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Kurt Marko
Kurt Marko
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Amazon WorkSpaces Speeds The PC's Demise

The company's new desktop virtualization service could prove a gateway to a post-PC, mobile, and cloud-centric future.

Apparently, Amazon isn't content with taking on the enterprise server market and the likes of HP, Dell and IBM in the data center. Now, with WorkSpaces -- introduced at Amazon's re:Invent conference last week -- the cloud computing giant is going after what's left of the PC business with a new VDI-like alternative.

On reflection, WorkSpaces is a natural fit for a company that's been serving up millions of virtual server instances for years. Why not tweak the hardware, add a little software with a focus on mobile devices, stir in a new pricing model and unleash a service that undermines the need for an actual PC?

Technically, WorkSpaces is nothing new. As described by InformationWeek, Amazon's service is just pushing pixels over the wire using a cloud-optimized network protocol. This approach makes sense when your endpoint is often a smartphone or tablet while the system actually crunching application code is a virtual Xeon core with almost 4 GB memory and 50 GB of storage.

Indeed, this asymmetry demonstrates the long-term inevitability of the cloud model: Why buy a Chevy Suburban as your daily commute vehicle for those rare occasions when you haul your kid's soccer team to a tournament? Renting the application horsepower you need and delivering it on demand to whatever device you prefer -- smartphone, tablet, three-year-old laptop -- obviates the need for beefy new PCs. By leveraging cloud resources, it's possible for a Chromebook with a lowly ARM processor and 4 GB RAM to perform complex image processing or compute complex financial models faster than a high-end laptop.

Of course, making a usable client "desktop" requires more than just compute power. For this, Amazon covers the basics with Windows 7 OS (dated, yes but after all this isn't your primary UI), an application bundle with an Adobe PDF reader and Flash player, Java runtime and your choice of browser. Of course, once you have the VM, you're free to install whatever Windows applications you'd like. So for organizations already moving to SaaS but needing to support legacy Windows applications, $35 per month buys a mid-range virtual PC that's usable on everything from a MacBook Air to Kindle Fire.

Most enterprises, i.e., those still wedded to Microsoft Office and using Office applications in key business processes, will opt for one of Amazon's "Plus" bundles that include the Office Pro suite and some endpoint security software. Still, at $50 per month (or $75 for double the virtual capacity), the value proposition is tempting for organizations navigating the transition from the PC-based, client-server world to an environment of mobile devices and apps, Chromebooks/thin clients and browser applications.

Although Amazon's TCO analysis is overly optimistic, it's likely that many organizations could save money and increase endpoint flexibility by moving to WorkSpaces or similar services like dinCloud HVD.

[Companies deploying in-house virtual desktop infrastructure need to make sure they understand the true costs and network requirements. Read what the experts have to say in "4 VDI Planning Tips."]

On the surface, WorkSpaces looks like a savvy move to entice more enterprise customers to AWS. But longer term it could be the gateway to a post-PC, mobile, cloud-centric future.

As Cloud Technology Partners (CTP) points out in a blog post recapping re:Invent, Amazon's technology lead ahead of the competition in cloud services "was almost comical," with the newly announced features at the conference only widening the gap. But cloud services still face deep seated resistance within many large IT organizations, meaning Amazon needs a Trojan horse (or two) to penetrate the bureaucratic barriers. One, as CTP notes, is hybrid cloud, but another could be virtual desktops.

As organizations struggle with the transition from PC-based business processes to the mobile, post-PC world, whoever finds creative ways to deliver Windows applications to non-Windows devices will have plenty of customers. Earlier VDI products that tried to project a PC screen onto a mobile device were non-starters; the UIs are just too dissimilar But if Amazon can truly deliver on its promise of a "tablet-optimized desktop experience" that translates the keyboard-mouse UI to a touch screen interface, WorkSpaces could be that bridge between PC-centric, client-server enterprise applications and the mobile/cloud-centric workplace.

The need for an actual PC is shrinking by the day and WorkSpaces only accelerates the trend. But like any virtualization product, it's a compromise: a software patch to plug a hardware hole. Many mobile-first users will welcome a technology like WorkSpaces as a quick fix to the problem of running PC applications. Longer term, it serves to further erode the need for thick endpoint hardware by enabling even the leanest devices like tablets and Chromebooks to use high-end compute horsepower for everyday applications.

Kurt Marko is an InformationWeek and Network Computing contributor and IT industry veteran, pursuing his passion for communications after a varied career that has spanned virtually the entire high-tech food chain from chips to systems. Upon graduating from Stanford University ... View Full Bio
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