Virtual Desktop Infrastructure is a powerful delivery technology capable of fulfilling a wide variety of use cases, however with great power comes great... cost!

While the latest entries to the VDI market feature more accessible and scalable pricing models, it remains a fact that VDI has generated some notoriety for being a very costly technology if not implemented efficiently, as well as carrying certain 'hidden' costs. Keep reading to learn more about what the costs of VDI are, how to manage them, the comparative costs of different solutions, and also the costs of alternatives to VDI.

What factors into the cost of a VDI implementation?

  • Licenses
  • Server infrastructure
  • Endpoint hardware
  • Operational costs

Given VDI's reputation for complex pricing, let's break down the costs of each individual component required for a VDI implementation. It's worth noting that, at desktop virtualization's current stage of maturity, there's now a variety of solutions that work slightly differently and have different requirements. We'll compare the costs of specific solutions in section 3. Without further ado, let's get into it: What factors into the cost of a VDI implementation?

The costs of VDI can generally be broken down into license costs, server infrastructure costs, endpoint hardware costs, and operational costs. These categories can be further broken down into respective subcategories...


  • VDI licenses
  • VDA licenses/CALs
  • Software title licenses

The first cost to factor is that of VDI itself. VDI needs a few different types of licenses to operate, as is the case to a lesser degree with other delivery technologies. The licenses specifically required by most Virtual Desktop Infrastructure solutions are as follows:

Server hardware costs of VDI

VDI 'licenses'

VDI 'licenses' can be seen as the cost of the VDI technology product itself. However, not all VDI licenses are created equal! Non-persistent VDI usually costs less than persistent VDI as it delivers a desktop that is destroyed upon logout, and none of its 'locally' stored files or preferences can be saved. Generally, there are three major types of VDI:

  1. Desktop-Based VDI: A desktop running in a virtual machine that is hosted on a server in the datacenter.
  2. Server-Based VDI: A desktop running in a server operating system that is available only for a single user at a time (Remote PC).
  3. Session-Based VDI: An individual session running inside a server OS on either a virtual machine or a physical server. 

Virtual Delivery Agent licenses & Client Access Licenses

With VDI, a VDA is required to access virtual machines. VDAs are licensed per accessing device. With most solutions, there is a 1:1 ratio of VDA licenses to VDI seats. Generally, the number of licenses a university needs to buy is equal to the maximum number of concurrent sessions they need to run.

Licensing a Windows desktop OS VM on a server is licensed per accessing device. Windows VDA is the license rights to access a Windows desktop OS on server.

Chris Le Texie, Former Microsoft brand representative. Source: Comment on >

Client Access Licences or CALs are essentially the VM equivalent of an OS license. Like VDA licenses, the number of CALs a university needs to is equal to the maximum number of concurrent sessions they need to run. There are some very limited exceptions to this, the most notable being Windows Virtual Desktop. WVD is able to totally absorb the cost of CALs, which are essentially Windows licenses. Microsoft's new cloud-hosted entry to the market, WVD is able to achieve a comparatively low price point by removing the cost of CALs and, similar to SCCM and App-V historically, will likely secure a good foothold in higher education software delivery due to affordability. Certain other hosted solutions are able to partially absorb CALs.

Software title licenses

The final cost consideration of VDI isn't strictly a cost of VDI, however, it is worth discussing. VDI doesn't include any software titles or their licenses. While it seems obvious, if this is not accounted for, then it marks the difference between being able to afford a VDI solution and not being able to afford one. 

Furthermore, it is worth mentioning that many software vendors are beginning to account for VDI in their license agreements. Historically, VDI has been a nifty way of circumventing tricky license agreements. Any agreement that stipulates that a piece of software must only be run and executed onsite, could be followed while delivering offsite via VDI given the fact that the software is still run on an on-premise server, with the resulting pixel-data streamed to the endpoint. This is starting to become tricker due to new license agreement clauses and so must be factored for.

Endpoint hardware

  • Thin, ultrathin & zero clients
  • BYO devices

With licenses considered, endpoints on which to access software are needed. One of VDI's key solutions is to reduce the investment universities have traditionally had to make in physical endpoints. With apps delivered through VDI, all the computing is done server-side, and so endpoints can be lighter than with other delivery methods. This remains a major benefit of VDI, though universities still need to factor in the reduced cost of thin, ultrathin, and zero clients into VDI project budgets.

VDI endpoint hardware costs

To take the endpoint hardware savings of VDI to the next level, universities should consider enabling BYOD. This allows IT to take advantage of, usually powerful, student-owned BYO devices. In theory, if BYOD is fully implemented, this could reduce the IT's physical machine spend to zero. In reality, universities will always need campus computer labs to a degree, but VDI's ability to save money on hardware if correctly implemented is unquestionable.

To learn more about enabling BYOD, read 'The ultimate guide to BYOD' or check out our BYOD resources.

Server infrastructure

  • VM servers
  • License servers
  • Storage servers
  • Server peripherals

VDI is predicated on the idea of serving software to end-users from a server via a network connection. Knowing this, it stands to reason that VDI needs a few different types of servers to work.

