Amazon WorkSpaces: Your Desktop in the AWS Cloud (Part 1)

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

Introduction

In October of 2014, I wrote a series of articles called Desktop in the Cloud for our sister publication, www.cloudcomputingadmin.com. In the slightly-more-than-a-year that has passed since then, cloud computing in general and cloud-based desktop virtualization have both come a long way.

The cloud-based virtualized desktop is, according to many cloud experts, the up and coming next step toward a complete takeover of all of our computing activities by the cloud. Virtualized desktops hosted in the cloud can take two different forms:

  • VDI (Virtualized Desktop Infrastructure) that is provided over the Internet, or
  • Desktop as a Service (DaaS), which is still a form of virtualized desktops but is a true multi-tenant cloud service

There has been much discussion over the definition of DaaS and at what point VDI hosted off-premises becomes DaaS.

No matter how much you quibble over the names, desktops in the cloud offer advantages both cost-wise and convenience-wise, but like all cloud services, also have their drawbacks – the most obvious of which is the dependency on the reliability and quality of the Internet connection.

Persistent desktops: what problems do they solve?

The lack of consistency has long been a source of frustration for computer users, and it’s a pain to have to either spend time changing settings or adapt to a different (even if only slightly) interface when switching from one device to another. It’s not uncommon, either to find that the document a user was working on with one device was saved to that local hard drive and either isn’t available at all on the current device (and in a worst case scenario, will have to be recreated), or the user must lose productivity time to establishing a connection back to the home or work network where the document is stored in order to retrieve it and continue working on it.

Another common scenario is that the user has access to his or her documents (perhaps because they’re stored on a cloud service, perhaps because the user transferred a copy by putting it on a USB drive or sending it to him/herself via email) – but then finds that the application that’s needed to work with it isn’t installed on the new device. Granted, this is less of an issue that it used to be, now that functional online versions of Microsoft Office programs or Google docs can be used from any machine, and many mobile apps can be downloaded quickly and easily (and without paying for them again if the user already owns them) from a mobile OS vendor’s Store – but it still happens. This is particularly true in the case of custom line-of-business applications.

A big advantage of persistent desktops is that both the user’s applications and the user’s data are always in the same place and accessible through the virtualized desktop, so that switching from one device to another suddenly becomes a seamless experience.

From the company’s point of view, the ability to quickly deploy desktops to new users can be a big plus, especially in special cases such as mergers and acquisitions, which seem to be increasingly common in many industries these days. You can bring in a large number of new employees and quickly get them up and running.

The other big thing for administration is that deploying virtual desktops gives you more control over them, more easily, than you might have with dozens, hundreds or even thousands of individual computer desktops. And this is true independently of the hardware. That is, users can bring their own devices – laptops and tablets – or work from their home desktop systems, and you still have control over their work desktops that they’re accessing with those devices. What’s not to like?

Concerns and issues surrounding Desktop as a Service

In spite of the benefits of delivering user desktops as a service over the Internet, as described above, there are downsides, as there are with any technology. Some users and IT pros may be resistant to the idea of a desktop that lives in the cloud. There may be concerns around security and privacy, which are common in relation to any transition to a cloud computing experience. In the case of the desktop, reliability and accessibility might also be an issue for some users, who fear that a loss of Internet connection (or just a loss of connectivity between the user’s machine and the server) could result in an almost total loss of productivity since the desktop is the location, for the average user, where everything lives. It’s their window to the computing world and if that window is closed for any reason, they may feel lost.

Admins may have the same and/or different concerns about DaaS. The major cloud providers offer SLAs that generally start at around “three nines” or 99.9% up time. That’s pretty standard throughout the industry and it sounds good – but in reality that translates to about eight and three quarters hours of down time per year, or almost forty-four minutes per month. While that’s not a lot, that much time without the use of his/her desktop could make a big difference if a particular user happens to be working to a very tight deadline on a critical project at the time that the cloud service goes down.

Another common problem is adapting to the occasional (or sometimes frequent) latency issues that can plague DaaS implementations. Latency doesn’t just add up to a performance hit – it also makes for a frustrating experience for users who aren’t used to the “sit and wait” situation when performing tasks on their desktops. There has to be enough bandwidth to give users an experience that’s the same as or close to what they’re used to when working on a local desktop, because otherwise you’ll end up with very unhappy users.

Different types of applications are more or less affected by latency (or perhaps more accurately, the effects of latency will be more or less noticed by users). Real time communications and collaboration tools such as Skype are noticeably affected, as are multi-media applications that involve high quality video. Applications such as email, or browsing low bandwidth web sites (mostly text and photos), on the other hand, won’t be noticeably affected.

Weighing the pros and cons

Many companies are coming to the conclusion that the drawbacks of putting user desktops in the cloud are outweighed by the benefits, and in particular the cost benefits. Providing the CPU, RAM and disk space for individual workstations can be much more expensive than virtualizing those resources, and DaaS solutions generally add up to significant cost savings over on-prem VDI for most organizations, due to the economies of scale and the difference in expensive administrative overhead as well as the capital expenditure required for the latter.

DaaS, like other “as a service” computing, cuts the need for capital investments and shifts that cost to fixed and predictable on-going monthly or annual fees, thus moving big chunks of budget from CapEx to OpEx (capital to operational expenses). It also provides fast scalability (both up and down) and fits better into today’s “agile” model of doing business.

Once you’ve decided that DaaS is the right option for your org, you’re faced with the challenge of evaluating different DaaS providers and determining which is right for your needs. A comprehensive comparison of DaaS providers is beyond the scope of this article, but many companies today are using Amazon’s AWS (Amazon Web Services) for their IaaS, PaaS, cloud storage, and other cloud computing needs. If you’re already an AWS customer or if you’re considering AWS services in general, it makes sense to check out their DaaS offering when you decide to put some or all of your users’ desktops into the cloud.

Amazon’s DaaS: Workspaces in the AWS cloud

Amazon’s DaaS offering is called Amazon WorkSpaces. This can be a lower cost alternative to expensive and difficult to configure (and manage) VDI deployments in your on-premises data center, while giving users similar functionality. The nice thing for users about VDI, in comparison to traditional local desktops, is that they are able to have the same experience and interface regardless of whether they’re connecting from a PC at the office, a home computer or a laptop. They can even get that same computing environment when using a Mac or iPad, a Chromebook, or an Android tablet (including, of course, Amazon’s own Kindle Fire), as Workspaces supports all of these.

Workspaces is a robust DaaS solution that will work in conjunction with your company’s Active Directory, making it easy for users to sign onto their desktops with their current credentials that they use in the enterprise. It also makes things easy for admins, taking much of the burden of deploying and managing VDI off of you; Amazon takes care of such tedious tasks as desktop OS patching, and there are a number of different “bundles” of the service that you can subscribe to, depending on what your hardware and software needs are.

Summary

In this series of articles, I’m going to delve into Amazon’s Workspaces desktop service and take a look at various aspects of how it works, what it costs and how to deploy and use it. We’ll take that up in Part 2 with an examination of the different plans, licensing issues, and provisioning.

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

1 thought on “Amazon WorkSpaces: Your Desktop in the AWS Cloud (Part 1)”

  1. Quantum Mechanic

    I realise this blog post is a few years old, and maybe my question doesn’t make sense in that timeframe.

    However, having never used Workspaces, do these posts do a good job of covering the cons? Or, it could be that it’s that good, and it only has a few obvious restrictions (which aren’t yet obvious to me)?

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