What is desktop virtualisation?

Technology explained

This article is part of our 'Future of cloud computing' series.  Click here  to learn more about cloud computing, and it's impact on the modern workplace.

What is desktop virtualisation?

Virtualisation is the process of creating a separate computer that doesn’t need a physical device to exist.

Think of a traditional laptop - on it you’d usually have a single operating system like Windows 10 that you work from as your desktop. 

With virtualisation, you could create another, separate desktop on that same laptop and use it like an independent computer. 

The name for that ‘new’ computer, and any like it, is a virtual machine (VM).  

As for how virtual desktops work, here's a quick explainer video that covers the essentials:

What is Virtual Desktop [EiS]


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The benefit of desktop virtualisation is that it addresses some of the fundamental weaknesses of giving each user their own workstation.

For example:

  • 😡 Challenge: traditional workstations need to be configured for each user. Suppose your organisation has 100 workstations and you decide to update some installed software on all of them. In that case, you’d have to figure out how to deploy that update to 100 computers and rely on users to tell you if the update works.
  • 😇 Solution: A virtual desktop is centrally managed, so IT can quickly deploy that update to all desktops without physically visiting 100 computers.


  • 😡 Challenge: With a traditional desktop, a broken computer can be a headache. It forces IT to replace the hardware, rebuild the user’s profile and reinstall their applications. Sometimes that doesn’t fix the issue entirely either. Any data stored directly on the users' computer might not be backed up to the network. If the storage hardware keeping that data dies, then the data is likely gone for good.
  • 😇 Solution: With a virtual desktop, all of the data is stored and back up elsewhere. If the machine someone uses to access it dies, they can just reconnect with a different device. When they do, all of their data will be sat waiting for them.


  • 😡 Challenge: Someone might want the freedom to swap between devices or different platforms on the move (e.g. move from a Windows laptop at their desk to an iPad on the train). Unfortunately, their software will work differently on each device and might not work as effectively.
  • 😇 Solution: With tools like Windows Virtual Desktop, you can connect to the same desktop from laptops, tablets, or phones and have an identical software experience.

How does desktop virtualisation work?

Any organisation can achieve desktop virtualisation in several ways. The method you go for should be determined by what your IT team can manage, what users need and what your VMs need to accomplish. 

Still, we’ll give you a quick overview of two major types of desktop virtualisation: ‘local’ and ‘remote’.

Local desktop virtualisation

  • What it is: Local desktop virtualisation means that part of your local hardware (i.e. your computer) resources is used to run a separate desktop to your main one. With local desktop virtualisation, each virtual desktop is powered by the physical device you’re using . 
  • Advantage: With local virtualisation, users don’t need a continuous internet connection to work. Instead, users can operate all VMs offline. 
  • Limitation: If processing is done locally, you can’t share VMs or resources across a network to thin clients or mobile devices.

Remote desktop virtualisation

  • What it is: A virtual desktop operates on external hardware, but users can stream it onto and operate it from their device remotely. In a nutshell, you can click, open files and connect to your apps just like any other computer. 
  • Advantage: With desktops hosted in a remote server, IT departments get much more centralised control over applications and desktops. This doesn’t just give a huge boost to security. It means organisations can maximise their IT hardware investments with shared resources. Also, users get added flexibility with the freedom to connect to a virtual desktop from most smart devices. 
  • Limitation: You need a stable internet connection to run a remote desktop. That said, you don’t need download speeds as fast as you might think. In our’ Impact of 5G on cloud computing article’, we found that the UK’s average internet speed was typically 2x faster than needed for effective cloud computing.  

Remote desktop virtualisation - what are the different options?

To make things that little bit more complicated, you also have a couple of different options available for remote desktop virtualisation. 

Hosted Desktop Virtualisation: (Desktop-as-a-service)

With hosted desktops, your organisation’s virtual desktops aren’t connected to in-house servers. Instead, your DaaS provider manages network control, load balancing and resource provisioning for you.

A third-party data centre is responsible for hosting your company’s desktops. Your staff are thus able to access their desktops, applications and data from any location. With the correct setup, hosted desktops can stream to almost any other device.

This approach is attractive to a lot of organisations, since its often a much more affordable entry into cloud computing than VDIs (more on that below). Instead of paying a substantial upfront cost to buy the required hardware or hire cloud specialists to manage a virtual infrastructure, organisations can access a modern, cloud desktop for a flat monthly fee.

Depending on your needs, you can also choose a specialised DaaS supplier for added advantages.

*shameless plug alert*

With boxxe’s Modern Desktop on Demand service, for example, your cloud desktop would be managed by MoD-certified security specialists meaning that your sensitive data would benefit from added protection at no extra cost. 

Virtual Desktops (VDIs)

Virtual desktops and hosted desktops offer similar functionalities. The fundamental difference is the solution’s setup. VDIs are managed in-house and not by a third-party (external) solution provider.

Virtual desktops are the same as hosted desktops in that your staff can access their data, applications and desktops from any location.

Best virtual desktop for windows 10

66% of all UK desktops run a Windows operating system. With Windows 10 as the most modern, supported operating system available currently, one of the most common desktop virtualisation questions is 'which is the best hosted virtual desktop for windows 10'.

Our favourite pick is Azure Windows Virtual Desktop. For a full summary of why it has us excited, read about the impact Windows Virtual Desktop has had during the pandemic.

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