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May 12, 2014

Microsoft VDA and Windows Embedded - A Game Changer for Desktop Virtualization?

The ever growing debate over which flavour of Thin Client is the right choice in relation to cost, performance, user experience, peripheral support, management, etc, etc, continues to fill blogs and review sites.

Recent news from Microsoft on changes to Virtual Desktop Access (VDA) licensing to Windows Embedded throws a really interesting perspective on using a Windows Embedded based Thin Client for Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI).

VDA, Thin Clients and PC’s

As of today if you wanted to use a Thin Client, which includes ‘Zero’, ‘Linux’ or ‘Windows Embedded’ based Thin Clients in conjunction with Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI), you are also required to use Virtual Desktop Access (VDA) licensing. VDA licensing is charged at $100 per year for each device using this license. Couple that with the initial acquisition cost of any of the above types of Thin Clients which all require VDA licensing, the costs suddenly start to rack up and can exceed that of a traditional PC.

The VDA licensing does not apply if you use Microsoft Software Assurance (SA), which also includes some desktop virtualisation rights. Most commonly if a Windows PC is used as your endpoint for connecting to VDI and you have SA, this negates the need for VDA licensing. The downside to this is that by using a Windows PC as an endpoint, this doesn’t leverage any of the true benefits of VDI, most specifically the system administrator is now administering two desktops instead of one. There are options to alleviate this somewhat with products, such as Windows Thin PC*, but what if you want to realise the benefits of Thin Clients? These include Manageability, Ease of Deployment, Small Footprint, Power Savings, and Lifespan due to no moving parts.

*This only applies to repurposing windows OS, not OS agnostic repurposing solutions.

This is where the recent news from Microsoft comes into play.

VDA, Software Assurance and Windows Embedded Thin Clients

If you use Microsoft Software Assurance and you have a Windows Embedded Thin Client (Windows Embedded 7/Windows Embedded 8), then you can now move this into your SA, thus negating the need for VDA licensing. This means the total acquisition cost is potentially lower than equivalent PC’s and even Linux based Thin Clients or Zero Clients due to the Annual Charge of VDA.

Windows Embedded, Linux or Zero

As mentioned there is always the ongoing debate over which flavour of Thin Client is right. One of the biggest arguments against Windows Embedded based Thin Clients has traditionally been the Cost, User Experience (We’ll cover this one in a moment) and Manageability. However the biggest argument for use of Windows Embedded Thin Clients, is that typically the majority of VDI vendors including Microsoft, Citrix, and VMware will focus their efforts primarily around the compatibility, support and feature set available within the Windows version of their clients for connecting to VDI.

You typically see a greater feature set and an earlier adoption of new features within the relevant Windows clients, than you will against say Linux, Android or IOS equivalents. Additionally the ever growing list of peripherals required to either work locally within the Thin Client or be redirected into the VDI session, will typically be more pain free from a Windows based Thin Client, than they will from an equivalent Linux or Zero Client.

More recently we’ve also started to see more and more emergence of client based plugins to redirect Real Time Transport Protocols (RTP/RTVP), such as the Microsoft Lync 2013 VDI plugin, which is only available as a Windows Plugin. We also have the various Media offloading capabilities such as those within the RemoteFX, Citrix HDX and VMware PCoIP stacks, which often still result in a greater tick list of features within these stacks from a Windows Client than their Linux or Zero counterparts.

Let’s shift back to the topic of User Experience. Whilst adopting VDI one of the easiest ways to get user buy in is ensuring that their use experience, including access and entry remains the same as it has been with a PC. You want to ensure ultimately that the user only has access to their VDI desktop, not the local operating system. This way there is no retraining involved, or risk that the user can access/break the local operating system. The end goal is that you want their access device to serve simply as a launch pad to their VDI desktop, whilst also leveraging the performance that they achieved from their local PC.

This is where Windows Embedded 8 really comes into great effect. Windows Embedded 8 includes some really great features including HORM (Hibernate Once, Resume Many) for shrinking boot speeds, as well as Unified Write Filter (UWF) for protecting Disk Volumes/Folders/Registry. Embedded Lockdown Manager is also available for Windows Embedded 8 and includes several lockdown features. Examples of features include Keyboard Filter, Gesture Filter, USB Filter and most prolifically the Shell Launcher.

The Shell Launcher where configured provides the user with a launch pad to their desired VDI session and restricts access to the underlying local operating system.

There are several management tools available for managing Windows Embedded 8, including Microsoft based and 3rd Party tools such as those provided by 10ZiG Technology within Windows Embedded 8 based Thin Clients (5818V/6818V) and the Enterprise Free 10ZiG Manager.


To conclude, the exciting news from Microsoft regarding the addition of Windows Embedded into Software Assurance (SA) means that it negates the need for a Virtual Desktop Access License (VDA) and will dramatically reduce the overall acquisition cost per Thin Client against a PC. Additionally the adoption of new and exciting features into Windows Embedded 8 heralds a potential shift in the VDI/Thin Client space towards Windows Embedded 8.

Couple it all together with HORM, UWF, ELM and Client offload techniques powered by modern multi core CPU Thin Clients such as those from 10ZiG Technology (5818v/6818v). We are now equipped with what is fast becoming a Hybrid of traditional Thin Client and PC Technology into one.

It’s an interesting space to watch in the ever evolving world of VDI and Thin Client Technology.