THE IMPACT OF CLOUD COMPUTING on the business world is indisputable. In recent years, organizations of every shape and size and across virtually every industry have revamped and rewired the way they operate, innovate, and work. So, when Microsoft announced Windows 365 in July 2021, many viewed the virtual PC streaming framework as the next phase in the evolution of computing and information technology. The service, which delivers a complete Windows experience through Azure Cloud, is designed to simplify IT management, cut costs, and improve numerous processes, including security.
The streaming PC concept is part of a larger trend toward desktop-as-a-service (DaaS) frameworks. According to Gartner, 72% of business leaders plan to expand their investments in the category, which is projected to grow by nearly 27% in 2022.
Windows 365 is particularly attractive to organizations with remote workforces, contingent workers, and independent contractors—not to mention channel pros. “For the channel, Windows 365 offers an expanded market opportunity,” says Stuart Downes, senior director and analyst in the digital workplace infrastructure and operations group at Gartner.
Nevertheless, streaming PCs aren’t for every organization or every situation. As a result, channel pros must recognize when and where the framework delivers value. “It’s possible for the channel to play an important role in guiding companies,” states Eric Linneman, director of cloud services at Buchanan Technologies, an MSP headquartered in Dallas.
Desktops Move into the Cloud
Delivering services and applications through the cloud isn’t a new concept for Microsoft, but Windows 365 ventures into new territory. Hosted on Azure Virtual Desktop (which remains available as a separate and more robust product), it introduces a streamlined and simplified way to tackle numerous tasks. For example, Microsoft 365 enables an organization to create an image—loaded with preconfigured settings—and push it out to users on different devices, including desktop PCs, laptops, tablets, and even smartphones.
“It means that you can literally purchase licenses and then use these virtual cloud PCs as needed,” Linneman says. “Windows 365 eliminates the need to buy and provision hardware and software for every device.” You can also enforce consistent settings—and even build in an RMM agent—and then limit or lock down all the systems if and when it’s necessary, he explains.
Adds Carl Mazzanti, co-founder and president of eMazzanti Technologies, an MSP in Hoboken, N.J., “There’s no shipping, no unwrapping, and no packaging. The problem of buying chips and processors goes away.”
This makes Windows 365 attractive for enterprise customers—particularly those that need to scale compute resources up and down rapidly, such as during Black Friday or Valentine’s Day. But it’s also valuable for SMBs such as law firms, real estate companies, and consultancies, as well as businesses that rely on virtual call centers or have a highly distributed workforce, Mazzanti says. “For companies that need a high level of control—and even different settings for different groups of employees or contractors—it’s ideal. People can bring their own device and be up and running immediately.”
In addition, it’s easy to plug in single signon and Microsoft’s identity management and governance environment through Azure landing zones, which allow users to combine applications, platforms, and other subscription services in a single virtual space. As a result, organizations can approach identity management, authentication, governance, and security controls in a highly modular, flexible, and scalable way. Windows 365 accommodates SAML 2.0 and FIDO2, which support passwordless IDs and more advanced forms of multifactor authentication (MFA). This, according to Sam Barhoumeh, founder and CEO of Ready Networks, an Evanston, Ill.-based cloud MSP, makes it much easier for users to build in a stack of applications without the need for multiple passwords and constant logons.
With this framework in place, an organization can establish conditional access and control login locations and hours. For example, if someone is attempting to access the network from an unauthorized region, Windows 365 can block them and generate an alert. Barhoumeh points out that it’s also possible to plug in security tools such as data loss prevention (DLP) to better protect endpoints and preconfiguration tools like Windows Autopilot to enable zero-touch deployments.
Gartner found that Windows 365 is most appealing to organizations that aren’t inclined or equipped to manage devices in conventional virtual environments, including tasks such as identities, security, updates, and patches. Downes says that the growing complexity of these frameworks can prove overwhelming for many organizations. In addition, he says, streaming desktops are attractive to those looking to establish more predictable and stable licensing and pricing. That’s possible because “Windows 365 uses an assigned license rather than consumption-based billing,” he points out.
Windows 365: The Basics
Addressing the challenges of today’s work requirements is at the center of Windows 365. Microsoft bills the platform as a “paradigm for hybrid work” with a sharp focus on remote connectivity and virtual collaboration. While the technology isn’t new—many of the same capabilities have been available through Azure—Windows 365 advances the cloud PC concept to plug-and-play. Administrators can set up systems quickly through Azure Virtual Desktop and users can immediately boot a device into Windows 10 or 11 using a web browser or a built-in remote desktop.
At that point, an individual can begin working in a highly flexible yet secure way. As he or she changes locations and devices during the day, say from a desktop PC at the office to a laptop at home, the computing space, apps, and data follow and remain in the same exact state—with the same controls and security in place. It’s even possible to access a workspace using a Mac or a Linux device.
Microsoft has introduced two basic versions of Windows 365: Enterprise and Business (for smaller companies). Both support numerous business apps and allow organizations to deliver a secure and personalized workspace anywhere. However, the Enterprise version expands scalability and management capabilities, and delivers more robust business continuity, security, and compliance features.
