Microsoft Mohoro: Want to run your desktop from the cloud?

It appears as if Microsoft will be making the Windows "desktop" available via its Azure cloud software. Would you "buy" a cloud-based desktop?
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

When I think "desktop", I think, well, desktop: My operating system, desktop interface, and applications all resident on the PC or laptop in front of me. Now, Microsoft, which has been having trouble lately getting anyone to use their new desktop, Windows 8, wants you to move to a cloud-based Windows desktop: Mohoro. Would you? Should you?

Ready to use the Windows desktop from the cloud? Microsoft hopes so.
Image: Microsoft

What Microsoft appears to be doing isn't just letting you run Windows applications remotely, ala Office 365, but enabling you to run a full Windows desktop from a Microsoft Azure cloud. The technology to deliver "Windows desktop as a service" is really quite old, and many companies have been using variations of it since the late '90s.

Citrix first created a remote Windows desktop in 1995 under the name WinFrame. Two years later, Microsoft cross-licensed the code, and together they produced the Windows NT 4.0 variant, Windows Terminal Server Edition. Today, the descendant of that product, Windows Server 2012 Remote Desktop Services (RDS), lives on and is used by many enterprises to deliver Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) Windows desktops over their local area networks.

In a new role, Microsoft is also now using RDS to deliver the traditional Windows desktop and applications to devices, such as Surface RT, that can't support them natively. Indeed, VDI session-based desktops are the only way to get anything like the full Windows experience on most tablets and smartphones.

Historically, the problem has been that there's not enough internet bandwidth to widely support a fat-client desktop.

Microsoft is far from the only company following this path. For example, Red Hat uses the Simple Protocol for Independent Computing Environments (SPICE) to deliver Linux VDI.

What is new here is that Microsoft appears to want to finally deliver VDI over the cloud. While technically possible, in the past, Microsoft explicitly refused to let users run remote Windows desktops under Azure or enable third parties, such as OnLive, to deliver Windows 7 desktops from a cloud. It appears that they will allow you to "rent" remote Windows desktops from their own managed Azure cloud in the near future.

The real question is: "Will you want to?" Cloud-based desktops — such as Google's Chrome OS with its associated Chromebooks and Linux-based Peppermint OS — are taking off. In addition, every desktop operating system worth its salt now comes with integrated cloud services such as SkyDrive for Windows 8, Ubuntu One for Ubuntu, iCloud with Mac OS X, and so on.

The major difference between all of these other offerings and Mohoro is that these are either true thin-client operating systems — Chrome OS is little more than just enough Linux to support the Chrome Web browser — or are really just fat-client operating systems that incorporate cloud services. Why are they this way?

It's not that the cloud can't support full-powered desktops. They've been able to do that since you were first able to run a server off a cloud. Historically, the problem has been that there's not enough internet bandwidth to widely support a fat-client desktop. What works fine in a gigabit Ethernet-equipped office may not work at all on an internet where the average US broadband speed is 6.7Mbps.

Last, but not least, even if you have the necessary internet bandwidth, do you really want to put all of your desktop — lock, stock, and menu — on Microsoft's cloud? You can start thinking about renting your desktop now, because by year's end, your company will need to start considering it.

Me? I like thin-client Chromebooks, but even if I were a Windows fan, I'm not sure I'd be ready to use a fat-client, cloud-based rental desktop operating system. How about you?

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