Jun 05 2020

Know the Difference Between DaaS and Virtual Desktops

Both virtual desktops and Desktop as a Service offer benefits for online education, but what’s the difference between these digital delivery alternatives?

During the spring 2020 semester, an unprecedented shift took place in higher education. Classes moved from in-person settings to digital models overnight, forcing professors and IT staff to combine existing technology resources with commercial communication tools to deliver remote classes on demand.

As pandemic concerns continue to plague higher education decision-makers, many universities and colleges are choosing to pre-emptively notify students that online learning will remain the primary model for education when classes resume in September. 

For higher education organizations, this long-term shift to online learning requires intelligent IT investment. Not only will students expect more from institutions and instructors to justify the costs of postsecondary spending, but schools must also account for a possible uptick in student enrollment that often accompanies recession-era economic environments.

MORE ON EDTECH: Learn how to improve remote learning with virtual desktop infrastructure.

Advice on Bridging the Gap in Distance Learning

According to Mike Joyner, a senior solution architect for client virtualization at CDW·G, delivering effective learning at a distance demands three key components:

  • Familiar and functional user experience (UX)
  • Secure systems access
  • Application of existing IT resources

Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) and Desktop as a Service (DaaS) solutions both offer potential pathways for improving resource utilization and enhancing student success. The basic concepts are similar: Each allows users to interact with services and applications as if they were accessing from on-campus computers. But the approaches differ significantly. 

Here’s what postsecondary schools need to know when it comes to VDI, DaaS and what roles they play in online education.

Unlocking the Potential for Virtual Desktop Infrastructure

Virtual desktop infrastructure isn’t new; companies have been creating and deploying virtual desktops for decades. VDI typically leverages local stacks to deliver performance that’s nearly identical to user experiences during in-person access. 

The process is fairly straightforward: IT teams designate a data center server for VDI, install virtualization software and then create virtual machines that effectively mimic local desktops. The result? Students logging in to local VDIs are greeted by the same desktop setup as on-campus alternatives. 

Control is the biggest selling point for VDI solutions. Since virtual instances are spun up and managed on local stacks, university IT staffs enjoy granular control over security, resource access and digital sprawl. In addition, many schools have already deployed VDI solutions to reduce hardware footprints across physical classrooms. This serves an increasingly mobile student population, which in turn offers a ready-made starting point for more extensive VDI implementations. 

MORE ON EDTECH: Learn how higher ed IT leaders can drive digital workplace adoption.

How to Understand Desktop as a Service

By leveraging the “as a service” trend popularized by evolving cloud environments, DaaS solutions make the best use of public and private cloud resources to manage desktop instances at a distance. As noted by TechRepublic, the DaaS model has all hardware handled by cloud providers. This means local IT teams won’t need to worry about maintenance, upgrading or compatibility issues. 

Joyner puts it simply: “A true DaaS solution is one where you’re going to purchase a virtual desktop from a provider. Many will have ‘canned’ offerings, such as Windows 10 instances that allot specific GPU and CPU resources.”

While this means the configuration of specific apps and services still falls on in-house IT pros, the biggest benefit that DaaS brings is flexibility: New desktops can be created and customized on demand.

The Postsecondary Potential: What You Need to Know

No matter which approach schools select, Joyner notes, “user experience is king.” Students expect services and resources to work as they do on campus. If you experience an unexpected lag, latency or lack a key functionality, this will frustrate users and limit the efficacy of online learning tools.

But VDIs and DaaS solutions offer so much more than easy interactions and straightforward access. 

MORE ON EDTECH: Learn how the remote learning pivot could shape higher ed IT.

For example, virtual desktops excel at converting unused physical resources — such as powerful PCs sitting untouched in computer science labs — into easily accessible desktop instances. This is ideal for students who need to access GPU-intensive applications such as AutoCAD, even if they can’t attend classes in person.

Meanwhile, DaaS offers the ideal solution for scalability. Since these desktop instances are cloud-based, they can be spun up or scaled down on demand, allowing schools to respond easily if enrollment rises quickly or suddenly levels off.

Both also come with potential pain points, however. According to Joyner, “VDI solutions require more in-house expertise compared to the cloud,” especially if schools choose to host these virtual instances entirely on-premises. 

When considering cost, however, initial DaaS outlay often seems much more budget friendly. But as instances expand and usage increases over time, the price of offsite performance can outpace on-premises alternatives. 

It’s also worth noting that this isn’t an either-or proposition. As noted by Joyner, “schools can mix physical and virtual resources if they need scalability but also security. There’s no need to toss one or the other away.”

The shift to learning at a distance won’t disappear, even as pandemic pressures ease and students slowly return to physical classrooms. It’s therefore critical that postsecondary schools find a desktop delivery framework — whether it’s VDI, DaaS or a combination of both — that empowers student success with familiar UX functionality, secure access to key systems and effective application of existing IT resources.

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