• 11/14/2013
    3:40 AM
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Amazon Launches 'WorkSpaces' For Desktop Users

VMware wants to move into cloud computing? Guess what, Amazon's moving into desktop virtualization.

Amazon Web Services announced Wednesday that it is entering the desktop virtualization market and will offer Amazon WorkSpaces -- Windows-based desktops -- from its cloud servers. Amazon Workspaces were introduced during a keynote talk by Andy Jassy, senior VP, at Re:Invent, AWS' annual event for around 9,000 developers, partners, and customers in Las Vegas.

The desktop move comes at the expense of VMware, Citrix and Microsoft, who have gone unchallenged until now in their slow progress to virtualize desktops. Virtualization thus far has been primarily a data center phenomenon, consolidating applications on servers and reducing the total physical server count. But for all the speed with which it's swept through the data center, the movement has stopped at the data center's walls. Meanwhile, the problem of virtualizing desktops has become more dicey as end users adopted Apple iPads and iPhones, then Android phones and other mobile devices.

Amazon thus has a fresh chance to address the challenge on two fronts. Through its well-established practice of distributing compute cycles off automated, multi-tenant cloud servers, it may be able to challenge the virtualization vendors on cost. At the same time, it will make use of a flexible display protocol that can reach numerous types of devices.

Amazon will deliver end user displays -- the pixels, not the data -- via Teradici's version of the PCoIP protocol. Teradici's website calls the version of PCoIP that it's developed "cloud optimized." (VMware also selected PCoIP as one of the protocols that it uses to deliver virtual desktops more than three years ago.)

[ Want to learn more about VMware's plans for virtualized desktops? Read VMware Buys Desktone For Cloud-Delivered Virtual Desktops. ]

Much as Amazon offers server templates in small, medium, and large sizes, end user WorkSpaces will come in a limited number of pre-configured sizes. "You get a simpler way to provision desktops for users," Jassy said. While Amazon expects to set the monthly price per WorkSpace from $35 to $75. The low end would be equipped with "utilities" such as Firefox and Internet Explorer browsers, Adobe Reader and Flash, 7-Zip for rehydrating older, Zip-compressed files, and the Java Runtime Engine. The $75 WorkSpace comes with twice the virtual CPU, memory and storage of the $35 model, plus Microsoft Office 2010, Trend Micro Anti-Virus, and the previously listed utilities. The $35 model's virtual CPU is roughly equivalent to one core of a multi-core 2007 Xeon running at 1 GHz or 1.2 GHz.

In carrying over its IaaS notion of pre-defined instances, Amazon risks alienating end users who wish to add an application that IT didn't include or to personalize everything from their wall paper, ring tones, and messaging. IT staffs have been reluctant to limit employees to only two or three types of desktops. Several desktop virtualization schemes allow the IT staff to individualize the virtualized desktop. Citrix bought a startup in 2011, RingCube, which captures an end user's preferred specifications.

But desktop personalization conflicts with efficient operation and holding down desktop costs. It remains to be seen whether the time is right for an offering like WorkSpaces, which contains only four options -- there are $50 and $60 models to go with the $35 and $75 ones.

The new Amazon service is not generally available yet. It's only available in what it calls "a limited preview," meaning to selected customers.

Vmware may have anticipated Amazon's move when it acquired Desktone on Oct. 16. Unlike more data center-centric approaches, Desktone also virtualizes desktops from multi-tenant servers in the cloud, relying heavily on open source code. Existing customers include Dell, Fujitsu, NEC, Time Warner Cable, Dimension Data, and Logicalis.


