Remote Desktop Services in Windows Server 2012/2012 R2 and Windows 8/8.1 (Part 1)

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Remote Desktop Services began rather modestly back in the late 1990s, with its roots in a variation of the Windows NT operating system that was called Terminal Server Edition. It has grown far more sophisticated over the years, and Microsoft has made a number of improvements and included new and enhanced functionality in the Windows Server 2012 iteration of RDS.

RDS has come a long way, getting a new name and undergoing a transformation in the process. The original TS was pretty simple; users could connect to the server from a PC or thin client and work in individual desktop sessions that are sent to the client via Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP). Today’s RDS goes much further, allowing you to deploy applications (rather than the whole desktop) through the RemoteApp feature or deploy a VDI (Virtual Desktop Infrastructure) in which users connect to individual virtual machines. For added security and control, you can also deploy a Remote Desktop Gateway (RDG) and RemoteFX makes for a much richer user experience than we had with the old TS.

A better user experience

Remote Desktop users want their RDP connections to work seamlessly, so that there’s no difference between the performance and functionality in a remote session than when they’re working on a local machine desktop. With Server 2012 RDS, Microsoft is getting closer to that goal.

To touch or not to touch

Today’s users are moving away from their looming tower workstations and getting work done on smaller devices such as laptops and tablets (and laptop/tablet hybrids such as the Surface Pro). Many of these are touch-enabled, and users are beginning to warm up to the Windows 8/8.1 modern user interface (formerly known as Metro).

The Server 2012 RDP experience takes this into account. Microsoft has provided a Metro-style Remote Desktop app in the Windows Store (shown in Figure 1) that’s touch-friendly and simple to use. It remembers your recent connections and makes it easy to reconnect.

Figure 1

Of course, users who prefer to work in the traditional desktop environment can still use the “legacy” RDP client. The latest version of Remote Desktop Protocol and the client software is v8.1, which can also be installed on Windows 7 computers. The new client supports transparent windows and borders on RemoteApp programs as well as the ability to move and resize RemoteApp windows. Also new is support for dynamically changing the resolution or orientation so that the applications in a remote desktop session or RemoteApp behave the same way as local applications. The Remote Desktop client update for Windows 7 SP1 computers can be downloaded here.

Getting connected more easily

The process of getting connected to a remote desktop session has also received a boost in the ease-of-use department. With a better and less cumbersome process for configuring single sign-on in Windows 2012, users are more likely to be able to use RemoteApp and hosted desktops without having to enter their credentials multiple times. You can even set it up so that your users who are domain members and using managed devices to connect to their remote sessions won’t be prompted to enter credentials; they’ll be signed on with the domain credentials with which they’re logged on locally.

In another move toward the seamless user experience, Microsoft has eliminated the need for end users to set the network in the Remote Desktop client. Not only does the client software detect the network client, it can also detect changes in the network and adapt its own settings accordingly.

In addition, users can provide just their email addresses to connect to the right remote workspace when connecting via Remote Desktop Web Access, instead of having to enter a long, difficult to type (and difficult to remember) URL. And many of them will be happy to learn that they can use their browsers of choice to do it as now Chrome, Firefox and Safari are supported along with Internet Explorer.

And it’s not just other web browsers that are supported. Many users now work in Windows when they’re on the job but want to connect to either their desktop computers or a Remote Desktop server by using Android or iOS tablets or “phablets” (big screen smart phones) from home or on the road. Now they will also be able to use Remote Desktop with a new app for those mobile operating systems. There have been a number of third party RDP clients available for non-Microsoft operating systems in the past but most were paid apps that were relatively expensive. This one was released by Microsoft in conjunction with the release of Windows 8.1 and it’s free and available in the Google Play Store (or Apple App Store). You can read more about it here.

Strangely, the “official” remote desktop app for Android and iOS was released before Microsoft released a remote desktop client app for its own Windows Phone 8, although Microsoft announced in October that they were working on one. The rationale for that, one would assume, is that Android and iOS run on tablet devices, whereas Windows-based tablets run Windows 8 or Windows RT, for which the Remote Desktop app is already available.

Improvements to RemoteFX

The remote desktop user experience keeps getting more and more like “the next best thing to being there,” as the old phone company commercials used to say. RemoteFX has contributed a lot toward that end. RemoteFX is integrated into Remote Desktop Services to allow for remote support of full-motion video, animation and 3D applications, even from thin clients or underpowered PCs. Windows Server 2012 brings a number of enhancements to RemoteFX.

You can now get the same sort of rich media experience over a wide area network or a wireless connection as we had previously over an Ethernet local network connection, thanks to changes that were made to the transport mechanisms that are designed to overcome latency, jitter, packet loss and other problems formerly associated with this scenario. UDP is now used as transport protocol when possible, for a better WAN experience, but RDS automatically uses TCP if UDP can’t be used through the routers and firewalls. For more about that, see the blog post titled RemoteFX for WAN: Overview of Intelligent and Adaptive Transports in Windows 8 and Windows Server 2012 in the Remote Desktop Services Blog on the MSDN web site.

Even more exciting for modern UI fans is the fact that Windows Server 2012 RemoteFX supports multi-touch gestures over the remote connection, with up to 256 touch points. This means that if you’re connecting to the Windows Server 2012 remote desktop server with a device that’s touch enabled, you’ll be able to pinch and zoom like you do with your device’s local applications.

For those who want to do video conferencing over a VDI, Windows Server 2012 also brings high performance support for Lync. This was made possible by changes to the way the Lync audio and video are rendered; instead of being rendered on the Remote Desktop server and sent via RDP to the client, the content is rendered directly on the client. The RemoteFX Media Redirection API is used with Voice over IP (VoIP) to accomplish this.

The virtualized Graphics Processing Unit (vGPU) that was introduced in Server 2008 R2 is still there. Note that to use vGPU on Windows Server 2012, you have to run the virtual machines on Hyper-V and you need a DirectX 11.1 video card installed in the server. Multiple GPUs on one server are supported. Second Level Address Translation (SLAT) must be enabled on the server. The “adaptive graphics” feature in Server 2012 figures out which codec is appropriate for specific content and automatically uses the optimum one instead of using the same “one size fits all” codec that previous versions used.

The experience on low-bandwidth or congested networks should improve for users, as well. A new feature is progressive rendering of graphics, and a new codec is claimed to reduce the bandwidth consumption by up to 90 percent. This should help a lot with rendering of large graphics and videos.


Remote Desktop Services has been steadily growing more robust, more reliable, more secure and easier to use over the years. Microsoft has continued that trend, building many improvements into the versions of the RDS and RDC software and RDP protocol that are included in Windows Server 2012/2012 R2 and the Windows 8/8.1 client operating systems. In Part 1 of this series, we looked at how those changes have improved the overall experience for end-users. In Part 2, we’ll look at how additional enhancements and additions have made RDS easier for IT pros to deploy, secure and manage. See you next time – Deb

If you would like to read the other parts in this article series please go to:

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