An Introduction to Microsoft Remote Desktop Services and VDI

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Remote Desktop Services and VDI

What Terminal Services did was to provide simultaneous access to the desktop running on a server/group of servers. The name was changed to Remote Desktop Services (RDS) with the release of Windows Server 2008 R2 but actually this encompasses both VDI and what was Terminal Services and now referred to as Session Virtualization. This is still available alongside VDI in Windows Server 2012 R2; each user who connects to the server is granted a Remote Desktop session (RD Session) on an RD Session Host and shares this same server-based desktop. Microsoft refers to any kind of remote desktop as a Virtual Desktop and these are grouped into Collections made available to specific group users and managed as one, and a Session Collection is a group of virtual desktop based on session virtualization.

It’s important to note here that what the users see with Session Virtualization is the desktop interface delivered with Windows Server which is similar to but not the same as the Windows client interface, for example, it does have a modern UI by default. We can add/remove the user interface features in Windows Server to change the way it looked, one of these the Desktop Experience option is there specifically to make Windows Server look more like Windows client and in Windows Server 2012 R2 if you add this feature option in you’ll get the Windows store just as you do in Windows 8.1.

VDI also provides remote desktops to our users over RDP but does this in a completely different way. In VDI each user accesses a VM running Windows Client and so the user experience looks exactly the same as it would on a laptop or physical desktop. In Windows VDI, these Collections of VMs run on Hyper-V and our users connect to them with RDP just as they can connect to RD Sessions described above. Other parts of RDS are common to both as we’ll see shortly but what is important for now is that RDS manages the VDI VMs for us and organises which users are connected to which desktops and so on. So we don’t directly create VMs in a Collection or directly set up security on them. Instead a collection is created from a template which is a special VM that is never turned on as the Guest OS is sysprepped and turning it on would instantly negate that. The VMs in a Collection inherit this master copy of the Guest OS and any installed applications as well. The settings for the template VM are also inherited by the virtual desktops in a collection; CPU memory, graphics, networking, and so on, and as we’ll see there are a lot of VM settings that specifically apply to VDI rather than for VMs running a server OS as part of our infrastructure.

To reiterate VDI in Windows Server 2012 R2, VDI is one option in an RDS deployment and it’s even possible to use VDI alongside RD Sessions for our users. For example, we might decide to give RD Sessions for our call center staff and use VDI for our remote workforce. Traditionally, the RD Session Hosts have been set up on physical servers as older versions of Hyper-V and VMware weren’t capable of supporting heavy workloads like this. However, we can put up to 4 TB RAM and 64 logical processors into one VM (physical hardware permitting) and run large deployment RD Sessions virtually. Our users connect to our Virtual Desktop Collections of whatever kind with a Remote Desktop Client which connects to the RDS servers using the Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP).

When we connect to any server with the Microsoft Terminal Services Client (MSTSC.exe), we are using RDP for this but without setting up RDS there are only two administrative sessions available per server.

Many of the advantages and disadvantages of running any kind of remote desktop apply to both solutions.

Advantages of Remote Desktops

Given that the desktop computing for our users is now going to be done in the data center we only need to deploy powerful desktop and laptops to those users who are going to have difficulty connecting to our RDS infrastructure. Everyone else could either be equipped with thin client devices, or given access in from other devices they already have if working remotely, such as tablets or their home PCs and laptops. Thin client computing has evolved in line with advances in remote desktop computing and the latest devices from 10Zig, Dell, HP among others support multiple hi-res monitors, smart cards, and web cams for unified communications which are also enabled in the latest version of RDP (8.1). Using remote desktops can also reduce overall power consumption for IT as an efficiently cooled data center will consume less power than the sum of thin clients and servers in an RDS deployment; in one case, I saw this saving resulted in a green charity saving 90 percent of its IT power bill.

