Dump That Desktop: Is Desktop as a Service in Your Future?

By Drew Robb | Posted July 28, 2014

A series of converging trends could signal the end of endless desktop hassles for small businesses. Cloud computing, Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) and Software as a Service (SaaS) may make it possible for SMBs to dump their many desktops—simplifying their work lives and saving money in the process.

Think about the problems of managing your PCs for a moment. A business needs an IT person—either in-house or outsourced—to catch all the issues that inevitably arise. Otherwise, someone within the company gets distracted from his or her regular duties every time something goes wrong: the boss downloads a virus, the network stalls; the server runs out of storage capacity, all the Windows XP PCs have to be upgraded to Windows 8, and on and on. Keeping those PCs running is a never ending and thankless task.

The first attempt at desktop replacement involved virtualization technology, but many SMBs bogged down trying to implement a virtualization infrastructure. "Trying to deploy desktop virtualization yourself is a huge headache in terms of cost and infrastructure," said Laurie McCabe, a business analyst and co-founder of the SMB Group.

Desktop As A Service for Small Business

Enter Desktop as a Service (DaaS). It solves two economic problems introduced by virtualized desktops. First, a small business owner doesn't need to invest in IT infrastructure because a DaaS provider already has it set up using economies of scale that small businesses can never achieve, said Brian Duckering, senior director of product marketing at NComputing.

Second, he added, small business-IT needs are often unpredictable, especially in early or growth phases. Available by subscription, DaaS lets business owners buy only what they need, and they can add or remove hosted desktops as necessary on a monthly basis.

Jim Lippie, president of IndependenceIT, laid out the economics of hosted desktops. His company offers a per-person, per-month pricing model. For a fixed price, small business owners get the servers they need for their business, access to their data, access to their business applications, data backup (10 GB of data per person), and disaster recovery (DR). Partner companies delivering this service typically price deals to their small business customers for between $129 and $179 per person, per month (depending on the total number of users) with unlimited helpdesk support included. 

Some business owners will look at those rates and feel that is far too expensive. But others, perhaps those that are more dependent on technology, might think it cheap compared to hiring a couple of IT staff, buying hardware and supporting their own infrastructure.

Desktop as a Service is certainly not for everyone. Duckering commented that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Small businesses that are largely doing fine with their current IT setup, should obviously give DaaS a pass. Just be aware of the many hidden costs involved in maintaining desktops in-house.

Crunch the numbers to see how much you spend per year for new PCs, server upgrades, IT salaries and support costs. Even if you don’t have in-house IT personnel, someone in the company is usually the go-to guy; how many hours per week is that person distracted from his or her regular duties to handle the latest computer flap?

"Excessive cost of maintaining physical PCs is the most common thing you find in end-user computing, but sometimes operational costs may be hidden or unassociated with PC infrastructure," said Duckering. "IT administrators may not recognize that they have less and less time for strategic initiatives as they labor to keep PCs usable."

Laurie McCabe added that if you employ only two or three people, DaaS probably won’t make sense for your business. Once you get up to around 10 people and you have to change out all your Windows XP machines or have mounting security concerns, it might be the time to consider DaaS.

"It's not so much a specific number of people so much as the headaches you have," she said. "A small law firm with a lot of confidential information, for instance, can use DaaS to provide more secure remote connections to the corporate network."

But McCabe advised SMBs to carefully review the cost-benefit equation of DaaS, as well as how they can best meet their needs for privacy, security or solving other IT headaches. Another point when it might make sense to move to DaaS: when servers have reached their end of life and have to replace them.

"We're seeing a lot of end-user companies moving to the cloud workspace—regardless of their sophistication—when they need to refresh their servers," said Lippie. "Instead of buying new servers and paying $15,000 to $50,000 for the upgrade, they can opt for a pay-as-you-go DaaS approach."

BYOD: Yes or No?

Some small businesses struggle with the BYOD phenomena. Some employees (or perhaps even the boss) would rather perform their work tasks on a tablet, a laptop or a smart phone. They don’t want the company giving them one device and having a separate device at home that they like using. Particularly if they work on the road or at home, it’s impossible to stop them from using their own devices in the office. This can make it difficult to secure devices, networks and data or to provide business apps to employees.

"The BYOD phenomenon is becoming the norm in small business, and that means they'll have a harder time with security," said McCabe. "DaaS takes that burden off the plate, and you no longer care what device your employees use to access company files."

Lippie added that companies with mobile workers or remote offices—or companies that want to initiate a BYOD strategy—are good candidates for DaaS.  "Many small business clients have said that they have purchased their last on-premises server," he said.

Lippie suggested that SMBs pay attention to the age of their existing servers, desktops and laptops. If the equipment is three or more years old, it’s a good time to compare the cost of a refresh to the price tag of switching over to DaaS.  "Companies that leverage a hosted desktop can take advantage of tablets or low-cost laptops (like Chromebooks), which can save money," said Lippie.

Preparing to Move to DaaS

If you decide to make the move to DaaS, you should take certain key steps. Duckering recommended first considering the needs of your employees—how and where they work, what devices they use, and with what connectivity. Next, determine what assets, if any, must remain in-house—some regulated industries that place controls on certain data that may be incompatible with hosted services.

"Make sure you understand who will maintain the environments and the applications themselves," said Duckering. "Moving to a hosted IT environment does not outsource all of your responsibilities, so know which are still yours."

Additionally, some vendors offer migration tools to make the transition from their current on-premises infrastructure seamless.   

Plan for Enough Storage

Another important and frequently neglected step: planning for storage. DaaS often comes with some storage, but it might not be enough to support your business. You may have to use other services, like Box or OneDrive or Dropbox. Make sure that whatever storage you choose is easy to access, and integrate external storage solutions into the DaaS solution.

Momchil Michailov, CEO of Sanbolic, advised SMBs to consider using distributed storage as a bridge between an on-premises desktop environment and the cloud. This helps business migrate users from local desktops to those hosted by their provider more easily, while maintaining the flexibility to run desktops in either location. This also lets them provide disaster recovery for their desktops.

"Using this approach, desktops can still be managed in the cloud, reducing desktop management and maintenance while ensuring continuous desktop availability," said Michailov.

DaaS Resources

Moving forward, "desktop as a service is an option that more SMBs will explore." McCabe said. If you're ready to research DaaS options for your small business, you'll find a variety of providers. Here are several to start you off:

  • Cloud Workspace, IndependenceIT’s hosted desktop environment
  • OneSpace from NComputing supports up to 100 users on one operating system
  • Network Alliance, a hosted desktop service for SMBs, is particularly popular among CPAs

Drew Robb is a Los Angeles-based freelancer specializing in technology and engineering. Originally from Scotland, he graduated with a degree in geology from Glasgow's Strathclyde University. In recent years he has authored hundreds of articles as well as the book, Server Disk Management by CRC Press.

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