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Best virtual desktop services 2020: DAAS and hosted desktop solutions for all businesses

Best virtual desktop
(Image credit: Shutterstock/Bluebay)

As the coronavirus (aka Covid-19) continues to spread around the world, many companies have now introduced policies to accommodate remote working while also helping to limit the impact on productivity. We feature the best remote desktop software - but if you're looking for more tools, be sure to check out  our guides to the best video conferencing software and the best online collaboration tools around today. Also take a look at our in-depth feature on everything else you need to set up your home office.

Desktop as a Service (DaaS) is not an entirely new phenomenon, but it’s certainly experienced significant growth in the past few years, both in terms of technology and market share. 

Virtual desktops are a secure and flexible means for businesses to support a remote work staff and Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) practices, but they can also be costly and time-consuming.

In a DaaS framework, a provider takes care of the technical and logistical aspects of cloud desktop and app environments, and a business rents these services for less than the cost of building and maintaining them itself. We’ve combed through the many DaaS providers on the market and chosen five of the best, based on services, security, scalability, and cost. 

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Best virtual desktop services at a glance

  1. Amazon WorkSpaces
  2. Citrix
  3. Windows Virtual Desktop
  4. VMWare Horizon Cloud
  5. Nutanix XI Frame 

Amazon WorkSpaces

(Image credit: Amazon)

1. Amazon WorkSpaces

Highly flexible pricing with payments by the hour

Scale CPU, GPU, and storage as needed
Hourly pricing: pay what you use
24/7 phone/chat/email customer support
Includes AWS Security Hub and Application Manager
No text/data transfer from local machine to VM
Additional technical support is paid
Can only add users/assign desktops manually

Amazon WorkSpaces is an industry leader in DaaS, with great features and pricing options for small businesses. Customers can provision Linux and Windows virtual machines, while AWS runs on Windows, macOS, Chromebook, iPad, Amazon and Android tablets, Chrome and Firefox. Both operating systems come bundled with default software like Internet Explorer, while Microsoft Office and others can be added for $15 per month.

One of the biggest advantages with Amazon WorkSpaces is the flexible pricing. Businesses that are interested in trying out the services can take advantage of a free tier with two workspaces, up to 40 hours per month. There are several payment options based on disk size, number of CPUs, memory, and whether you bring your own licenses (BYOL). 

Bundled services can be charged monthly or even hourly, so you pay for what you use. There are no one-time fees and no commitments: you can cancel your subscription at any time.


(Image credit: Citrix)

2. Citrix Managed Desktops

A trusted name in DaaS, well suited to a mobile workforce

Great BYOD support
Supports remote access to physical machines
Encrypted data, never stored on device
Good centralized management
Minimum of 25 users
No autoscaling 

Another big name in DaaS, Citrix Managed Desktops has great hosted desktop services that are particularly well suited to a mobile workforce. Users can connect from Android, Windows, macOS, Chrome OS, and iOS/iPadOS and seamlessly switch between devices while maintaining workflow: the service adapts to different screen sizes, so employees can connect on a computer, tablet, or even mobile phone. 

Plans vary by number of users, applications, features, and licenses. A Standalone version, deployed as a cloud service, includes Windows and Linux provisions, while the Workspace Premium Plus solution adds open support for any public cloud or hypervisor and is marketed as a comprehensive digital platform for managing Windows, Linux, web, SaaS, and mobile apps.

Citrix also integrates with and virtualizes collaboration and communication tools like Skype for Business and can manage graphics-intensive jobs, with support for Intel, AMD, and NVIDIA GPUs. 

Windows Virtual Desktop

(Image credit: Microsoft)

3. Windows Virtual Desktop

Customize plans to meet your needs and budget

No minimum users or machines
Excellent backup and data safety
Supports Windows, Apple, and Android devices
Cloud-only, no on-site option
Windows only; no Linux provisions

Windows Virtual Desktop on Microsoft Azure enables businesses to provision Windows 7 or 10 virtual machines, complete with support for Office 365 and many third-party applications. WVD has excellent device support as well: Windows, iOS/iPadOS, MacOS, Chrome OS, Android, and all major browsers. 

Pricing depends on region, operating system, virtual machine (CPU, GPU, and memory), and usage (in hours, days, or months) and is thus flexible. There are discounts available for one- and three-year subscriptions, or you can pay as you go. The Windows Virtual Desktop website even has a comprehensive calculator to estimate your costs based on your business’s needs. 

With Azure, customers benefit from great backup and recovery features, making this one of the best providers for data security. Scheduled backups, snapshots, offline and encrypted backups of virtual machines, and automatic failover all help mitigate the risks of data corruption or loss. 

VMWare Horizon Cloud

(Image credit: VMWare)

4. VMWare Horizon Cloud

DaaS from the desktop virtualization giant

Supports all major devices and browsers
Available on-site, IBM Cloud, or Microsoft Azure
Scale complex custom machines easily
End users cannot up/downgrade computer power
BYOL only

A name well known in virtualization, VMWare Horizon Cloud is available as a standalone, on-premises service or hosted on IBM Cloud or Microsoft Azure. Unlike previous providers, however, it is strictly BYOL, as VMWare does not plan to sell Windows licenses. 

Horizon has great features for scalability and maintaining uptime. Instant Clone, for example, enables customers to rapidly deploy customized virtual machines by cloning from a parent or “master image” machine. The resulting machines are fully independent, so they can be further customized as necessary for easy scalability. Clones can also share a virtual disk and thus consume less storage, a practical money-saving feature.

Pricing depends on user style (named vs. concurrent), payment plan (pay as you go or contractual), and edition (Standard, Advanced, and Enterprise). More advanced editions include features like Linux provisioning, virtualization for Skype for Business, and SSO and MF authentication. 

Nutanix XI Frame

(Image credit: Nutanix)

5. Nutanix XI Frame

Easily set up your infrastructure

Simplified approach to VM creation and use
Strong integration with clouds, identity providers
Auto-scaling and auto-decommission
No native apps
Windows 10 only

Nutanix XI Frame is a great choice for anybody who’s wary of the complexity and IT know-how necessary to set up and take advantage of a full-featured DaaS environment. The company aims to provide a more streamline experience to admins, without sacrificing end-user experience and functionality.

For example, provisioning is broken down into five simple steps. Choose an infrastructure (AWS, Google Cloud, etc.) and the apps you need (Office 365, Adobe Creative Cloud, Autodesk, Google Chrome, etc.), integrate with your existing cloud storage (Dropbox, Google Drive, etc.), and then access your machine on any HTML-5 capable browser. 

The simplicity is quite refreshing compared to other highly complex, jargon-saturated services. While there are no native apps, which may be a turn-off for some, the end-user experience is still quite impressive, with high-performance 3D graphics and drag-and-drop file sharing.

The real advantages here are speed and accessibility. You can get a working virtual desktop environment up and running in less than an hour, with little to no technical experience. It’s a great choice for small businesses with limited IT support. 

What is Desktop-as-a-Service?

Anunta Tech's CTO, Vinod Jeyachandra, answers this question for us.

Desktop-as-a-Service, or DaaS, is a type of cloud-based service that allows you to run a desktop environment on a virtual machine that is hosted in a public cloud. With DaaS, you create a virtual machine using a public cloud service like Amazon EC2 or Azure Virtual Machines, install a PC operating system (like Windows 10) on it, then use an application like LogMeIn, GoToMyPC or DesktopReady to access it. Like RDS, DaaS gives users access to all of the same applications and system resources that they would be able to use if their virtual machine environment were a physical computer instead of a virtual desktop running in the cloud.