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VDI vs Session Based Desktops: What are they and how do they compare?

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Both VDI and session-based desktops are useful desktop virtualization solutions for higher education organizations that need to utilise virtual desktops. Virtual desktops are a simple yet versatile tool for enabling staff and students to access applications on a range of devices from anywhere.

What is a session-based remote desktop?

Session-based remote desktops (or session virtualization) consist of a single, centralized virtual desktop environment hosted on a server that multiple users can connect to and use. A Remote Desktop Service, RDS (or RDP), provides the infrastructure to provide session-based virtual desktops and a remote desktop connection. Learn more about the differences between VDI and RDS in our guide. RDP allows users to access the resources on a physical computer that may be on campus.

Instead of creating a dedicated virtual machine for every user, the server creates a desktop session for each user, which they use to access the same virtual desktop environment. Each session of a session-based desktop runs on the same host server, and users have access to the same shared file system.

The shared remote desktop session can either be run on a remote server or on one of the PCs in the workgroup. In higher education organizations, session-based desktops can either be hosted centrally and accessible across the network, or they can be set up locally among a select group of users.

By running the shared desktop within a virtual machine on a server, it can serve larger numbers of users. Multiple virtual machines running on multiple servers, enable session virtualization to serve thousands of users.

What is VDI?

Another solution worth considering within the higher education sector is virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI). This consists of a VDI environment hosted within a dedicated virtual machine. New virtual machines are created for each user, meaning that they are completely isolated from one another. A single server hosts every VDI desktop, but each one has its own file system and resource allocation.

VDI is available with both a persistent VDI or non-persistent VDI. The type you choose will determine how the solution can be used by students and the way in which they can personalize their remote desktops. Learn more about what VDI is and the difference between persistent desktops and non-persistent desktops in our guide.

Which is better: session-based or VDI?

Both VDI and session-based virtualization can offer benefits when looking for desktop virtualization solutions. There are plenty of use cases for each remote desktop solution within higher education settings. The number of VDI users has been growing steadily in recent years, although the session-based approach remains the most common. Understanding the pros and cons of each enables IT managers to choose the best approach for their needs.

Control

One of the most important factors to consider when deciding which solution to use is the level of control required. VDI offers significantly more control for each user when accessing a remote desktop session. Each virtual machine can be configured within different operating systems, applications, and desktop environments. With the session-based solutions, every desktop session is connected to the same shared virtual desktop environment.

Cost

Cost is always a key consideration for higher education organizations when it comes to implementing new technology. Session-based desktops can be much cheaper to run because they only require one OS license and one virtual machine to host the shared desktop.

On the other hand, VDI requires a separate virtual machine for each user, meaning that the runtime cost and the licensing costs increase for every user that needs to connect. However, VDI offers a much more cost-effective, long-term and reliable solution than session-based desktops.

VDI offers a more cost-effective solution, despite the extra expense that may come with it. Adding more users can raise the financial costs significantly but it allows all students to access resources anytime, anywhere, without disturbances to their service.

Usage and hardware

Session-based desktops are relatively lightweight so they don’t require as much in terms of server hardware. Hosting multiple remote desktop sessions is much less resource-intensive than hosting multiple virtual machines. However, with VDI, each remote desktop has its own resource allocation and users are isolated from one another.

A session-based desktop shares the available resources among all of the connected user. If one user is running a particularly large or resource-hungry application, it can slow down the service for everyone else.

Session-based users cannot download their own apps or personalise their desktop environment because they are sharing it with one another. This makes session-based solutions unsuitable for some tasks.

Choosing between session-based and VDI: what to consider

It’s important to think carefully before deciding which solution is best for your organization. For most use cases, the choice is relatively simple once you understand the pros and cons of each option.

Needs of organization and students

The primary considerations should always be the needs of your organization and students. For example, while it is possible to share session-based desktops beyond a local network, the process is complicated, and users will probably need to use a VPN. However, for use within your organization’s own network, this isn’t an issue. VDI makes accessing a remote desktop session simple because each virtual machine acts as its own independent environment.

Budget

Your organizations available budget and resource will always be a critical factor in deciding which remote desktop solution you choose.

VDI deployment can be more expensive but, if you’re looking to implement a long-term and effective remote desktop solution, it becomes the most cost-effective option.

Hardware available

Similarly, the hardware you already have available will determine the resources you can allocate to each user. Session-based desktops have lower hardware requirements, even with significantly more users. On the other hand, VDI enables network admins to set quotas on the number of resources each user has available, preventing one application or user from slowing everyone else down.

These are the most important considerations to make but there are others too. For example, session-based desktops don’t allow users to download and install their own apps; you will need to ensure that they have access to any software they might need. Session-based users are not isolated from one another, so this solution is often considered to be less secure than VDI, where every virtual machine is isolated and independent.

Both session-based desktops and VDI provide higher education organization with effective virtualization solutions, but they are used in very different ways. The best approach for any individual organization is the assess specific needs, budget and available resources.

If you’d like to find out more about Application Virtualization, VDI or other remote working solutions, please contact our team for more details.