This blog offers Cloudflare’s perspective on how remote browser isolation can help organizations offload internal web application use cases currently secured by virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI). VDI has historically been useful to secure remote work, particularly when users relied on desktop applications. However, as web-based apps have become more popular than desktop apps, the drawbacks of VDI – high costs, unresponsive user experience, and complexity – have become harder to ignore. In response, we offer practical recommendations and a phased approach to transition away from VDI, so that organizations can lower cost and unlock productivity by improving employee experiences and simplifying administrative overhead.
Modern Virtual Desktop usage
Background on Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI)
Virtual Desktop Infrastructure describes running desktop environments on virtual computers hosted in a data center. When users access resources within VDI, video streams from those virtual desktops are delivered securely to endpoint devices over a network. Today, VDI is predominantly hosted on-premise in data centers and either managed directly by organizations themselves or by third-party Desktop-as-a-Service (DaaS) providers. In spite of web application usage growing in favor of desktop applications, DaaS is growing, with Gartner® recently projecting DaaS spending to double by 2024.
Both flavors of VDI promise benefits to support remote work. For security, VDI offers a way to centralize configuration for many dispersed users and to keep sensitive data far away from devices. Business executives are often attracted to VDI because of potential cost savings over purchasing and distributing devices to every user. The theory is that when processing is shifted to centralized servers, IT teams can save money shipping out fewer managed laptops and instead support bring-your-own-device (BYOD). When hardware is needed, they can purchase less expensive devices and even extend the lifespan of older devices.
Challenges with VDI
The reality of VDI is often quite different. In particular, it ends up being much more costly than organizations anticipate for both capital and operational expenditures. Gartner® projects that “by 2024, more than 90% of desktop virtualization projects deployed primarily to save cost will fail to meet their objectives.”
The reasons are multiple. On-premise VDI comes with significant upfront capital expenditures (CapEx) in servers. DaaS deployments require organizations to make opaque decisions about virtual machines (e.g. number, region, service levels, etc.) and their specifications (e.g. persistent vs. pooled, always-on vs. on-demand, etc.). In either scenario, the operational expenditures (OpEx) from maintenance and failing to rightsize capacity can lead to surprises and overruns. For both flavors, the more organizations commit to virtualization, the more they are locked into high ongoing compute expenses, particularly as workforces grow remotely.
Poor user experience
VDI also delivers a subpar user experience. Expectations for frictionless IT experiences have only increased during remote work, and users can still tell the difference between accessing apps directly versus from within a virtual desktop. VDI environments that are not rightsized can lead to clunky, latent, and unresponsive performance. Poor experiences can negatively impact productivity, security (as users seek workarounds outside of VDI), and employee retention (as users grow disaffected).
Overall, VDI is notoriously complex. Initial setup is multi-faceted and labor-intensive, with steps including investing in servers and end user licenses, planning VM requirements and capacity, virtualizing apps, setting up network connectivity, and rolling out VDI thin clients. Establishing security policies is often the last step, and for this reason, can sometimes be overlooked, leading to security gaps.
Moving VDI into full production not only requires cross-functional coordination across typical teams like IT, security, and infrastructure & operations, but also typically requires highly specialized talent, often known as virtual desktop administrators. These skills are hard to find and retain, which can be risky to rely on during this current high-turnover labor market.
Even still, administrators often need to build their own logging, auditing, inspection, and identity-based access policies on top of these virtualized environments. This means additional overhead of configuring separate services like secure web gateways.
Some organizations deploy VDI primarily to avoid the shipping costs, logistical hassles, and regulatory headaches of sending out managed laptops to their global workforce. But with VDI, what seemed like a fix for one problem can quickly create more overhead and frustration. Wrestling with VDI’s complexity is likely not worthwhile, particularly if users only need to access a select few internal web services.
Offloading Virtual Desktop use cases with Remote Browser Isolation
To avoid these frictions, organizations are exploring ways to shift use cases away from VDI, particularly when on-prem. Most applications that workforces rely on today are accessible via the browser and are hosted in public or hybrid cloud or SaaS environments, and even occasionally in legacy data centers. As a result, modern services like remote browser isolation (RBI) increasingly make sense as alternatives to begin offloading VDI workloads and shift security to the cloud.
Like VDI, Cloudflare Browser Isolation minimizes attack surface by running all app and web code away from endpoints — in this case, on Cloudflare’s global network. In the process, Cloudflare can secure data-in-use within a browser from untrusted users and devices, plus insulate those endpoints from threats like ransomware, phishing and even zero-day attacks. Within an isolated browser, administrators can set policies to protect sensitive data on any web-based or SaaS app, just as they would with VDI. Sample controls include restrictions on file uploads / downloads, copy and paste, keyboard inputs, and printing functionality.
