Desktop as a service: Yesterday, today, and tomorrow

We started with green text on black terminals, and before we're done, we'll return to the 21st-century version of it with our "desktops" running on the cloud.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

When I started using computers, my computer was an IBM 360 mainframe, and I worked with it using a 3270 terminal. I was very lucky. My alternative was to do all my work with 80-column IBM Hollerith-style punch cards. Then, CP/ M, Apple, and IBM PCs starting in the late 70s and early 80s, changed everything. Computing power moved from distant DEC PDP-11 and VAX mini-computers IBM Big Iron to your desktop.  Forty years later, your IT work is moving more. This time, it's moving from your PC to cloud-based Desktop-as-a-Service (DaaS) offerings such as Windows 365 and Chrome OS.

I know some of you hate this idea. Too bad. With Microsoft and Google both backing their own distinct takes on DaaS, tomorrow's desktop will be living mostly on the cloud and not on top of your desk. 

That said, the idea never really went away. After company, such as Sun and Oracle with the Sun Ray, company after company tried to keep remote desktops alive while  Lantronix, Aten, and Raritan are all still producing keyboard, video, and mouse (KVM) over IP that enables you to run multiple remote machines from your desktop. Other approaches, such as thin-client computing, which runs off a central server's resources, still live on. For example, Dell will still happily sell you Wyse Thin Client hardware. Heck, you can still even buy dumb terminals, such as the ADM-3A, Televideo 922, and my beloved DEC VT-102, if you look for one hard enough. 

Why? Because much as you may love your PC, many managers still love the idea of central control. Rather than trust you with a $1000 PC on your desk, which at any moment you may infect with malware or waste your day on playing Fortnite, they'd rather you spent your time securely working on your spreadsheet. You know, if we're honest, they have a point. 

And so it is that from terminals to Windows 365, the DaaS lives on. Now, let's take a closer look at how this has, is now, and will play on in the future.


Back when I sunk my teeth into computing, dumb terminals were all we had. And, compared to flipping switches and feeding cards into an IBM 1442 card reader and hole punch, they were much better. Even my TI-Silent 700, a dumb terminal that used a built-in dot matrix printer and heat-sensitive paper for its "interface", was an improvement over cards. 

Today dumb terminals live in businesses and agencies that will never, ever pay their technical debt. The IRS, for example, still uses, when I last checked, some dumb terminals for its antique COBOL programs running on equally old IBM mainframes. 

Good news, though! The IRS hopes to have modernized its systems by 2026. And, you wonder why your tax refunds are late! 

But, except for dinosaurs like the IRS, we're never going back to dumb terminals.

With the rise of fat graphical desktop operating systems such as Windows and OS/2, you might have thought that remote computing would have shrunk to almost nothing. You'd be wrong.

As early as 1989, former IBM operating system guru Ed Iacobucci decided it would be possible even with networks limited to 10Mbps to run Windows remotely. So he founded Citrix to see if he could make this idea pay. He did.

Rather than fight with Microsoft, Iacobucci partnered with the guys from Redmond to make sure its remote desktop take on MS-DOS and Windows would work. And, he also wanted to make sure he wouldn't be overwhelmed by Microsoft in a legal battle. 

It worked. In 1992, Iacobucci persuaded Microsoft to license Citrix technology for Windows NT Server 4.0. This led to Microsoft's first remote desktop product: Windows Terminal Server Edition.

Unlike many companies, which tried to partner with Microsoft, Citrix was and still is successful. Today, with products such as Citrix Virtual Apps and Desktops and Citrix Managed Desktops, Citrix is still profiting from its approach to remote Windows desktops to the tune of several billion dollars a year.

While Citrix was winning by partnering with Microsoft, Oracle took a very different approach, thin-client computing. This would fail for Oracle, but the concept of thin-client computing lives on. 

In 1993, Tim Negris, then Oracle's VP of Server Marketing, and Larry Ellison, Oracle's God-King CEO, came up with the term "thin client" to described dedicated terminals with more local smarts than a dumb terminal, but which still relied on a server for their real computing power. Such systems, which were also called network computers. 

