VirtualizationVDI vs. Webtops: Definitions, Differences, and Use Cases

VDI vs. Webtops: Definitions, Differences, and Use Cases

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Whether you need to connect your remote or hybrid workers or provide access to a persistent digital system for a healthcare, education, or government organization, virtualization is the way to go.

In 2023 the most widely used technology to connect people with virtual digital systems is virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI). However, webtops are also still very much in play. We’ll take a look at both concepts, what they are, their pros and cons, and what they can be used for, to help you make a choice for which to use in your business.

What is virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI)?

Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) is a technology used to create virtual desktops which users can access from any device, no matter where they are. VDIs are hosted on remote servers, usually cloud or on-premises data centers.

To create VDI, IT teams use hypervisors — specialized software to build and manage virtual machines (VMs). Once the virtual machine is created on the host server, its hardware, software, OS and applications are assigned and the VDI is designed around the needs of the company and its end users.

IT then sets up network configurations and settings and onboards users, providing them access to the VDI, which remains hosted on a VM in the remote server.

VDI pros

There are many benefits to deploying VDI in your organization. These include:

  • Reduced IT costs: VDI can help businesses reduce IT costs by eliminating the need to purchase and maintain hardware and software for each user.
  • Improved security and compliance: VDI can help businesses improve security by centralizing data and applications on a remote server. Centralization also helps better manage unauthorized accesses and facilitates deployment of enterprise-wide compliance and governance policies.
  • Accessibility and collaboration: VDI drives collaboration by connecting workers no matter where they are. A company can develop projects with international collaborations, working under the same framework and system miles apart from one another.
  • Management, visibility, risks, and performance: VDI breaks siloes and gives IT and managers the necessary tools to oversee operations. Companies can instantly update systems and files for all workers at once, manage departments, and profile users and devices, increasing performance and identifying risks.
  • Access to innovation: Most VDI architectures are deployed via cloud providers which offer the latest innovations in technologies. Companies can leverage this unique access to modernize, automate, and embrace disruptive tools.
  • Heavy workloads and advanced operations: VDI technology is robust and can be used for heavy workloads and large enterprises who have challenging digital needs.

VDI cons

Even with all of the potential benefits, there are some concerns and challenges that can’t be ignored, such as:

  • Connectivity dependent: VDI depends on network connectivity to operate. If the internet goes down or slows down, the company will experience downtime.
  • Advanced skills required: Properly managing VDI requires specialized skills and technical knowledge. A solid IT team is a must.
  • Performance: The performance of VDI depends on several factors, including how the environment was set up, if it was properly configured, and the computing power of the host and devices.
  • Vendor lock-in and integrations: VDI may be created using open-source solutions, but these are only used by the most advanced IT teams. The most common VDI solutions are provided by particular vendors, which, once implemented, can limit integrations and cause vendor lock-in.
  • Costs: Depending on the number of users and how sophisticated a VDI system is, the costs may be significant, especially for small and medium companies. On the other hand, it is worth noting that these costs are still often less than providing and supporting a full hardware setup for all employees, especially as the business scales.
  • User experience: Onboarding new users to VDI environments and providing them with support requires an integral communication plan and a dedicated team. Users who are not familiar with VDI tech may struggle with the interface.

VDI use cases

VDI is currently used in a wide range of industries and sectors due to its benefits and modern technologies.

  • Bring your own device (BYOD): Companies can use VDI to support their BYOD policies. Some workers prefer using their own devices and VDI ensures that company systems are not compromised or affected while driving productivity and employee satisfaction.
  • Education: Schools and universities use VDI  to provide students and faculty members with access to a desktop environment from any device.
  • Healthcare: VDI can connect medical professionals to a general digital system which can be accessed from kiosks or any authorized device. Doctors, nurses, and carers moving from room to room, or even when at home, can access all the information they need.
  • Hybrid businesses: In the era of hybrid work, VDI has established itself as an ideal solution for remote and flexible workers. Companies can manage their entire ecosystem and increase performance and visibility while connecting workers, whether they are in the office or not.
  • Government and public offices: Government and public offices must meet high security standards and rigorously protect their data, but still provide users with transparent access to systems. VDI technology helps them operate more safely and efficiently.
  • Manufacturing, retail, and services: From factories to banks, VDI is used to provide employees with access to the applications and data they need to do their jobs, improving productivity and efficiency.

Top VDI providers

For companies looking to make the jump into virtualization, there are several excellent VDI providers in the market. Knowing which one to choose will depend on what type of project you are developing, how many users will connect to your VDI and what business goals you are trying to achieve.

Some of the top providers include:

  • VMware Horizon: VMware Horizon is one of the most popular VDI solutions in the market. It is known for its performance and scalability.
  • Citrix Virtual Apps and Desktops: Citrix Virtual Apps and Desktops is another top choice for VDI solutions. It is a secure, modern, and easy-to-use virtual management solution for all environments. 
  • Amazon Workspaces: Amazon Workspaces is an advanced cloud-based VDI solution used by top financial organizations, government agencies, healthcare providers, and retailers.
  • Microsoft Azure Virtual Desktop: Supported by Microsoft Azure technology, this VDI solution is the first choice for those who are already familiar and operating other Microsoft products. It’s popular among large and small companies alike.