Organizations should weigh their options carefully before committing to the technology and a particular tier, Linneman says. Both the Business and Enterprise versions offer three configuration options (Basic, Standard, and Premium), based on RAM, storage, and other factors. These range from $28 per month per user to $162 per month per user.
Beyond price considerations, it’s important to match the performance level of a particular tier with the needs of users, Linneman says. Otherwise, teams may find that they don’t have the resources needed to perform their work or businesses could end up paying for features they don’t require. For example, a Basic version of Windows 365 Business supports a limited number of apps along with the desktop version of Microsoft Teams. However, the Standard version can accommodate Office apps, Outlook, and OneDrive; and the Premium version delivers support for additional tools and software, such as Microsoft Visual Studio, Power BI, and Dynamics 365.
Understanding Windows 365 Limitations
While Windows 365 is attractive to organizations looking to trim costs and improve IT management, security, and other critical areas, a cloud-centric approach isn’t for everyone or every situation.
For instance, Windows 365 is advantageous for businesses that require application hosting or rely on concurrent usage models, such as shift work, which forces users to share computers at different points in a workday. In these environments, a DaaS solution with a concurrent license model is more applicable, Downes explains. On the other hand, Windows 365 may not appeal to organizations that can power-off virtual desktops overnight to save costs, he notes.
Furthermore, Windows 365 typically doesn’t address specialty and edge cases, Mazzanti cautions. For example, high-performance users, including those who rely on high-end graphics and ultra-high-bandwidth video streaming, may find that they can’t use the platform because there’s no graphics card on these systems—everything is virtualized on the back end—so certain jobs and functions aren’t practical or are too expensive. “There are a limited number of options and configurations possible,” Linneman adds.
Basic business requirements can also enter the picture. For instance, organizations that rely on a wide variety of productivity apps or sometimes use their own custom apps may find that Windows 365 doesn’t support important systems. Still another potential problem is staff who travel but can’t get online in certain situations. “If you cannot get connected, you cannot work,” Linneman warns.
Mapping Out a Future
Sorting through various issues is critical as organizations look to map out a Windows 365 strategy. This includes how the framework impacts capital and operating expenses. “If somebody is going to use a laptop for multiple years, a cloud PC may not make sense from a financial standpoint,” Linneman points out. “In this case, you are paying for the license on an ongoing basis. On the other hand, with a PC, it’s a one-time purchase. So, it’s extremely important to look at usage patterns and workloads over the course of several years.”
Integrating Windows 365 into an existing environment is another consideration. As with any virtual desktop implementation, Downes says, there may be a need to examine network capacity or bandwidth as well as perform a detailed risk assessment to ensure that the perimeter incorporates appropriate protections, including identity controls and malware detection. In some cases, he adds, specialized software or specific configurations of Windows 365 may be required.
Downes suggests minimizing the initial number of virtual machines for newcomers to Windows 365, which can help control costs. “Some third-party tools, like Nerdio, allow optimization of Windows 365 licenses by ensuring that the number of expensive SKUs is never higher than the peak concurrency,” he explains. This makes it possible to automatically switch to the lowest cost version of Windows 365 VMs. In addition, built-in Windows 365 analytics can identify when a system can be downgraded—or needs to be upgraded. “This approach is permitted in Microsoft’s licensing, and it can help clients optimize their Windows 365 frameworks,” Downes notes.
In the end, Barhoumeh believes that Microsoft 365 and zero-touch deployment are game changers and represent a “massive opportunity for channel partners, along with companies that deploy it.”
Mazzanti agrees: “Microsoft 365 is a compelling solution that’s a good fit for many businesses. It delivers a more dynamic and flexible way to manage compute resources.”
Key Windows 365 Features at a Glance
HERE’S A LOOK at some of the key selling points for Windows 365:
Simplified IT management. It’s no longer necessary to send laptops and other equipment to employees, independent contractors, and contingent or temporary employees. Likewise, there’s no need to recover assets, deprovision access, and handle other tasks. Users simply bring their own PCs and tablets.
Easy configuration. Microsoft allows an administrator to create an image or multiple images of systems and push them out to users. In fact, zero-touch IT is possible with Windows Autopilot as an add-on. In addition, Windows 365 Enterprise customers can manage Cloud PCs using Microsoft Endpoint Configuration Manager. More complex configurations and customization are also possible through Azure Virtual Desktop.
Windows 365 boot. The instant-on feature streams authorized applications to devices via the cloud. Windows 365 will work on almost any physical device, including Macs and Linux systems. Users access resources through a browser or via a remote desktop client built into Windows 10 or 11. This level of flexibility means that users can work on any device at any time—and have complete access to all resources, including apps and files.
Licensing flexibility. Microsoft allows dynamic licensing changes in Windows 365 within the Business or Enterprise versions (though users can’t switch between versions). In fact, Microsoft and third-party vendors offer powerful tools that continually monitor usage patterns and optimize licensing by identifying when it’s advantageous to adjust configurations and associated resources upward and downward.
Strong built-in security. The platform supports single signon, passwordless options, MFA, and identity management plugins that help build a more secure computing framework. Windows 365 also supports robust DLP and other security technologies. Security updates and patches take place seamlessly and automatically across all systems on the network.
Opening image: Courtesy of Microsoft