Amazon Launches 'WorkSpaces' For Desktop Users

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

Charles Babcock

November 14, 2013

6 Min Read
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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.

In response to Amazon's move, VMware VP of end user computing product marketing Erik Frieberg said in a statement that Amazon's entry "further validates desktop as a service." But in fact, many desktops remain un-virtualized due to the cost of implementing all the servers and virtual desktop infrastructure software needed to deliver virtualized desktops. It's left a broad, green field of opportunity for additional virtualization approaches.

Amazon has presented a comparison of what it sees as the total cost of ownership under its approach versus those of other vendors. The summary, can be found here.

Jassy said IT administrators will like the fact they can provision virtual desktops from the Amazon Web Services management console with a few clicks of a mouse. He didn't say whether thousands of end users in a single company can all be rapidly equipped that way at the same time. Citrix' NetScaler, for example, is meant to answer that need.

On another front, Jassy announced that Amazon was launching CloudTrail, a service meant to allow customers to examine who is making API calls to their resources in EC2, what they wished to access, and whether any resources were changed as a result.

CloudTrail archives on S3 each customers API call data and with it a customer can create an audit trail of what was done by whom. Since APIs give outsiders access to limited company resources through third-party applications, CloudTrail is a security resource that exists if something goes wrong with that process. Other log analyzers are capable of examining a server log file and reconstructing the software events recorded there, including Sumo Logic, Splunk and Loggly, and Jassy said CloudTrail will work with such third-party software.

In his talk, Jassy cited a survey by Nucleus Research of Amazon customers, which found they were experiencing 32% less down time with workloads they had moved from on-premises onto EC2.

He cited a statistic oft-repeated by Amazon officials on the number of innovations that the company has come up with, a figure that grows with each passing year. In 2010, it was 61; in 2011, it was 82; in 2012, it was 159; and in 2013, it has hit 235 with six weeks to go. He said there is "a lot more" coming before the end of the year. The figures are used to represent new services, new instance types, or other major additions to the product line. This year's figure includes many of the 26 "innovations" added to the Red Shift data warehouse service.

Jassy also cited customer use of an Amazon-provided tool, Amazon Trusted Advisor, which tells customers after reviewing their virtual machine use whether they've assigned resources appropriately or left some virtual machines idle but still running and racking up charges. Trusted Advisor has sent one million potential optimization notifications to users, Jassy said. Amazon knows that 700,000 of the messages were opened. If acted on correctly, they resulted in customer savings of $140 million during the last year, he said.

Jassy later turned over the microphone to Stephen Orban, global head of technology for Dow Jones financial news service, a unit of News Corp., which is the owner of the New York Post, London Times, Wall Street Journal. Orban said News Corp. wishes to concentrate on content creation, not data center management and is in the process of moving thousands of its applications onto the AWS infrastructure as a service. "Our mission is to migrate 75% of our infrastructure to AWS," he said. The company plans to reduce its total number of data centers from 40 to six, he said.

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