Jun 08 2020

VDI or DaaS? Key Factors in the Distance-Learning Decision

Both virtual desktop infrastructure and Desktop as a Service offer benefits to help build online education frameworks. But as colleges and universities look to create long-term remote learning plans, which solution makes the grade?

The global pandemic has launched unprecedented changes in higher education. In a matter of weeks, colleges and universities were forced to shutter physical facilities and make a sharp transition to online-only classes. 

While some schools still plan to reopen their doors in September, others are opting for long-term distance learning frameworks capable of delivering quality content and connection at scale. But even with the likelihood of an eventual, post-pandemic return to normal, the World Economic Forum notes that some changes to education may be permanent. In fact, recent research suggests that well-designed online teaching strategies can actually boost student comprehension and retention.

As a result, post-secondary schools are facing a new challenge: There is a need to develop sustainable IT frameworks that can support online learning as core curricular offerings. 

In previous posts, we’ve explored the potential of virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), the rise of Desktop as a Service (DaaS) and their unique advantages for on-demand education.

But which solution offers the best fit for your school? Let’s break down four key factors in the distance-learning decision, as well as the intended outcomes.

What You Need to Know When Considering User Experience

Mike Joyner, senior field solution architect for client virtualization at CDW, puts it simply: “User experience is king.” For students to effectively connect with professors during classes, access critical materials and work with essential applications, their experience must be “the same or better than physical desktops.” 

VDI and DaaS solutions can both deliver on UX demands. VDI does so by leveraging on-premises resources to create near replicas of local campus desktops, while DaaS delivers through the cloud.

But both come with potential performance drawbacks which could negatively impact the user experience at scale. For VDI, issues emerge when local stacks are overburdened. If IT teams can’t keep up with user demand or shared VDI displays, they might encounter what Joyner calls “noisy neighbor” syndrome, where a runaway process from one user causes problems for all others on the same instance. This will cause user experience to suffer.

For DaaS, Joyner points out that while desktop instances themselves may live on the cloud, many are connected to on-campus services and applications. The result is what he calls “data hops”— or information moving from one digital environment to another — which can introduce both latency and bandwidth issues. Minimizing these hops is essential to ensuring effective DaaS delivery.

The Complexity of Distance Learning

Complexity can easily undercut the value of distance-learning deployments. If IT teams can’t easily manage virtual instances at scale or deliver consistent performance, critical investments quickly become cost sinks.

Virtual desktops can become a culprit that increases complexity. As TechTarget points out, post-secondary IT pros must often deploy, monitor and manage their own back-end infrastructure. 

At the same time, Joyner notes, “while VDI needs more in-house expertise compared with the cloud, DaaS isn’t the ‘easy button.’” 

It’s critical, he says, for schools to consider their application dependencies: “Where are your apps located, and how are they connected? Will they live up there next to cloud-based desktops or closer to home?”

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

These considerations help inform the VDI/DaaS decision-making process. If high-value, high-performance apps can’t be moved off local stacks, schools may find that management complexity outpaces online benefits.

How to Account for Cost

At the end of the day, money matters. With many post-secondary schools facing budget shortfalls due to uncertain enrollment numbers, there’s no room for IT cost overruns. 

DaaS can offer the most obvious route to cost savings. “Many DaaS licenses are subscription-based,” says Joyner, “and moving from a CAPEX to an OPEX model may be very relevant right now.” 

On-premises VDI solutions require regular hardware investments to ensure servers are properly maintained and updated. However, the long-term costs of DaaS may eventually eclipse those of VDI, especially as the number of virtual instances starts to scale. More users mean more monthly costs — and this spending can balloon out of control if IT teams aren’t diligently managing VDI sprawl.

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

Why It Is Critical to Create Use Cases

Finally, it’s critical for post-secondary schools to develop virtual desktop use cases before spending money on VDI or DaaS. As Joyner notes, developing distance learning models “is now an enterprise process. Schools need to improve experience and efficiency simultaneously while limiting sprawl.”

Achieving this goal requires an enterprise-level approach: “Sit down and map out your use cases,” he says, “then start populating your cases with the apps you need. Finally, look across your network and find common ground.” 

Leveraging this case-based approach allows IT teams to identify common performance, security and application needs to determine which virtual desktop solutions are the best fit. 

How to Bridge the Gap Between DaaS and VDI

While VDI solutions offer more granular control and DaaS comes with performance potential at scale, Joyner makes it clear that “this isn’t an either/or scenario. 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.”

MORE ON EDTECH: Learn how artificial intelligence can solve cybersecurity staffing shortages.

For example, classes that leverage cloud-based videoconferencing applications and other online learning tools may be best served by DaaS deployments, while courses that require access to resource-heavy applications such as AutoCAD could see bigger benefits from on-premises VDI instances.

When to Make the Call

VDI and DaaS both offer major benefits for post-secondary schools that are building long-term online learning plans. But both come with potential pitfalls.

Making the call means considering key factors —such as user experience, complexity, cost and use case — to determine critical connections and dependencies. After considering these components, schools can deploy the best desktop for the job. 

The result: Schools will have virtual solutions that not only serve student needs, but also deliver sustainable learning outcomes.

Михаил Руденко/ iStock / Getty Images Plus