Confirming a long-expected announcement, today's annual Microsoft Inspire event for its partner ecosystem saw the unveiling of the Cloud PC — a packaged virtual Windows desktop service, positioned as the perfect solution for the world of hybrid working. As usual at Inspire, there were a raft of other announcements, including giving Teams users access to application data from Dynamics 365 even if they're not licensed for Dynamics, and a new Microsoft Cloud for Sustainability, which aims to support organizations on the path to net-zero emissions.
The Cloud PC is enabled by Windows 365, a new SaaS offering from Microsoft that streams a full Windows 10 experience — and Windows 11 when available — directly from the cloud. This enables users to access Windows and all their apps and data from any Internet-connected device, including Mac, iPad, Android and Linux devices, as well as PCs. It's not a new concept — remote access to virtual Windows desktops has been around in various forms for a quarter-century, and the Cloud PC has been anticipated for the past year. The new offering is built on the existing Azure Virtual Desktop, which many organizations already use for virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) and will continue to use for more precise control of virtual Windows instances or for economies of scale.
What's new about the Windows 365 Cloud PC is that it's a fully packaged, ready-to-run service, with a set price per user per month. The target market is those organizations that don't want the challenge of customizing and maintaining their own VDI setup. As Wangui McKelvey, general manager of Microsoft 365, explains:
Windows 365 is really going to make a huge difference for organizations that wanted to try virtualization for various reasons but could not — maybe it was too costly, too complex or they didn’t have the expertise in house to do it.
Available from August 2nd, there will be several different price points depending on the processing power, storage and memory of the virtual PC instance. Windows 365 comes bundled with management options and analytics that allow adminstrators to make instant upgrades if a user comes up against performance limitations with their assigned instance. Connections are monitored too, with corrective action suggested in case of issues arising. Multi-factor authentication via Azure AD ensures secure access, and encryption is built into the platform. For ease of management, Cloud PCs appear just like any other device in Microsoft Endpoint Manager, so that the same management and security policies can be applied.
The Cloud PC arrives in the market just as organizations are starting to grapple with the challenge of hybrid working. Development work on Microsoft 365 began shortly befcre the advent of COVID-19 and therefore the product has been used intensively in its own creation. It specifically targets temporary and contract workers, people such as developers and engineers that need access to a high-powered desktop platform when out of the office, and those who need to access secure computing from insecure locations. In her blog post, McKelvey cites various scenarios:
You can get the same work done on a laptop in a hotel room, a tablet from their car between appointments, or your desktop while you’re in the office. Seasonal workers also can ramp on and off according to the needs of the business, allowing the organization to scale for busy periods without the complicated logistical and security challenges of issuing new hardware. Further, companies can be more targeted in how they outfit specialized workers in creative, analytics, engineering, or scientific roles who need greater compute power and access to critical applications.
Teams gets headless access to Dynamics 365
Access to application data from Dynamics 365 is now available in Teams without needing a license for Dynamics 365, "eliminating the licensing tax that has historically held organizations back from this kind of integration," as Jared Sparato, Corporate Vice President for Microsoft 365, puts it in a blog post. It's now possible to view and collaborate on Dynamics records directly in Teams without having to visit the app, sharing application data with other users within the organization even if they're not Dynamics users, so long as they have appropriate permissions.
Teams meetings can be directly created from a Dynamics 365 record, and notes made in the call are automatically saved to the timeline of the record in Dynamics 365. Automated notifications can be set up to keep stakeholders up-to-date with key changes, and can also send adaptive cards that connect into further workflows.
In other Teams announcements, there are new integrations with third-party business apps from Atlassian, Salesforce, SAP, ServiceNow, Workday and others. Upcoming changes to the teams admin center will allow third-party ISVs to sell their apps from within Teams. Meanwhile Viva, the employee experience app built into Microsoft 365, also gets 21 new integrations from Qualtrics, ServiceNow, Workday and others. New Viva APIs are on the way to ease partner integration and bring in learning content along with due dates and assignments from learning management systems.
The launch of a new Microsoft Cloud for Sustainability introduces new SaaS offerings that can discover and connect to real-time data sources to provide more accurate carbon accounting, track performance against goals and give pointers to areas ripe for improvement. Microsoft also provided an update on its own sustainability progress against its goals to become carbon negative, water positive and zero waste by 2030. That includes what it calls a 100/100/0 commitment to have 100% of its own electricity consumption, 100% of the time, matched by zero carbon energy purchases by 2030. In pursuit of this goal, it claims it has already become one of the largest purchasers of renewable energy in the world, having signed 35 new purchase agreements over the last 12 months for some 5.8 gigawatts of renewable energy across 10 countries.
The launch of Windows Terminal Server back in 1998 — based on Winframe technology previously developed by Citrix — gave birth to the SaaS industry. That in turn created a market for the earliest virtualized Windows desktop technology. It's taken Microsoft a helluva long time to finally bow to the inevitable and deliver its own packaged virtual Windows desktop offering, but it's in the nick of time to capture a massive upswell in demand as organizations around the world adapt to new patterns of hybrid working.
That upswell in demand provides some consolation to Microsoft partners, many of whom have done very well out of setting up complex virtualization solutions and then staffing help desks to field calls from employees when they've run into the inevitable complications in their operation. At a stroke, Windows 365 cannibalizes much of that market, but at the same time, it opens up a much bigger marketplace — one that Microsoft estimates is four times larger — that was never going to go for a customized VDI solution.
Nevertheless, it has to be said that virtualized Windows desktops, however delivered, are still a kludge. They remain vulnerable to exactly the same attack vectors that make traditional Windows desktops so vulnerable to malware. End-to-end encryption and multi-factor authentication do little to neutralize those threats, even if the managed environment provides better oversight than most organizations have in place across their current Windows estate.
I'd also observe that there's a curious tension between the preservation of the old Windows desktop environment and the new reality of using messaging platforms like Teams to headlessly access business data from Dynamics 365. On the one hand, Windows 365 is catering to all those organizations that still cling to ageing client-server architectures, while on the other, Teams is providing new ways of accessing Dynamics 365 data without even having to install the underlying app. In my view, this will prove in hindsight to have been a much more significant move than the 'Cloud PC', given how reluctant many other ERP vendors are to give up the right to charge for access to the data held in their applications.