This comparable security comes with more achievable business benefits, starting with helping employees be more productive:
On the cost side, expenses associated with browser isolation are overall lower, smoother, and more predictable than with VDI. In fact, Gartner® recently highlighted that “RBI is cheaper than using VDI for isolation if the only application being isolated is the browser.”
Unlike on-prem VDI, there are no capital expenditures on VM capacity, and unlike DaaS subscriptions, Cloudflare offers simple, seat-based pricing with no add-on fees for configurations. Organizations also can skip purchasing standalone point solutions because Cloudflare’s RBI comes natively integrated with other services in the Cloudflare Zero Trust platform. Most notably, we do not charge for cloud consumption, which is a common source of VDI surprise.
Transitioning to Cloudflare Browser Isolation
Customer story: PensionBee
PensionBee, a leading online pension provider in the UK, recognized this opportunity to offload virtual desktop use cases and switch to RBI. As a reaction to the pandemic, PensionBee initially onboarded a DaaS solution (Amazon WorkSpaces) to help employees access internal resources remotely. Specifically, CTO Jonathan Lister Parsons was most concerned about securing Salesforce, where PensionBee held its customers’ sensitive pension data.
The DaaS supported access controls similar to PensionBee configured for employees when they previously were in the office (e.g. allowlisting the IPs of the virtual desktops). But shortly after rollout, Lister Parsons began developing concerns about the unresponsive user experience. In this recent webinar, he in fact guesstimated that “users are generally about 10% less productive when they’re using the DaaS to do their work.” This negative experience increased the support burden on PensionBee’s IT staff to the point where they had to build an automated tool to reboot an employee’s DaaS service whenever it was acting up.
“From a usability perspective, it’s clearly better if employees can have a native browsing experience that people are used to compared to a remote desktop. That’s sort of a no-brainer,” Lister Parsons said. “But typically, it’s been hard to deliver that while keeping security in place, costs low, and setup complexity down.”
When Lister Parsons encountered Cloudflare Browser Isolation, he was impressed with the service’s performance and lightweight user experience. Because PensionBee employees accessed the vast majority of their apps (including Salesforce) via a browser, RBI was a strong fit. Cloudflare’s controls over copy/paste and file downloads reduced the risk of customer pension details in Salesforce reaching local devices.
“We started using Cloudflare Zero Trust with Browser Isolation to help provide the best security for our customers’ data and protect employees from malware,” he said. “It worked so well I forgot it was on.”
PensionBee is just one of many organizations developing a roadmap for this transition from VDI. In the next section, we provide Cloudflare’s recommendations for planning and executing that journey.
Understanding where to start this transition some forethought. Specifically, cross-functional teams – across groups like IT, security, and infrastructure & operations (IO) – should develop a collective understanding of how VDI is used today, what use cases should be offloaded first, and what impact any changes will have across both end users and administrators.
In our own consultations, we start by asking about the needs and expectations of end users because their consistent adoption will dictate an initiative’s success. Based on that foundation, we then typically help organizations map out and prioritize the applications and data they need to secure. Last but not least, we strategize around the ‘how:’ what administrators and expertise will be needed not only for the initial configuration of new services, but also for the ongoing improvement. Below are select questions we ask customers to consider across those key dimensions to help them navigate their VDI transition.
Questions to consider
Migration from VDI to RBI
Organizations can leverage Cloudflare Browser Isolation and other Zero Trust services to begin offloading VDI use cases and realize cost savings and productivity gains within days of rollout. Our recommended three-phase approach focuses on securing the most critical services with the least disruption to user experience, while also prioritizing quick time-to-value.
Phase 1: Configure clientless web isolation for web-based applications
Using our clientless web isolation approach, administrators can send users to their private web application served in an isolated browser environment with just a hyperlink – without any software needed on endpoints. Then, administrators can build data protection rules preventing risky user actions within these isolated browser-based apps. Plus, because administrators avoid rolling out endpoint clients, scaling access to employees, contractors, or third parties even on unmanaged devices is as easy as sending a link.
These isolated links can exist in parallel with your existing VDI, enabling a graceful migration to this new approach longer term. Comparing the different experiences side by side can help your internal stakeholders evangelize the RBI-based approach over time. Cross-functional communication is critical throughout this phased rollout: for example, in prioritizing what web apps to isolate before configuration, and after configuration, articulating how those changes will affect end users.
Phase 2: Shift SSH- and VNC-based apps from VDI to Cloudflare
Clientless isolation is a great fit to secure web apps. This next phase helps secure non-web apps within VDI environments, which are commonly accessed via an SSH or VNC connection. For example, privileged administrators often use SSH to control remote desktops and fulfill service requests. Other less technical employees may need the VNC’s graphical user interface to work in legacy apps inaccessible via a modern operating system.
