Cloud PCs from Windows 365

How do you provide someone a secure well managed Desktop PC and apps without having to provide an expensive laptop or desktop tower that has a limited lifespan? Virtual Desktops are a common solution to this conundrum. A Virtual Desktop allows a person to use whatever device they want (like a home PC, smartphone, iPad etc) to access a remote desktop server running on centralised hardware in an organisation’s server room or datacentre. That is what is meant by a Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) solution. Although these solutions have been around for decades from companies like Citrix, Microsoft and VMware, they have required a lot of high-end hardware and specialist expertise to make them work well. Due to that requirement, they often have not been able to meet the promise of being a more cost-effective solution than just giving everyone a laptop.

With the COVID-19 pandemic we have seen an acceleration of the shift to remote and hybrid working that was already well on its way beforehand. Other scenarios like organisations expanding through mergers, or starting partnerships with other companies, or having temporary/seasonal staff, can add further challenges to onboarding and provisioning IT services, business continuity, and security and compliance.

VDI is a great solution to those challenges but many organisations don’t have the capacity to deal with that demand. Cloud service providers like Microsoft and Amazon have helped to address that issue with Amazon Workspaces and Azure Virtual Desktop (previously known as Windows Virtual Desktop). By using these Cloud options you no longer have to worry about pre-purchasing a large amount of hardware and calculating complex capacity requirements – you can set up the networking, Virtual Desktops, applications etc all in the Cloud and scale it up and down as demand changes. However, you still need that specialist expertise to get it right in the first place.

Microsoft wanted to make providing Virtual Desktops just as easy as providing someone an email mailbox. Microsoft 365 makes it super simple to configure email services through Exchange Online, meaning organisations no longer need a team of Exchange Server administrators to run its own unique instance, could the same be done for VDI?

Enter Windows 365

Windows 365 is a new service that delivers Cloud PCs to end users. Think of it as Windows 365 being the platform that Cloud PCs sit on top of – just like how Microsoft 365 is the platform that mailboxes sit on top of. A Cloud PC is exactly the same thing as a Virtual Desktop, the name was just picked to be less techie/more user-friendly.

If you’re like me, the announcement of Windows 365 sparks a number of questions:

  • When is it available?
  • What does it mean for the future of Azure Virtual Desktop? Is it even different? How do I choose?
  • What do you get with Windows 365?
  • What does it look like?
  • How much will it cost?

The first question is easy – Windows 365 went GA (generally available) on 2nd August 2021. I’ll use the rest of this article to try and clear up the rest!

AVD vs W365

First of all, Windows 365 (W365) is not a replacement for Azure Virtual Desktop (AVD), both will continue to be available. The end-user experience of these services is not different, the difference is more a case of how an organisation wants to manage a VDI solution. For example, if the organisation has a huge VDI footprint with a team of staff with specialist expertise, then AVD may be a better fit. Windows 365 is a better choice for customers who don’t have that in-depth VDI experience but still need to respond to some of the challenges described earlier. A lot of small business don’t even have IT teams so having an additional VDI team is never going to be justifiable. By using W365, a business only needs to make a few simple choices and they can start delivering Windows desktops from the Cloud to wherever their users are.

As you might expect there are a few differences between the two that are important to help decide which way to go. Remember, ultimately they are doing the same thing of giving a user a virtual desktop, it’s the features, pricing and management that differs:

Windows 365 Cloud PCAzure Virtual Desktop
Operating systemWindows 10 or 11Windows 7, 10 or 11 & Windows Server
Personal or multi-session desktopsOnly personal desktopsBoth personal & multi-session
Remote App streamingNo, full desktop onlyYes, stream a full desktop or individual apps
ManagementBasic administration through Microsoft Endpoint ManagerFull control of how you configure and manage
Integrations to other VDINoneSupport for Citrix, VMware and Microsoft Remote Desktop Services (RDS)
PricingPer-user subscriptionPer-user or per-app subscription with Azure consumption charges
WorkloadsFixed options, up to 8vCPU/32GB RAMUnlimited, including specialised GPU & HPC
W365 and AVD comparison

My main takeaway from the comparison above is that W365 is all about simplicity, whereas AVD is more about flexibility. A Cloud PC is just like giving someone a physical device – it’s a 1:1 ratio, whereas AVD allows 1:1 but also 1:Many through it’s multi-session capability.

