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Prices start leaking for Windows 365, but questions remain about Microsoft’s baby Virtual Desktop

The Windows 365 virtual desktop launch on July 14 intrigued some IT folks, confused many more. Describing it as “your PC, in the cloud”, Redmond promoted it as a way to “securely stream your personalized Windows experience, including your desktop, apps, settings, and content… to any device” (the full gamut of Macs, iPads, Linux PCs, and Android devices). The Cloud PC launch — it will be GA in early August — is “part of our vision to transform the PC experience so that you can work remotely, or in hybrid office environments, securely and from any device,” Microsoft declaimed during the launch.

The idea, in a nutshell: “zero trust”, instant boot, and pick up where you left off, on any device.

Prices for the so-called Cloud PC offering started to leak this week (w/c July 19), with – for a $31 monthly subscription — Microsoft set to offer two CPUs, 4GB of RAM, and 128GB of storage in Azure for the virtual desktops, according to details leaked via a Microsoft Inspire session. That’s for the Windows 365 Business option, for businesses with fewer than 300 overall users. Wags rapidly dubbed it “someone else’s computer, in someone else’s computer” and compared it to the return of the mainframe + thin clients.

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Scott Manchester, Partner Director of PM for Windows 365 described it as a “whole new category” in a detailed video discussion, promoting ease of use, compliance and security benefits (admins can “prevent people copying data to their local PC”, with Redmond promising user-friendly provisioning, encryption at rest and in transit, conditional access policies to assess login risk instantly for each session, etc., as well as the ability to delegate specific functions like licensing, device management using specific roles.

Admins can also adjust virtual cores, memory, or storage.

Windows 365 vs Azure Virtual Desktop

As an early effort from Microsoft to improve security, boost recurring revenue and introduce virtual desktops to smaller organisations, it’s an intriguing launch, for many reasons. For mid-sized or larger enteprises, Azure Virtual Desktop or its equivalent from other providers looks set to be the better fit, however. As Toby Skerritt, Principle Architect at Foundation IT, put it to The Stack: “Cloud PC offers businesses the opportunity to slightly simplify the deployment, licencing and management of an Azure Virtual Desktop deployment, but it would appear this simplification comes at the cost of flexibility.

“Many organisations are looking to use cloud-based desktops in the most cost-efficient manner possible. In AVD, this is often achieved by the aggregation of user sessions onto shared session host servers, where the per-user cost can be reduced. Additionally, AVD based desktops can be powered on or off dynamically, thereby realising a resource cost saving. Neither of these options are currently available in Cloud PC, so its appeal to medium and large enterprise clients may be limited compared to that of AVD.”

Down the road, various below-the-line commentators suggested, the move might pave the way for lighter, base OS platforms (like Fuchsia?), with Windows ultimately left as a “set of portable API’s that can run fully as a web-connected service” that generate good monthly recurring revenue for Microsoft. (Cynics will suggest few end-users will be spinning up Raspberry Pis, Xbox, or just old fashioned Linux boxes to run Windows 365, allowing Microsoft to “double-dip” on an OS on the desktop and in the cloud…)

Dirk Schrader, Global VP of Security Research at New Net Technologies, (now part of Netwrix) noted to The Stack that plenty of questions about the Cloud PC offering remain unanswered.

As he put it: “Running on top of an existing device means that the service represents another layer in the IT stack, something to plan for and manage correctly. Custom software installations, highly specialised applications are also an area where questions arise. The security of the overall service relies on standardisation, so any non-standard application might need extra scrutiny and approval by Microsoft.

“From a security perspective, using Windows 365 is the above-mentioned additional layer of complexity. There is still a device with an operating system on which the browser is running, that is used to access the virtualised desktop, and that device needs to be secured anyway., ” he added.

“Monitoring, detection, and change control are the next areas to keep an eye on. Integrating a Windows 365 virtualised desktop into an existing monitoring infrastructure might be hampered by some limitations imposed by that virtualisation. It is the tight integration of monitoring tools into the operating system that might become an issue here. Security workflows in general will have to be adopted to cater for Windows 365, like they had to with AVD or Amazon Workplaces,” he added.

Critics like Cameyo, meanwhile, suggest that the launch is at odds with prevailing trends away from vendor lock-in and away from Desktop-as-a-Service to virtual apps. Some IT folks are meanwhile plotting (BTL here) colourful variations on deployment, like swapping corporate laptops for Xboxes as a thin client with access to Windows 365.

There’s clearly still a lot of unanswered questions for many. Users will want reassurance around uptime too: some users of Azure Virtual Desktop have run into major capacity issues over the past 18 months amid bottlenecks in Microsoft’s infrastructure. It doesn’t take a wild stretch of the imagination to see Windows 365 becoming a consumer norm further down the road too. It would certainly be profitable for the company.

Do you use virtual desktop infrastructure like AVD, Amazon Workspaces, VMware Horizon? We’d like to hear your thoughts and experiences, good and bad. Get in touch here.

See also: Exclusive interview with JPMorgan CIO Lori Beer — on tech talent, infrastructure, and data science sandboxes

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