Broadly speaking, managing remote desktops ought to be easier than managing their physical equivalents, for a start they’ll be running on standard hardware so installing and updating drivers won’t be so much of an issue. RDS has specific tooling for this to create a largely automatic process for keeping our collections of remote desktops in a desired state. VDI doesn’t exist in a vacuum and there are other Microsoft technologies to make any desktop management easier with other types of virtualization:

  • User profiles: They have long been a problem for desktop specialists. There are dedicated technologies built into session virtualization and VDI to allow user’s settings and data to be stored away from the VHD with the Guest OS on. Techniques such as folder redirection can also help here and new for Windows Server 2012 is User Environment Virtualization (UE-V) which provides a much richer set of tools that can work across VDI, RD Sessions and physical desktops to ensure the user has the same experience no matter what they are using for a Windows Client desktop.
  • Application Virtualization (App-V): This allows us to deploy application to the user who need them when and where they need them, so we don’t need to create desktops for different type of users who need special applications; we just need a few of these and only deploy generic applications on these and those that can’t make use of App-V. Even if App-V is not deployed VDI administrator have total control over remote desktops, as any we have any number of security techniques at our disposal and if the worst comes to the worst we can remove any installed applications every time a user logs off!

The simple fact that the desktop and applications we are providing to our users are now running on servers under our direct control also increase our IT security. Patching is now easy to enable particularly for our remote workforce as when they are on site or working remotely their desktop is still in the data center. RDS in all its forms is then an ideal way of allowing a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy. Users can bring in whatever device they wish into work or work at home on their own device (WHOYD is my own acronym for this!) by using an RD Client on that device and securely connecting with it. Then there are no concerns about partially or completely wiping users’ own devices or not being able to because they aren’t in a connected state when they are lost or stolen.

VDI versus Session Virtualization

So why are there these two ways of providing Remote Desktops in Windows and what are the advantages and disadvantages of each? First and foremost Session Virtualization is always going to be much more efficient than VDI as it’s going to provide more desktops on less hardware. This makes sense if we look at what’s going on in each scenario if we have a hundred remote desktop users to provide for:

  • In Session Virtualization, we are running and sharing one operating system and this will comfortably sit on 25 GB of disk. For memory we need roughly 2 GB per CPU, we can then allocate 100 MB memory to each RD Session. So on a quad CPU Server for a hundred RD Sessions we’ll need 8 GB + (100MB*100), so less than 18 GB RAM.
  • If we want to support that same hundred users on VDI, we need to provision a hundred VMs each with its own OS. To do this we need 2.5 TB of disk and if we give each VM 1 GB of RAM then 100 GB of RAM is needed. This is a little unfair on VDI in Windows Server 2012 R2 as we can cut down on the disk space need and be much more efficient in memory than this but even with these new technologies we would need 70 GB of RAM and say 400 GB of disk.

Remember that with RDS our users are going to be running the desktop that comes with Windows Server 2012 R2 not Windows 8.1. Our RDS users are sharing the one desktop so they cannot be given administrative rights to that desktop. This may not be that important for them but can also affect what applications can be put onto the server desktop and some applications just won’t work on a Server OS anyway. Users’ sessions can’t be moved from one session host to another while the user is logged in so planned maintenance has to be carefully thought through and may mean working out of hours to patch servers and update applications if we want to avoid interrupting our users’ work.

VDI on the other hand means that our users are using Windows 8.1 which they will be happier with. And this may well be the deciding factor regardless of cost as our users are paying for this and their needs should take precedence. VDI can be easier to manage without interrupting our users as we can move running VMs around our physical hosts without stopping them.

Remote applications in RDS

Another part of the RDS story is the ability to provide remote access to individual applications rather than serving up a whole desktop. This is called RD Remote App and it simply provides a shortcut to an individual application running either on a virtual or remote session desktop. I have seen this used for legacy applications that won’t run on the latest versions of Windows and to provide access to secure application as it’s a simple matter to prevent cut and paste or any sharing of data between a remote application and the local device it’s executing on. RD Remote Apps work by publishing only the specified applications installed on our RD Session Hosts or VDI VMs.


This article discusses the advantages of Remote Desktops. We also learned how they can be provided in Windows. This article also compares VDI to Session Virtualization.

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