Cloudflare enables access to these SSH and VNC environments through a browser – again without requiring any software installed on endpoints. Both the SSH and VNC setups are similar in that administrators create a secure outbound-only connection between a machine and Cloudflare’s network before a terminal is rendered in a browser. By sending traffic to our network, Cloudflare can authenticate access to apps based on identity check and other granular policies and can provide detailed audits of each user session. (You can read more about the SSH and VNC experience in prior blog posts.)
We recommend first securing SSH apps to support privileged administrators, who can provide valuable feedback. Then, move to support the broader range of users who rely on VNC. Administrators will set up connections and policies using our ZTNA service from the same management panel used for RBI. Altogether, this browser-based experience should reduce latency and have users feeling more at home and productive than in their virtualized desktops.
Phase 3: Progress towards Zero Trust security posture
Step 3A: Set up identity verification policies per application
With phases 1 and 2, you have been using Cloudflare to progressively secure access to web and non-app apps for select VDI use cases. In phase 3, build on that foundation by adopting ZTNA for all your applications, not just ones accessed through VDI.
Administrators use the same Cloudflare policy builder to add more granular conditional access rules in line with Zero Trust security best practices, including checking for an identity provider (IdP). Cloudflare integrates with multiple IdPs simultaneously and can federate multiple instances of the same IdP, enabling flexibility to support any variety of users. After setting up IdP verification, we see administrators often enhance security by requiring MFA. These types of identity checks can also be set up within VDI environments, which can build confidence in adopting Zero Trust before deprecating VDI entirely.
Step 3B: Rebuild confidence in user devices by layering in device posture checks
So far, the practical steps we’ve recommended do not require any Cloudflare software on endpoints – which optimizes for deployment speed in offloading VDI use cases. But longer term, there are security, visibility, and productivity benefits to deploying Cloudflare’s device client where it makes sense.
Cloudflare’s device client (aka WARP) works across all major operating systems and is optimized for flexible deployment. For managed devices, use any script-based method with popular mobile device management (MDM) software, and self-enrollment is a useful option for third-party users. With WARP deployed, administrators can enhance application access policies by first checking for the presence of specific programs or files, disk encryption status, the right OS version, and other additional attributes. Plus, if your organization uses endpoint protection (EPP) providers like Crowdstrike, SentinelOne, and more, verify access by first checking for the presence of that software or examining device health.
Altogether, adding device posture signals both levels up security and enables more granular visibility for both managed and BYOD devices. As with identity verification, administrators can start by enabling device posture checks for users still using virtual desktops. Over time, as administrators build more confidence in user devices, they should begin routing users on managed devices to apps directly, as opposed to through the slower VDI experience.
Step 3C: Progressively shift security services away from virtualized environments to Zero Trust
Rethinking application access use cases in prior phases has reduced reliance on complex VDI. By now, Administrators should already be building comfort with Zero Trust policies, as enabled by Cloudflare. Our final recommendation in this article is to continue that journey away from virtualization and towards Zero Trust Network Access.
Instead of sending any users into virtualized apps in virtualized desktops, organizations can reduce their overhead entirely and embrace cloud-delivered ZTNA to protect one-to-one connections between all users and all apps in any cloud environment. The more apps secured with Cloudflare vs. VDI, the greater consistency of controls, visibility, and end user experience.
Virtualization has provided a powerful technology to bridge the gap between our hardware-centric legacy investments and IT’s cloud-first future. At this point, however, reliance on virtualization puts undue pressure on your administrators and risks diminishing end user productivity. As apps, users, and data accelerate their migration to the cloud, it only makes sense to shift security controls there too with cloud-native, not virtualized services.
As longer term steps, organizations can explore taking advantage of Cloudflare’s other natively-integrated services, such as our Secure Web Gateway (SWG), Cloud Access Security Broker (CASB), and email security. Other blogs this week outline how to transition to these Cloudflare services from other legacy technologies.
Best practices and progress metrics
Below are sample best practices we recommend achieving as smooth a transition as possible, followed by sample metrics to track progress on your initiative:
- Be attuned to end user experiences: Whatever replaces VDI needs to perform better than what came before. When trying to change user habits and drive adoption, administrators must closely track what users like and dislike about the new services.
- Prioritize cross-functional collaboration: Sunsetting VDI will inevitably involve coordination across diverse teams across IT, security, infrastructure, and virtual desktop administrators. It is critical to establish shared ways of working and trust to overcome any road bumps.
- Roll out incrementally and learn: Test out each step with a subset of users and apps before rolling out more widely to figure out what works (and does not). Start by testing out clientless web isolation for select apps to gain buy-in from users and executives.
Sample progress metrics
Explore your VDI transition
Cloudflare Zero Trust makes it easy to begin sunsetting your VDI, beginning with leveraging our clientless browser isolation to secure web apps.
To learn more about how to move towards Zero Trust and away from virtualized desktops, request a consultation today.Replacing your VDI is a great project to fit into your overall Zero Trust roadmap. For a full summary of Cloudflare One Week and what’s new, tune in to our recap webinar.