VDI costs

VM servers

Virtual machines must be spun up, hosted, and deployed from a server. These are often referred to as VM servers and they must be carefully implemented to be able to support university traffic volumes reliably.

License servers

When software runs traditionally from the local storage of a machine, a license key is also stored in the local storage of that machine, likely amongst the program files. This is not possible while using virtualization technologies as it would require IT to store every different license key, on every single machine with access permissions, for every single software title. To solve this problem, licenses/license keys are usually stored on a license server that can be dynamically served to requesting users as they need them. With periodic revalidation checks in place, this can help reduce the number of licenses needed for each software title.

Storage servers

Considering the likelihood of university IT using ultrathin or zero clients for VDI endpoints, more server-based storage will be needed. Most of the time, ultrathin or zero clients are also light on local storage. While this has the potential to be a costly project from the ground up, most universities already have and use a robust and capable storage network, which may also be cloud-accessible.

Server peripherals

In order to ensure your VDi deployment performs optimally, doesn't experience any bottlenecks, and is solid from a security perspective, it is worth considering  some of the following peripheral technologies:

Operational expenses

  • Implementation
  • Maintenance
  • Upgrade

With this wide variety of cost factors in mind, it is essential to ensure that your specific use cases are being closely met by your chosen solution. If it solves fewer problems than you need to solve then it will not be effective and if it solves problems you don't need to solve then it will not be scalable or sustainable from a cost perspective. In either of these cases, a VDI implementation will not be able to demonstrate a favorable return on investment.

Ensure success for your VDI estate & click here to read more about what to look for in VDI >

operational expenses of VDI

How can VDI save money for universities in the long-run?

  • Reduce the costs of supporting campus labs
  • Make use of student-owned hardware
  • Provide a better student IT experience
  • Improve student outcomes and retention

Reduce the costs of supporting campus labs

By using VDI to reduce the number of specialized labs on campus, IT can save money on the purchase, maintenance, support, and upgrade of physical computing labs. This covers a huge range of regular tasks such as physical machine setup, image building and publishing, repair... The list goes on!

Make use of student-owned hardware

VDI is capable of reducing hardware investments for Higher Ed IT; machines that previously needed to meet the hardware requirements of software titles can be replaced with ultrathin or zero clients. However, it doesn't stop there! With a BYOD policy in place, IT can deliver software to student-owned devices and begin to reduce the total number of managed machines on campus, rather than just replacing them with cheaper machines.

Provide a better student IT experience

VDI alongside application virtualization opens the door to BYOD and full off-campus, on-demand access. We've proclaimed the benefits of BYOD many a time, which ultimately lead to more satisfied students who have had an awesome university experience was awesome. This means more value offered to students and increased enrollment!

Improve student outcomes and retention

With a better experience, better access to software, and more flexibility in how they're able to work, students can achieve higher grades and better opportunities following university. Supporting your students with a solid IT experience is a pillar of maintaining higher-than-average grades and generating alumni who will champion your university!

How much do different VDI solutions cost?

  • Citrix Virtual Desktops & VMware Horizon
  • Windows Virtual Desktop
  • Amazon AppStream 2.0 & Amazon WorkSpaces

Citrix Virtual DesktopsVMware Horizon

Legacy VDI is fairly consistent in cost, though this is only true without taking the individual strengths and weaknesses of each solution into account. The two key players in VDI, Citrix & VMware, have solid offerings with very similar specs. For this reason, when comparing their costs, we'll assume there is no difference in price rather than negligible difference. That price works out to be roughly $1,000,000 for 1,000 desktops for 5 years.

Both offer persistent or non-persistent desktops, so this can be tailored to your needs to reduce cost or make VMs persistent. Citrix offers a third variant called 'static non-persistent VDI', which shouldn't affect things from a cost-perspective for universities.

Both can technically be implemented on-premise or cloud-hosted, though the cloud is unlikely to be a viable option for universities. This only leaves on-premise, which can be a very costly endeavor.

Neither solution includes or even partially absorbs CALs or VDA licenses, so they must be factored in.

Legacy VDI requires a highly specialized team to install, manage, maintain, and upgrade. This is one of the most significant 'soft' costs of VDI and is permanently essential for any substantial on-premise VDI installation.

With both Citrix and VMware running Server OS, compatibility issues will be experienced with some software titles and make alternative solutions necessary for those titles. This can diminish any savings universities may have been able to make with a legacy VDI deployment.

Windows Virtual Desktop

Windows Virtual Desktop is only available fully-hosted. Once again, this is the cheaper option on paper but might be prohibitive for universities that have already invested heavily in on-premise infrastructure.

WVD runs on Desktop OS rather than Server OS, meaning it is essentially running a normal version of Windows. This helps to combat any potential compatibility issues with individual software titles, making it the cheapest VDI solution when the cost is measured against the number of Windows apps that can be delivered.

Windows Virtual Desktop is the only VDI solution capable of Windows 10 multi-session. This means that more than one user can access software through a single virtual machine. This also means that Windows Virtual Desktop is the only solution capable of delivering software at a user-to-license ratio higher than 1:1. More users per license means fewer licenses required and a lower overall cost.

