 

Citrix is another big name in DaaS, and the Citrix Virtual Apps and Desktops platform has great hosted desktop services that are particularly well suited to a mobile workforce. Users can connect from Android, Windows, macOS, Chrome OS, and iOS/iPadOS and seamlessly switch between devices while maintaining workflow: the service adapts to different screen sizes, so employees can connect on a computer, tablet, or even mobile phone. 

Plans vary by number of users, applications, features, and licenses. A Standalone version, deployed as a cloud service, includes Windows and Linux provisions, while the Workspace Premium Plus solution adds open support for any public cloud or hypervisor and is marketed as a comprehensive digital platform for managing Windows, Linux, web, SaaS, and mobile apps.

Citrix also integrates with and virtualizes collaboration and communication tools like Skype for Business and can manage graphics-intensive jobs, with support for Intel, AMD, and NVIDIA GPUs. 

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(Image credit: Microsoft)

3. Azure Virtual Desktop

Customize plans to meet your needs and budget

Reasons to buy
+No minimum users or machines+Excellent backup and data safety+Supports Windows, Apple, and Android devices
Reasons to avoid
-Cloud-only, no on-site option-Windows only; no Linux provisions

Azure Virtual Desktop enables businesses to provision Windows 7 or 10 virtual machines, complete with support for Office 365 and many third-party applications. WVD has excellent device support as well: Windows, iOS/iPadOS, MacOS, Chrome OS, Android, and all major browsers. 

Pricing depends on region, operating system, virtual machine (CPU, GPU, and memory), and usage (in hours, days, or months) and is thus flexible. There are discounts available for one- and three-year subscriptions, or you can pay as you go. The Windows Virtual Desktop website even has a comprehensive calculator to estimate your costs based on your business’s needs. 

With Azure, customers benefit from great backup and recovery features, making this one of the best providers for data security. Scheduled backups, snapshots, offline and encrypted backups of virtual machines, and automatic failover all help mitigate the risks of data corruption or loss. 

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(Image credit: VMWare)

4. VMWare Horizon Cloud

DaaS from the desktop virtualization giant

Reasons to buy
+Supports all major devices and browsers+Available on-site, IBM Cloud, or Microsoft Azure+Scale complex custom machines easily
Reasons to avoid
-End users cannot up/downgrade computer power-BYOL only

A name well known in virtualization, VMWare Horizon Cloud is available as a standalone, on-premises service or hosted on IBM Cloud or Microsoft Azure. Unlike previous providers, however, it is strictly BYOL, as VMWare does not plan to sell Windows licenses. 

Horizon has great features for scalability and maintaining uptime. Instant Clone, for example, enables customers to rapidly deploy customized virtual machines by cloning from a parent or “master image” machine. The resulting machines are fully independent, so they can be further customized as necessary for easy scalability. Clones can also share a virtual disk and thus consume less storage, a practical money-saving feature.

Pricing depends on user style (named vs. concurrent), payment plan (pay as you go or contractual), and edition (Standard, Advanced, and Enterprise). More advanced editions include features like Linux provisioning, virtualization for Skype for Business, and SSO and MF authentication. 

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(Image credit: Nutanix)

5. Nutanix XI Frame

Easily set up your infrastructure

Reasons to buy
+Simplified approach to VM creation and use+Strong integration with clouds, identity providers+Auto-scaling and auto-decommission
Reasons to avoid
-No native apps-Windows 10 only

Nutanix XI Frame is a great choice for anybody who’s wary of the complexity and IT know-how necessary to set up and take advantage of a full-featured DaaS environment. The company aims to provide a more streamline experience to admins, without sacrificing end-user experience and functionality.

For example, provisioning is broken down into five simple steps. Choose an infrastructure (AWS, Google Cloud, etc.) and the apps you need (Office 365, Adobe Creative Cloud, Autodesk, Google Chrome, etc.), integrate with your existing cloud storage (Dropbox, Google Drive, etc.), and then access your machine on any HTML-5 capable browser. 

The simplicity is quite refreshing compared to other highly complex, jargon-saturated services. While there are no native apps, which may be a turn-off for some, the end-user experience is still quite impressive, with high-performance 3D graphics and drag-and-drop file sharing.

The real advantages here are speed and accessibility. You can get a working virtual desktop environment up and running in less than an hour, with little to no technical experience. It’s a great choice for small businesses with limited IT support. 

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Website screenshot for Shells

(Image credit: Shells)

6. Shells.com

Promising newcomer with affordable pricing

Reasons to buy
+Affordable monthly plan with no hidden fees+Extremely easy to use+Can be used with low spec devices+Has own infrastructure and data centers
Reasons to avoid
-Relative newcomer-Data center count is fewer than some rivals

Shells is a newcomer to the DaaS scene, providing a multi-platform offering that can be used across almost any device (including a gaming console or TV) and spans multiple operating systems (Windows, various Linux distros), running via a web browser.

Shells makes use of SPICE (Simple Protocol for Independent Computing Environments), a new protocol that enables access to cloud desktops from various machine architectures.

Plans are divided into four tiers (Lite, Basic, Plus, and Pro) intended for businesses as well as casual users. Shells Pro, which is built with professionals in mind, offers a quad-core virtual CPU with 160GB of storage and 8GB of RAM, plus unlimited access and bandwidth. Every plan includes free daily backups covering up to 7-days, which is a neat touch.

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What is Desktop as a Service?

Anunta Tech's CTO, Vinod Jeyachandra, answers this question for us.

Desktop as a Service, or DaaS, is a type of cloud-based service that allows you to run a desktop environment on a virtual machine that is hosted in a public cloud. With DaaS, you create a virtual machine using a public cloud service like Amazon EC2 or Azure Virtual Machines, install a PC operating system (like Windows 10) on it, then use an application like LogMeIn, GoToMyPC or DesktopReady to access it.

Like RDS, DaaS gives users access to all of the same applications and system resources that they would be able to use if their virtual machine environment were a physical computer instead of a virtual desktop running in the cloud.

Christian Rigg

Christian is a freelance writer and content project manager with 6+ years' experience writing and leading teams in finance and technology for some of the world's largest online publishers, including TechRadar and Tom's Guide.