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VDI vs physical desktops: how do these solutions compare in higher education?

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Throughout 2020, the requirements for higher education organizations to offer remote learning opportunities have become more prominent than ever. With a huge number of universities now offering a hybrid learning approach and students accessing lectures and resources both on and off-campus, many are looking to implement solutions such as VDI (Virtual Desktop Infrastructure).

VDI implementation is a popular solution for many universities and provides a more modern way to provide remote access to university software and resources. Traditional means of providing students with what they need such as physical desktops are becoming outdated as students look to learn and study both on and off-campus.

What is VDI?

Using VDI for BYOD software access

Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) refers to the technology which can separate the traditional desktop environment and software from a physical device. In contrast, a traditional physical desktop holds all of the information and software that can be access from that device, on the physical computer.

Benefits of VDI

When using Virtual Desktop Infrastructure, a desktop becomes accessible over the internet from almost anywhere, while performing in the same way as a physical desktop.

Students can use a PC, Mac, laptop, iPad, or smartphone to log on, diversifying the number of devices or operating systems they can work on, where they can work and when they can work. In addition, data is stored in cloud form, meaning no information sits on student’s individual devices. This is incredibly beneficial if the device is lost, as it means there is minimal security risk and no work will be lost.

Depending on whether you implement persistent VDI or non-persistent VDI will depend on the level of personalization students will have when they login to their virtual desktop.

As well as these incredible benefits, the provider of your VDI technology supports the virtual desktop, taking the pressure off IT departments.

What is a physical desktop?

A physical desktop is a more traditional choice for higher education organizations to provide software access, as well as workplaces in general. Based in one location, on a single device, all data is stored on this one device.

Usually a PC, this means that if there is any corruption or the device is damaged, there is no other way to access the data. Along similar lines, the physical desktop must be left running in order for users to access it, and it may be left unattended at certain times which can pose significant security vulnerabilities.

Physical desktops must be patched, backed up, and managed, giving your IT department a heavier workload. To access the physical desktop remotely, specialist software is required which can be expensive and sometimes difficult to use. There is no straightforward way to access the data stored on the physical computer from a different device.

Security and maintenance

Replacing or supporting physical desktops with a VDI desktop provides many benefits. Firstly, with fewer computers required in labs and on-campus, rooms on campus may be freed up to provide a more flexible workspace.

Physical machines can also require a number of updates and a huge amount of maintenance, periodically requiring complete replacement, meaning the IT department is relied on for regular maintenance, with a huge amount of time and resources taken up. VDI reduces the number of updates required, freeing up time for support and other duties.

Student benefits

In the current climate and, going forward, students will often need or expect to be able to work off-campus and access a hosted desktop. Virtualization allows a user to work anywhere, at any time, on a huge range of devices. This means that even if students need to be at home, they can continue working, and can bring the same information on campus when required.

If students are not on campus, access to a remote desktop makes it easier to provide them with access to resources and software, wherever they are, there is no need for them to be physically on campus. So, education can continue uninterrupted, no matter how universities choose to proceed with a cross between remote work and in-person teaching.

Differences between VDI and physical desktops

Traditional desktops hosted on physical machines can take up a large amount of an IT department’s time, whether this is setting up new students and staff on the system, maintaining and replacing the machines, or fixing errors.

In addition, for students to be able to access a physical desktop, whether physically or through a remote connection (RDP), the computer must be turned on. The practicalities of leaving on-campus machines on even when students are not on campus can be problematic. It also causes problems when a huge number of students are looking to access a limited number of physical devices. Multiple users cannot access the same computer so, once all computers in the lab are accessed, other students will have to wait.

A virtual environment is available anywhere and anytime and on many devices. This enables and supports Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies so that students are provided with better continuity of education.

What to consider when deciding between VDI and physical desktops

When considering switching from physical desktops to desktop virtualization, there are several factors to take into consideration.


VDI can be a costly solution, depending on the provider or configuration you choose. When looking to implement a desktop virtualization solution to replace physical desktops, both the initial cost of implementation and the time and cost savings that will be made once the solution is set up should be considered.

VDI may cost more initially to implement however, over the long term, the costs saved on updating devices, software, licensing, and time spent imaging machines will outweigh the initial costs.

Student and staff needs

When implementing VDI, considering the needs of staff and students is essential. It will determine the type of solution chosen, how it works, and the policies around it. If a VDI solution is not implemented properly, users will experience delays and performance issues, making the solution less effective for staff and students and becoming costly when issues need to be fixed.

IT department resources

It’s important to consider IT department resources. Desktop virtualization solutions allow them to be better utilized rather than maintaining physical desktops. The time saved for IT departments can often mean that the initial costs of VDI solutions are outweighed.

How can we help?

Please contact our team today to find out more about using AppsAnywhere to solve a wide variety of Higher Education use cases. You can jump straight in with a free trial, arrange a one-to-one demo, or otherwise just get in touch to discuss your software delivery needs.

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