Thin clients still live on in call centers, single-task worker offices, and highly security-conscious businesses. Companies including IGEL, ClearCube, and Teradici still offer thin-client systems to niche and vertical businesses. Oracle finally gave up on thin-client hardware. They found there simply wasn't a big enough market for terminals, which did nothing but talk to Oracle DBMSs. Traces of this Oracle initiative lives on in Oracle's Instant Client software line.  


As first local area networks and then Internet speeds grew faster, interest developed in a variety of other remote desktop approaches. Instead of running programs on a server, these offered a hybrid approach of server and client-based computing resources. 

These remote desktop programs enable you to see and control a network-connected PC as if you were sitting in front of it. While remote desktop software has specialized uses, such as real-time collaborative work, technical support, and demonstrations, you can also use them to use remote software on your local PC. 

Remote desktops are both specialized programs for running desktops remotely and protocols and built-in operating system functionality for the same purpose. For the former, there are such programs as TeamViewer, Splashtop, and VNC Connect. There are also specialized remote desktop programs. These include GoToAssist, LogMeIn Rescue, and FixMe.IT. As their names suggest, they're all about technical support. 

Then, there are the operating systems, such as Windows with the often renamed  Microsoft's Remote Desktop Connection and Linux with a variety of programs. The Linux remote desktop programs include Remmina, TigerVNC, and Vinagre

Windows uses its proprietary Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) to run virtual Windows sessions. While RDP-based programs only work on Windows, RDP clients enable you to run remote Windows sessions from almost any operating system. 

RDP is the descendent of Citrix and Microsoft's Terminal Server. Today, Citrix supports both RDP and its own more network-efficient protocol, HDX. Citrix's current family of applications, Citrix Virtual Apps and Desktops, all use HDX. 

As for Linux, Unix, and macOS remote desktops, they almost all use the open-source Virtual Network Computing (VNC) protocol and its related programs. This is a graphical desktop sharing system. It uses the Remote Frame Buffer (RFB) protocol to transfer the desktop from a server to a PC or thin-client computer. 

So, what's the difference between these two main approaches? Well, let's start with what they have in common:

  • Both enable you to access computers remotely.   

  • Both require client-side and server-side software to work. And with both, the server must be configured to facilitate access and to deal with credentials. 

  • Both rely on peer-to-peer communication. 

  • Both support security protocols and provide user administration tools.

But then they separate their courses.  Besides the obvious, RDP is proprietary, and VNC is open-source; their differences include:

  • You and other users are logged into the server with RDP, whether it's a Windows 10 PC, Windows Server 2019 server, or an Azure operating system instance. VNC, on the other hand, captures the desktop rendered on a remote desktop. The VNC client, or viewer, allows you to share the VNC server's virtual desktop screen, mouse, and keyboard. In short,  VNC is a screen-sharing tool.

  • RDP typically is faster, while VNC is more secure. Since both performance and security vary depending on your configuration, this is only a rough rule of thumb. 


All the approaches above have several core problems. The first is they're all bandwidth hungry. Users eternally complain about how much slower their remote desktops are than their local PCs. 

The second is that while the client-side can get so thin that there's such a thing as zero-client desktops where there's no local storage at all, it still requires specialized software or firmware to make it work. It may look like when, for example, you use Windows 10 Remote Desktop Connection to help a buddy fix his Windows 10 PC that there's nothing to it; there's actually a lot going on under the hood to make this work. 

Finally, remote desktops don't tend to scale well. For example, when you use an RDP or VNC approach, you often run a virtual machine (VM) for every remote desktop instance. These eat up server resources, whether your servers are physical or cloud-based like an elephant does peanuts.

The keyword here is "cloud." Clouds are all about automating, adding and removing compute, storage, and network services to meet your workload demands. So, just over a decade ago, Google reasoned that since it already had multiple popular regular business Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) offerings such as Google Docs and Gmail, why not create a Linux-based thin operating system, Chrome OS, to access them? So, it was that Chromebooks were born.

But, there was another aspect to the birth of Chromebooks. Google also worked out that the web browser itself was enough of an interface that there was no need for a specialized remote desktop client. The browser itself, Chrome, was more than enough. 

Thus, Chromebooks have been slowly but at an ever-increasing pace, becoming a major "desktop" player. Sure, traditional Windows continues to rule the desktop, but have you looked at its numbers lately? In 2021's first quarter, Windows dropped to 75% of the global PC market from more than 80% in 2020, by IDC's count. Windows hasn't had such a small share of the desktop market since the 1990s. 

