What is a Virtual Desktop, & How Do They Work?

What is a Virtual Desktop

A virtual desktop is a software-based environment accessed via a remote connection rather than a physical endpoint. Virtual desktops offer an isolated desktop experience separate from the underlying operating system and hardware. They provide organizations and individuals with increased flexibility, mobility, and security.

Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) allows users to access personal desktop environments on any compatible device through a centralized server.

Definition of a Virtual Desktop

A virtual desktop is a digital emulation of a traditional desktop environment. It is hosted on a remote server and accessed over a network using a separate device. Virtual desktops provide an isolated desktop experience that does not depend on the operating system or hardware of the access device. From a user’s perspective, a virtual desktop functions similarly to a physical desktop. However, the desktop environment is executed within a virtual machine on a server instead of locally on their device. Virtual desktops differ from traditional desktops in that the desktop image, settings, files, and applications are stored centrally in the data center rather than in local storage. Users can access their unique desktop environment from any location on multiple device types. Virtual desktops also provide increased security since no data is stored locally. Devices essentially act as dumb terminals to access desktop environments that reside in the data center.

Benefits of Virtual Desktops

Virtual desktops offer significant advantages over traditional physical desktops. They provide increased flexibility as users can access their desktops anywhere on any compatible connected device. Virtual desktops also enable improved mobility for users who need to be unbound from a single workstation. From an administrative perspective, virtual desktops provide benefits such as centralized management, increased security, and simplified provisioning. Desktop environments are administered from the server side without touching each physical endpoint. Software deployments, patches, and configuration changes must only be made once to the master desktop image. Virtual desktops also offer potential cost savings on hardware, software licensing, and energy usage. Less powerful endpoint devices can be used since desktop processing occurs on the server side. IT departments can also reuse existing server infrastructure to implement a VDI solution.

Virtualization Technology

Virtualization refers to the abstraction of computer resources from the underlying hardware to present a logical view. Virtual desktops utilize virtualization technology to deliver desktop environments separately from the operating systems and hardware that execute them. A hypervisor, a virtual machine monitor, allows multiple operating systems to share a single hardware host. Hypervisors manage virtual machines that contain the CPU, memory, storage, and network resources to host desktop environments. Each virtual desktop runs within an isolated virtual machine, or VM.

Components of a Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI)

The key components of a VDI include:

  • Hypervisors and Virtual Machines: Hypervisors create and manage virtual machines on servers that host desktop environments.
  • Connection Brokers: Connection brokers authenticate users and connect them with available virtual desktop resources based on allocation policies. They also handle the initial desktop environment login and subsequent reconnections to existing sessions.
  • Desktop Images: Master desktop images contain the Windows operating system, applications, customizations, and user profiles to deploy to virtual desktop instances. Images can be persistent or non-persistent.
  • Servers: Powerful servers provide the processing, memory, and storage resources to execute multiple virtual desktops simultaneously.
  • Storage: Fast storage, like solid-state drives, is necessary for hosting master images, user data, and desktop read/write operations.
  • Networking: A high-bandwidth, low-latency network is essential for delivering graphics-intensive virtual desktop environments to end users. Infrastructure must be optimized for performance, reliability, and efficiency.

Virtual Desktop Delivery Methods

There are several methods for delivering virtual desktop environments to users. Persistent desktops maintain user-installed applications and settings between sessions. Non-persistent desktops reset to the original master image with each login, discarding any changes. Multiple users share pooled desktops and reset them after each session. Dedicated desktops are allocated to a single user each. Full desktop delivery provides access to a complete desktop environment. RemoteApp delivery provides access to individual applications that are streamed remotely. Virtual desktops are hosted on servers in the data center or locally on endpoint devices. Server-hosted is most common for increased flexibility and security.

User Experience and Performance

For widespread adoption, virtual desktops must provide a seamless user experience. With virtual desktops, the network becomes the conduit transporting the user experience. Sufficient bandwidth and low latency are required to accommodate multiple users simultaneously. More powerful servers, faster storage, and additional memory will be needed to support many virtual desktop instances. Balancing server and storage density is important for optimal performance. 

Graphics processing unit or GPU virtualization allows a GPU virtual desktop to utilize dedicated GPUs on servers to enhance visual and graphics display. That is important for high-definition and 3D applications. Multiple virtual desktops can use NVIDIA GPUs and software like Virtual GPU Manager to take advantage of advanced GPU features for an improved user experience. Robust broker, monitoring, and management software helps identify performance bottlenecks and properly allocate resources to desktop environments for the best possible experience.


Virtual desktop adoption has steadily increased in recent years as technology and connectivity have improved the user experience. With rapid advancements in software-defined infrastructure, virtual desktops will soon be the norm!