Other well-regarded VDI providers include RedHat Virtualization and Oracle VM Virtual Box

What is a web-based desktop (webtop)?

Webtops also give users access to a virtual desktop. However, they use different technologies. Traditionally, with webtops, users connect to a desktop via a web browser, although some providers provide a downloadable application for the same purpose.

Whether users access the desktop environment via a browser or an app, webtop systems are hosted on a remote server, just as in the case of VDI. Users can access the virtual desktop from any device, no matter where they are located, as long as they have an internet connection.

Webtops require advanced technical skills to set up and manage. They are not supported as widely as VDI. The webtop software needs to be downloaded and configurations made by IT teams to deploy webtops.

Webtop pros

Webtops share many benefits with VDI, as they both are a type of desktop virtualization technology. But they also have some differences.

The benefits and differentiators of webtops are:

  • Simpler technology: Webtops are not as advanced as VDI. Therefore skilled experts may set up the technology with more ease.
  • Ideal for small operations: Webtops can be a good option if a company does not need to connect many users or run sophisticated operations.
  • Cost-effective: Webtops can be a more cost-effective solution than VDI, especially for businesses with a small number of users.
  • Security: Webtops share security benefits with VDI, due to the data being stored on a remote server. However, VDI security and privacy features provided by the top vendors exceed the standards of those offered by webtop solutions.
  • Design and flexibility: Webtops can be customized to meet the specific needs of a company, organization, and users.
  • Accessibility: Webtops can be accessed from any device with an internet connection, so you can work from anywhere.
  • Cost-effectiveness: Companies do not need to purchase or maintain any hardware or software for a webtop.

Webtop cons

Webtops also share similar cons with VDI, but additionally, the technology has some drawbacks when compared to virtual desktops. These include:

  • Performance: Webtops can have lower performance than VDI, as the data and graphics needs to be transmitted over a browser. This can be a problem for applications that require high-performance graphics, such as 3D, gaming, or video editing.
  • Limited features: Webtops may not offer the same level of functionality and features as VDI. If your company uses special software and applications, they might not run on webtops.
  • Security: Webtops can be less secure than VDI if the remote server is not properly configured. Remote webtop servers can be more vulnerable to attack than VDI.
  • Scalability: Webtops do not handle scaling up as well as VDI environments do, especially if users go up by the hundreds of thousands. Remember that webtops are usually deployed for small operations.

Webtop use cases

VDI has slowly been taking over many of the former webtop use cases, but there are still some areas where webtops shine:

  • Small and medium organizations: Companies that do not have intense digital requirements nor high-level security standards can deploy webtops more rapidly, and manage them more easily, than VDI.
  • Education: While a lot of education organizations have transitioned to VDI, webtops are still in use in that sector. They are used to connect faculty members, management, and students.
  • Healthcare: Small care providers may use webtops to provide access to a general system to doctors, care professionals, managers and even patients.
  • Service: From finance to telecommunications, webtops are used to leverage their cost-efficient technology.

Top webtop vendors

A company can develop a webtop environment with the support of all the top virtualization providers, including  VMWare, Citrix, IBM, Oracle, Microsoft and others. However, there are other dedicated webtop solutions popular among developers:

  • Guacamole: Guacamole is an open-source webtop that can be used to access remote desktops, servers, and applications. It is a free and easy-to-use solution that is a good option for small businesses and individuals.
  • NoMachine: NoMachine is a commercial webtop that offers high performance and security. The solution uses an application to connect to desktops rather than a browser.
  • Remmina: Remmina is a free and open-source remote desktop client that can be used to access webtops.

Should you use a webtop or VDI?

The answer to this question is pretty straightforward if you know the specifics of what you want to achieve by building a virtualized desktop environment.

If your company is small and you only need to connect a couple dozen users, and your budget is tight, you might consider evaluating free webtop solutions. Remember that they need to be properly configured and that connectivity is key.

Additionally, if you are running highly demanding applications and advanced graphics and video, remember that webtops may not perform as desired.

On the other hand, if your company or organization plans to scale, is of medium or large size and is looking for a professional solution for desktop virtualization that can handle heavy workloads and drive outcomes, you might be better off looking into VDI technology.

Here are some questions to ask and debate with your IT team:

  • How many users will connect to your environment?
  • What applications will I run?
  • Do I need control and full visualization?
  • Are my security and compliance demands high?
  • Do I have the budget to invest in my digital transformation and modernization and want access to the latest technology?

Knowing the answers to these questions will help give you a clearer picture of which technology to use.

Bottom line: Using VDI or webtops in your organization

The differences between webtops and VDI are clear. VDI technology is evolving at a rapid pace and its uses are skyrocketing as the world embraces digital tools. On the other hand, webtops are a minimal, elegant solution that may well serve your needs.

In the end, it comes down to having the right tool to do the job. Identify your business goals and that will help you decide what tech you need.

If you’re implementing VDI in your organization, be sure to read our quick guide. And if you’re not sure who to partner with for the technology, review our guide to the best server virtualization software.

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