On the other hand, Chromebook shipments soared by 276% year-over-year from 2020 to 2021. True, its 1st quarter 2021's 12 million unit sales are still way behind Windows laptop and PC sales of 84 million units for the same quarter; it's not insignificant either.

True, the COVID-19 pandemic which forced schools to use Chromebooks relying on Chromebooks, had a major effect in making Chromebooks popular. But, while the Coronavirus may finally fade into the background, the change to a work-from-home and hybrid work business world isn't going to go away. 

Chromebooks, which tend to be cheaper than their Windows counterparts, are proving very attractive to business users. They also have the advantage that if your Chromebook gets run over by a truck, you only need to buy a new one, and you're back in business again without a word of lost work. 

Finally, since they're built for security thanks to their built-in sandboxing, Chromebooks are also attractive to CISOs. They're also easy to manage remotely. 

In short, Chromebooks continue to grow in both the education and business world. Will they challenge Windows 10 and 11? Not anytime soon, but like Macs, they'll grow into a substantial share of the overall "desktop" market.


I have seen the future of the desktop, and its name is Windows 365. With apologies to Jon Landau and Bruce Springsteen.  This Microsoft DaaS move has been coming for years. Yes, Windows has had remote and virtual desktops for even longer, but this is different. 

With Windows 365, you'll be able to stream all your personalized applications, tools, data, and settings from the cloud across any device. And it means any, including Chromebooks, Macs, Linux PCs, Android devices, and even iPads.  No matter what you're running, you'll get the same Windows experience. 

Well. Maybe. Microsoft also says Windows 365 will run better when hosted on a Windows system. What exactly will that mean? Stay tuned, and we'll find out. 

It also means, said Wangui McKelvey, Microsoft 365's General Manager, "You can pick up right where you left off because the state of your Cloud PC remains the same, even when you switch devices."

Microsoft claims, of course, that this last feature is brand new. It's not. You've been able to do that with Chrome OS since day one. But, it's a major shift for Windows. 

It also shows that Microsoft is taking the threat of Chrome OS seriously and that the people from Redmond also believe that the future belongs to hybrid work. This is a killer feature when your staffers may be working from their kid's Chromebook over the weekend, their Mac when they're at the office on Monday through Wednesday, and their corporate Windows laptop when they're on the road for a business trip.

What's different about Windows 365 from what has gone before is that it vastly simplifies the virtualisation process while it's built on Azure Virtual Desktop. It will handle all the setup details for you. In other words, it's going to act more like how you expect a cloud service to act. You ask for more resources or set it up, so more resources are made available automatically,  without worrying about the details.

For instance, thanks to a Twitter screenshot, we know that a small business with up to 300 users can pay $31 per user per month for a 2vCPU, 4GB of RAM, and 128GB of storage Windows 365 instance. This SKU also comes with Office apps, Outlook and OneDrive; Microsoft Teams; Visual Studio, Power BI, and Dynamics 365. 

The administrators can also scale the processing power as needed. Say it turns out that the programmer using Visual Studio needs more vCPUs; you can easily give them those extra CPU horses.  It also has tools to monitor the overall performance to make sure your users are getting the best experience.  As Microsoft puts it, "you can also upgrade them at the touch of a button, which is immediately applied without missing a beat. Our new Watchdog Service also continually runs diagnostics to help to keep connections up and running at all times. If a diagnostic check fails, we'll alert you and even give suggestions for how to correct the issue."

All of this is much easier than the old-school ways of setting up virtual desktops and servers, with, of course, the exception of Chrome OS. 

Will this next generation of remote desktops put an end to PCs? No, there will be niches, such as gaming, video editing, and programming, where you'll need all the power you can get on a local PC. 

But, just as many users have abandoned home PCs for their smartphones, many businesses will leave traditional PCs behind for their office workers. And, so we will have come full circle. We started with mainframes, and dumb terminals, then moved to PCs, and now, thanks to the combination of the cloud and the web, we're heading back to a centralized managed computing paradigm. 

I, for one, am going to be very interested in seeing how this all works out. Brace yourselves people, I may still not have a clear idea how this will all work out, but I know for certain that major change is coming to the office desktop. 

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