What you get with Windows 365

Now we understand the difference, lets dig a bit deeper into what comes with W365. The first point to understand is that W365 comes in two editions – Business or Enterprise. As you might expect, the Enterprise edition offers a few more features and scales higher than the business edition:

W365 BusinessW365 Enterprise
Domain JoinOnly Azure ADAzure AD or Hybrid Domain-joined
Azure subscription requiredNoYes
Licence pre-reqsNoneMicrosoft 365 E3 (Windows Enterprise, MEM and Azure AD P1)
Purchase and ManageVia Windows 365 portalVia Microsoft Endpoint Manager portal
Number of users300 maxUnlimited
Cloud PC sizes1 vCPU/2GB RAM/64GB Storage to 8vCPU/32GB RAM/512GB StorageSame as Business edition
Windows Hybrid Benefit discountOptionalBuilt-in
Windows 365 Editions

As you can see in the table above, both editions support the same sizes of Cloud PCs. The Microsoft website has a good overview of what you can run across the different sizes, for example, the “Basic” sizes may be more suitable for Office apps and web apps, whereas the more “Premium” sizes allow for heavy-use software like Visual Studio and Power BI Desktop. The Enterprise edition also adds the following features:

  • Connection to corporate (“on-prem”) networks, apps and resources
  • Self-service size upgrades
  • Custom images
  • Universal Print integration
  • MEM policy driven provisioning
  • Advanced MEM Troubleshooting and device management
  • Automation and reporting capabilities (Graph APIs)
  • Enterprise Agreement cost reporting/invoicing

Don’t forget, because Windows 365 is Software as a Service, the offering will change regularly, with new features or additional sizes being offered over time.

What Windows 365 looks like

Windows 365 has a similar look and feel to Microsoft 365. Admins make use of the Microsoft 365 Admin Center, Windows 365 portal and, if using the Enterprise edition, use Microsoft Endpoint Manager. End-users just use the Windows 365 portal or the Remote Desktop app to launch their Cloud PCs. To get a better look, Microsoft have an interactive walkthrough site at aka.ms/w365Demo. The screenshots below come from that walkthrough:

The cost of Windows 365

Microsoft are trying to make it as easy as possible to provide people with Cloud PCs. By charging a set amount per-user rather than per consumption (like with AVD), pricing is much more predictable. The screenshot below is from Microsoft’s Windows 365 comparison page but they also have another page with the full pricing for each of the 12 Cloud PC sizes currently available. It uses the familiar pay-as-you-go model of Microsoft 365 with no upfront cost or long-term contract.

Prices options for Cloud PCs (either Edition)

Is it really that simple though? For the Basic edition, the only other thing that can add to the cost is outbound Internet traffic – like uploading a video file to YouTube. A certain amount is included with the Cloud PC plan (from 12GB on the 1vCPU size, up to 70GB for the 8vCPU sizes) but if you exceed that amount then you’ll get charged standard Azure bandwidth pricing. Apart from bandwidth, the only extra consideration is if you are already using a licenced copy of Windows 10/11 Pro on a device then you can take advantage of the Windows Hybrid Benefit of up to 16% off the monthly cost.

If you take the £26.40/month option then that works out at around £950 for 3 years. You could get quite a decent laptop for that price for a full time user so it may not seem that attractive, but what about if you only need to provide a user with access for 3 months? In that case a Cloud PC would make a lot more sense.

With the Enterprise edition it is slightly more complex. To use Windows 365 Enterprise, each user must have a Windows 365 plan (at the same price as the Basic edition with the Hybrid Use discount) plus be licensed for Windows 10/11 Enterprise, Microsoft Endpoint Manager, and Azure Active Directory P1. These can be purchased separately or in many of the Microsoft 365 bundles (e.g. E3/A5/Business Premium etc.)

Remember, the Windows 365 Business and Enterprise plans don’t include any software licences. Meaning, if you want to use the Office apps like Microsoft Teams Word, Excel etc. then you need to also have the correct Microsoft 365 subscription, just as you would for any other software running on a desktop PC. Also, a single W365 subscription is only for a single Cloud PC, so if a user needed access to 3 different Cloud PCs then they need 3 W365 subscriptions. Finally, unless you have a Bring Your Own Device approach, you will need to provide your users with something to access a Cloud PC from, whether that’s an Android smartphone, iPad, Windows PC, or a thin client device like Wyse or Igel.

That’s still a lot more simple than Azure Virtual Desktop, where you have the licence requirements but also the Virtual Machine compute and storage costs, which can vary dramatically depending on demand and usage.

For more details on the Windows 365 costs you can look at Microsoft’s Windows 365 FAQ page.

Summary

Hopefully this article has helped you to understand where a Windows 365 Cloud PC fits within your organisation. As mentioned at the start, Virtual Desktops are having a bit of a resurgence lately thanks to organisations needing a secure location to access corporate apps and data, without needing to worry about the end-user’s physical device. I think Windows 365 really simplifies the approach to VDI when compared to old-school Citrix and RDS deployments, and even modern Azure Virtual Desktops. However, although it is a good offering compared to the other VDI options, the line between handing out physical devices versus a Cloud PC is still blurred. As always, I’d recommend starting out with the requirements of your organisation and then picking the best solution from there. It’s likely that there will be strong use-cases for both and the ultimate solution will be a mix of both physical and Cloud PCs.

If you have any questions or want to explore the options with us, then please get in touch at . Otherwise, if you want more info then the official Windows 365 Docs page is a good place to start.

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