VDI vs RDS — Which is Better for You?

Wherever you are on your end user computing journey, the VDI vs RDS question is bound to come up. Hands down, RDS is the more cost-effective approach.


Wherever you are on your end user computing journey, the VDI vs RDS question is bound to come up—and for good reason. The two approaches have many differences. Further, there are legitimate concerns about the cost and complexity of virtual desktop infrastructure environments – not to mention the actual performance over the network. After all, if users can’t access their virtual desktops quickly, it doesn’t matter how much less it costs to implement and manage.

Basic overview – VDI vs RDS

At a very high level, with VDI, users access a complete desktop operating system from a dedicated VM hosted on a physical server. VDI VMs can be persistent or non-persistent.  Persistent desktops can be personalized for individual users with specific apps and user profile data, and if given administrative rights, users can download their own applications. With non-persistent desktops, users are randomly assigned a VM from an existing pool. VDI has been around for over two decades, and legacy offerings include Citrix XenDesktop and VMware Horizon View.

With Microsoft Remote Desktop Services (RDS), multiple users are hosted on a single virtual machine, and share the same Windows Server OS and applications. All processing takes place on the server, not the user device. IT administrators create a desktop image on the server, which is then cloned and presented to the user with all the applications and data that are associated with their user credentials. Users can connect remotely from any device through a local RDS client and Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP).

Which is better – VDI vs RDS?

The best approach depends on what your users actually need from their desktops. That said, most IT pros agree that RDS-based deployments work extremely well for a large majority of enterprise use cases. RDS-based access also has the important benefit of being significantly more cost effective and easier to manage. Let’s break it down into three categories: cost, management and performance.

  • Cost – VDI requires a Windows Client operating system license, and Windows 10 only supports one user per OS license. That means you need to purchase a desktop license for every user you need to support.  RDS, on the other hand, requires only a Windows Server license, and one instance of Windows 2016 can support many users simultaneously. For instance, you can consolidate up to 25 or more VMs on a single server with itopia Cloud Automation Stack (CAS). This one-to-many ration can save you up to 50 percent in licensing costs alone!
  • Management – Because each VM is dedicated to a single user in VDI environments, managing those can become a huge challenge, especially in larger enterprise deployments. In contrast, because users share the same virtual machine and OS, it takes much less time and effort to manage large RDS-based deployments. Sure, both approaches offer centralized management capabilities, but there are a lot less moving parts in an RDS environment, period.
  • Performance – VDI is notoriously I/O-intensive and in large deployments, performance often takes a serious hit. Companies often address this problem by simply buying more hardware to handle the load. Early VDI burn victims are well aware of the performance degradation of a “VDI boot storm”, which is when users all try to log into their machines at the beginning of the day. On the other hand, because users are sharing a single system (CPU, RAM), RDS deployments are less resource-hungry so companies aren’t required to invest in additional hardware resources. Further, the enhancements Microsoft made to RDP with its RDS 2012 R2 release significantly improved the user experience to be on par with Citrix and VMware.

Where the cloud fits in

The obvious commonality between VDI and RDS  is the need for infrastructure resources. Before hyperscale clouds came onto the end user computing scene, companies procured and operated infrastructure on-premises. It should be already apparent that more resources are needed for VDI which makes RDS the more cost-effective option on-premises, but it’s now time to consider the economies of scale and the elimination of CapEx the cloud offers. Add to that an IT infrastructure management solution like itopia Cloud Automation Stack (CAS) – purpose-built for Google Cloud – and you can cut costs even more.

Finally, let’s get back to the VDI vs. RDS conundrum. Chances are you are under significant pressure to decrease IT costs. While there are some instances where VDI may be the better approach, the technology is overkill for most use cases. Simply put, there are better performing—and less expensive—alternatives available. That’s why we built an IT infrastructure management solution that utilizes RDS and RDP on Google Cloud Platform. We’ve only scratched the surface here, but hopefully this helps clear up some initial confusion!

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