You can customize your Amazon Workspace

At Re:Invent, I had the chance to ask Matt Wood, chief data scientist, what happens if users depart from the Amazon Workspace templates and customize their desktops? If end users have in-house applications or individual apps and add them to their desktop, Amazon will capture and store the changes, and reactivate them the next time they call up their work space, he said. Amazon will be incurring a significant storage commitment, if it ends up supplying hundreds of thousands or millions of Workspaces. Furthermore, each Workspace will have its own applications, running on an Amazon server, not just the pixels from a shared Word or PowerPoint multi-tenant application. A Workspace in many cases will resemble the software assembly of the PC era, including Windows operating system, as I understand it. That may evolve, but right now, bring your Microsoft licenses to Amazon and that's what you'll get. I have to wonder about the latencies of receiving a desktop from a cloud data center 1,500 miles away. What will that look liketo end users?   


re: Amazon Launches 'WorkSpaces' For Desktop Users

Do you see the BYOD movement as an opposing force against Amazon's push back toward centralized IT control?

re: Amazon Launches 'WorkSpaces' For Desktop Users

I would think that BYOD would actually work very well with virtualized desktops, because you would essentially be saying, "here's your company desktop, and we're going to restrict it in certain ways, but whatever you want to do on your own devices, we don't care."  I imagine that IT could only allow access to privileged resources through the virtual desktop and then have essentially "guest" internet access for any traffic not going through the virtual desktop.


re: Amazon Launches 'WorkSpaces' For Desktop Users

Yes, if the users insist on customizing their own devices, which of course they will. I don't see how Amazon is going to deal with individual customizations. Looks like standard template desktops to me. Amazon's Adam Selipsky: You can already customize under WorkSpaces. My question: Where will those customizations be stored (nothing is stored on the device itself)? Selipsky: I'll get back to you.

re: Amazon Launches 'WorkSpaces' For Desktop Users

It strikes me that file data, rather than the desktop interface, is really what needs to be made available anywhere, anytime. DropBox > WorkSpaces, if you're not dealing with really esoteric apps. 

re: Amazon Launches 'WorkSpaces' For Desktop Users

Matt Wood, principal data scientist, says Amazon will allow individual customizations within limits of a company's policies, capture and store them on its servers. Each time workers logs in, they get their individual desktop retrieved from storage. In other words, Amazon is going to use its ability to scale to store, reactivate on cue each desktop. Conmpanies will bring existing Windows and Office licenses to Amazon so that they are using licensed versions-- jplus whatever in-house apps they may had added to the desktop, Will this be compatible with BYOD? Amazon says yes, as long as users stay within their company's BYOD policies. Interesting that Amazon is attempting to implement virtual desktops in this way and on this scale.

Great news

This has been too long coming.  Server space in the cloud is reaching a maturity level that removes much of the fear associated with virtualization but virtual desktops and especially those in the could are still rare.  We've seen stripped down custom web based OSes to run virtual desktops but nothing much in the way of VDI.  I'm glad a player as big as Amazon has stepped into the ring.

What is the future of virtual desktops anyhow?

I think whether virtual desktops are just a legacy of the past is an important question that seems completely unaddressed alongside this AWS announcement--perhaps because no one thinks that AWS is so revolutionary and innovative that there's no way it could announce a service that will be obsolete in short order?

If we are increasing moving to SaaS and apps for our own devices, why on earth do we want our IT departments to have to worry about managing desktops?  If we're being sold that we can "run our virtual desktops on iPads", why aren't we asking, "wait, if we have an iPad, and our applications are SaaS and apps, why the heck do we need another desktop to get in the way?"

I would submit that the centralized "desktop" metaphor for employees is a skeumorphism that is destined to die.  I think we gave up that front in the war when we accepted BYOD (or we will give it up when the last old-school CIOs retire and are replaced by CIOs who want to empower their organizations).  Instead, we have to figure out what we need for information security, and avoid wasting resources on things like centralized desktops.  So I would expect a need for centralized storage (made easier by SaaS) and for security requirements on access (e.g., SAML), but why on earth are we wasting cycles switching from VMware virtual desktops to AWS virtual desktops?  That's like switching slide-rule vendors.  Time to buy a calculator.

Not yet available

When will it be available for the general public? I signed up weeks ago but have gotten no response from AWS support.