The pay-as-you-go usage models of the latest hosted solutions make upfront investments negligible, mean universities can exit at any time and ensure that they only pay for what they use. Windows Virtual Desktop is no exception to this and is a more affordable solution because of it.

CALs are included in the cost of Windows Virtual Desktop entirely. This is a significant saving and should be considered when looking at WVD.

Amazon AppStream 2.0 & Amazon WorkSpaces

Amazon's offering to the software delivery market is covered by two products with a slight overlap, but designed to respectively serve a different group of use cases. The positioning of both products is detailed below, but for our cost comparison, we'll just look at Amazon AppStream 2.0.

Amazon AppStream 2.0

AppStream 2.0 is Amazon's 'fully managed application streaming service'. It's built on AWS and so universities can feel confident that they're delivering their applications and entrusting their data to technologies with a strong reputation and history in commercial-grade security.

Read more about Amazon AppStream 2.0 >

Amazon WorkSpaces

Amazon WorkSpaces is Amazon's VDI offering and it expands on legacy VDI solutions such as VMware and Citrix. Described as a DaaS (Desktop-as-a-Service) solution, it is able to remove many of VDI's historic barriers that have been especially prohibitive to universities through the subscription model.

Read more about Amazon WorkSpaces >

What are the costs of Amazon AppStream 2.0?

AppStream is only available cloud-hosted and features scalable pay-as-you-go usage models. In theory, this is a cheaper solution than any traditional VDI deployment given there is almost zero upfront investment required, universities only pay for what they use and are not tied into lengthy contracts or expensive VDI infrastructure.

In practice, many universities will already be invested in large VDI deployments along with the associated costs. This can make transitioning to cloud VDI difficult or impossible, depending on how recently the existing VDI estate was installed. AppStream being unavailable on-premise can be prohibitive for many universities. 

AppStream 2.0 can offer non-persistent desktops or virtual applications, introducing the potential of replacing your existing application virtualization technology with Amazon's potentially cheaper alternative. However, it is worth mentioning that Amazon's offering is not as capable as more mature, yet still affordable application virtualization technologies, such as AppsAnywhere's in-built technology.

CALs are still required for Amazon AppStream 2.0 deployments, though they are included in the cost paid to Amazon. This keeps budgeting simple and allows for partial absorption of the cost.

Finally, AppStream runs on Server OS, which can introduce some compatibility issues for certain software titles. This may mean an alternative technology is needed to deliver a portion of your software library, resulting in a slightly-higher-than-advertised cost.

VDI costs vs. alternative technologies' costs

Virtual desktop costs vs. physical desktop costs

From the ground up, a brand new VDI deployment might carry a similar cost to installing an equal number of physical machines. Though if you were to install all those physical machines you might be just as deeply financially invested but no BYOD, no on-demand delivery, no delivery off-site, no open-access learning areas, no cross-platform delivery, etc. You get the picture.

Yes, physical machines might be simpler, and maybe cheaper in some cases, but they are no longer a solution fit for purpose. With VDI, universities will still need physical hardware, but this hardware can be much lighter and less expensive. IT can also make use of student-owned devices to reduce their physical machine estate. This also means less time and resource spent installing, maintaining, supporting, and upgrading physical machines.

In summary, despite VDI seeming to be the most costly option, the improved experience plus potential savings it unlocks actually make it one of the most financially effective options when implemented and used correctly alongside other technologies.

Virtual desktop costs vs virtual apps costs

We get asked a lot to compare desktop virtualization and application virtualization. We usually respond with the fact they aren't strictly directly comparable, as there isn't a huge amount of overlap in their intended solutions and use cases. Yes, they both deliver software, but they both do it in very different ways.

App virtualization delivers virtual apps in a 'bubble' to endpoints, which then run on through the endpoint's OS, but encapsulated from it. This allows the virtual apps to leverage the hardware capabilities of the end device and interact more meaningfully with system processes and native machine functions.

Some app virtualization technologies still require a virtual desktop to deliver virtual apps and so still require CALs, pushing their cost-to-value ratio up. The most capable solutions, however, can deliver 100% of Windows apps and are very affordable. Interestingly, they have also been recorded to sometimes deliver a better experience than a locally installed app!

In these areas, app virtualization out-performs VDI at a significantly reduced price point. Generally, we tend to advise universities: if you can do it with app virtualization, then use app virtualization!

If you can do it with app virtualization, then use app virtualization!

The areas where VDI shows its strengths generally revolve around delivering to tricky user contexts:

  • VDI can deliver cross-platform, as the end machine only ever interacts with pixel data
  • VDI can deliver off-site, often when license agreements prohibit it, due to the fact that the software is still running onsite
  • VDI can deliver to zero or ultrathin clients

Only use VDI in contexts where no other solution will work!

So, in general summary, and striking something of an inverse parallel with application virtualization, only use VDI in contexts where no other solution will work! The costs of these solutions aren't necessarily comparable, however, if you use VDI where other technologies would suffice, you'll spend 10x more than you need to! Equally, if you use another solution where VDI is required, then your user experience will be at best, compromised and at worst, nonexistent.

Some useful & related reading...



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