Is Windows Server 2012 RDS finally good enough?

When Shawn Bass and I attended the Microsoft MVP Summit in February, we presented the latest results of our remoting protocol comparison tests to the Microsoft Remote Desktop Services product team. The good news is that generally speaking they confirmed all our findings – the RDS product team has a long history of conducting their own scalability and performance tests. To make a long story short, RDP 8, which may also be called RemoteFX v2, made a huge step forward. This brings the most important question back on the table: Is the Remote Desktop Services functionality as shipped with Windows Server 2012 and Windows 8 finally good enough for the enterprise?

The remoting protocol is an important aspect to answer this question. Shawn and I recorded roughly 600 new videos with test sequences covering different protocol versions, graphics and media formats, network bandwidths, network latencies and packet loss settings. For all RDP test sequences, we used only SoftGPU which does not take advantage of the physical GPU for hardware acceleration – this means that the results are independent of the underlying hypervisor. Comparing the videos side by side gave us enough evidence to say that RDP 8 performs really well in LAN and different WAN scenarios with up to 300ms latency and 1% packet loss. We were able to observe minor deficiencies when using Flash and HTML5. OpenGL is still only supported on a very rudimentary level. Besides this, RDP 8 performance was very close to that of Citrix HDX 5.6 (with Citrix HDX stronger in OpenGL and selected Flash and HTML5 scenarios).

But the remoting protocol is not everything. What about manageability? With Windows Server 2012, Microsoft introduced a new Server Manager which allows you to manage multiple servers from one unified console. While this is a great concept and a major milestone for Microsoft, the RDS wizards in Server Manager tend to complete management tasks only 80 or 90%. Let me give you an example: If you want to build a farm with multiple RD Session Host servers and one dedicated server for RD Broker and RD Web Access, the Server Manager wizard properly adds all roles and features to the target machines. But then it’s a manual process to join the RD Session Host servers to create a load-balanced farm and to add several necessary entries to DNS. Experts will know how to do this, but it is not very intuitive.

If you believe that RDS management is something that can easily be done with System Center Configuration Manager or System Center Virtual Machine Manager, I have bad news for you. This is not what System Center was designed for. It has a focus on deploying software or VMs to connected devices but not so much on managing RDS server farms. The same is true for connected users. Both Server Manager and SCCM fail to provide a real user-centric view on RD Session Host farms or VDI environments. And BTW, as of today, RDP 8 cannot shadow user sessions, which may be a show-stopper for many support departments.

Another important aspect is the client-side of things. The Remote Desktop Client that ships with Windows 8 (both classic Windows and RT) is great. When you install RDP 8 for Windows 7 (KB2574819 and KB2592687) it provides the same great performance – if you don’t miss to activate it through Group Policy and modify your Firewall settings first. But there is no full RDP 8 client software provided by Microsoft for any other device type or OS. And proper central management of Remote Desktop Clients in a large enterprise may be painful.

In summary, Microsoft has a great remoting protocol now (with only minor shortcomings). But they failed to provide adequate management tools and RDP 8 client software for third-party devices. The management challenge can be solved by using PowerShell as all RDS settings and functionalities are exposed through PowerShell commands. This means that enterprises that know how to use PowerShell to integrate RDS into their existing IT management frameworks and currently don’t have the immediate need to run remote desktops or applications at full speed on third-party devices, such as iPads or Android tablets, should definitely evaluate Windows Server 2012 RDS. RDP 8 is so good that I believe that it will only be a matter of time until third-party vendors provide great RDP 8 clients for non-Windows devices.