Comparing Cloud Desktops: Windows Virtual Desktops vs. Horizon vs. Citrix
One of the great things about the cloud desktop market is that there are a number of offerings to choose from, each with different strengths and weaknesses.
But having so much choice can also be a challenge. If you are new to the world of cloud desktops, you may be unsure which solution is the best for your needs.
This article provides guidance by comparing the pros and cons of three leading cloud desktop platforms: Windows Virtual Desktop, VMware Horizon Desktop and Citrix Cloud Desktops.
What is a cloud desktop?
Before diving into the similarities and differences between these solutions, let’s define what a cloud desktop is.
A cloud desktop is a virtual machine that runs in the cloud and hosts a desktop environment. Users can connect to the environment remotely, meaning that their desktop applications and data are accessible from anywhere with an Internet connection.
Cloud desktops are similar to but different from Virtual Desktop Infrastructure, or VDI. VDI platforms host virtual desktop sessions on local servers rather than in the cloud. VDI provides many of the same benefits as cloud desktops, and in some ways, VDI can be more secure and cost-effective. However, because cloud desktops centralize desktop environments in highly available public clouds, they offer maximum flexibility and reliability.
Comparing cloud desktop platforms
Windows Virtual Desktop, VMware Horizon Desktop and Citrix Cloud Desktops all offer the same basic functionality: The ability to host desktop environments in the cloud. They also all support application virtualization, which means they can stream individual apps instead of full desktop environments from the cloud if desired.
However, the three platforms differ in nuanced but important ways.
Operating system support
Windows Virtual Desktop, as its name suggests, supports virtualization only for Windows –specifically, Windows 7, Windows 10, and Windows Server 2012 R2, 2016, 2019.
VMware Horizon and Citrix Cloud Desktops are more flexible. They can host Linux-based desktop environments as well as Windows. Of course, given that the vast majority of businesses use Windows desktops, this difference is likely not important for many use cases.
Cloud hosting options
When it comes to which cloud will host your desktops, VMware Horizon is the most flexible option. It can run on any major public cloud.
In contrast, Citrix Cloud Desktops and Windows Virtual Desktop are hosted in the Azure cloud. (Citrix’s other VDI solutions can be deployed on other public clouds, but its fully managed cloud desktop solution runs in Azure.)
Single vs. multiple sessions
Currently, Windows Virtual Desktop boasts support for multiple sessions. That means multiple users can share the same virtual desktop at the same time, with each user operating in a secure, isolated session. This flexibility can reduce the total number of cloud desktops that an organization needs to deploy.
Horizon and Citrix Cloud Desktops don’t offer this option. On their platforms, only one user can be connected to each virtual machine at a time. (Multiple users can share a virtual machine, but they can’t use it concurrently.)
Windows Virtual Desktop was designed from the beginning to function only as a cloud desktop platform. Although Microsoft offers separate VDI solutions that can be deployed on-premises, they are not closely related to Windows Virtual Desktop, and you can’t easily migrate from Windows Virtual Desktop to Microsoft VDI platform.
That makes Windows Virtual Desktop different from Horizon and Citrix Cloud Desktops, both of which are based on VDI frameworks that their respective vendors offered prior to going into the cloud desktop market.
This means that Horizon and Citrix Cloud Desktops may be a better choice for organizations that want the flexibility of moving some of their desktop virtualization environment on-premises, now or in the future. They can do so without having to move to a totally new platform.
Windows Virtual Desktop, which debuted in September 2018, is the newest cloud desktop offering that we’re comparing in this article. VMware Horizon traces its roots to 2006 (although the product has evolved significantly since then), and Citrix has been offering cloud desktops since 2015 (and has been doing VDI for longer than that). From this perspective, VMware and Citrix’s offerings are more established
This isn’t to say that Windows Virtual Desktop is less reliable. It’s a production-ready, enterprise-grade product. But it is a newer solution, and it arguably still feels a little rougher around the edges than the other platforms.
On the other hand, Windows Virtual Desktop offers the advantage of having been built from the start for the cloud, rather than being born as a VDI solution that was extended into the cloud. It can feel more modern in that respect.
Conclusion: Which cloud desktop service to use when
In sum, Windows Virtual Desktop makes sense if you want to benefit from multi-session support and you want a cloud desktop platform that is well integrated into the Azure cloud.
Meanwhile, the major advantages of VMware Horizon and Citrix Cloud Desktops are that they are in many ways more flexible with regard to how they are hosted and which types of operating systems you can run.