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Amazon WorkSpaces generally available, but DaaS SLA remains unclear

Amazon WorkSpaces give IT shops a way to quickly and cheaply deploy virtual desktops from AWS, but questions remain about the company's DaaS SLA.

Amazon WorkSpaces became generally available this week in some regions of the U.S., and while many IT pros are sure to give these cloud desktops a whirl, the service-level agreement remains in question.

Amazon's Desktop as a Service (DaaS) allows IT to centrally manage and deliver Windows desktops from the cloud. It's an approach that many companies are eyeing this year as they seek new ways to deliver applications to mobile end users.

Enterprise support is still a question mark.

Brett Waldman,
analyst, IDC

The WorkSpaces platform had been in limited preview since its launch in November. It is only generally available in the U.S. East (Northern Virginia) and West (Oregon) regions, so users located more than 2,000 miles away won't get the right level of performance, according to the WorkSpaces FAQ.

From a technical standpoint, WorkSpaces has hit the checkmarks enterprises look for, such as Active Directory integration and file sync, said Brett Waldman, analyst with IDC, an IT analysis firm based in Framingham, Mass.

However, large companies won't deploy these desktops without an enterprise-grade service-level agreement (SLA), which Amazon has not disclosed. Requests for a WorkSpaces SLA have not been answered.

"A desktop has to be responsive all the time, or end users will complain," Waldman said. "Enterprise support is still a question mark."

But this release is an important start and Amazon's presence in the DaaS space validates the market, said David Johnson, a principal analyst with Forrester Research, an IT research firm based in Cambridge, Mass.

"WorkSpaces is probably best described as an initial volley into the Desktops as a Service space," said Johnson, who co-wrote a report in November cautioning on the pros and cons of Amazon's DaaS platform. "We expect Amazon to iterate on WorkSpaces very quickly, however, so the DaaS space is quickly heating up."

Earlier this month, VMware Inc. launched Horizon DaaS (formerly Desktone) on its own vCloud Hybrid Service at prices that compete with WorkSpaces and a service agreement that appeals to enterprise customers.

How Amazon WorkSpaces works

Amazon WorkSpaces delivers a Windows desktop experience through Windows Server 2008 R2 rather than a Windows client OS. Desktops are delivered using PCoIP.

IT pros provision WorkSpaces for each user and can deploy persistent sessions. WorkSpaces can tie into Active Directory for user authentication and management, and IT can restrict personalization using Group Policy. Admins can also create a directory managed by Amazon WorkSpaces.

The company also launched Amazon WorkSpaces Sync, a client that automatically backs up documents created and edited in WorkSpace, which are stored in Amazon S3.

Competitive platforms including Horizon DaaS and dinCloud support clients and HTML5, so users can access their desktops and applications from a Web browser.

Earlier this week, VMware upped the ante by supporting 3-D graphics on Horizon DaaS through Nvidia Corp.'s vGPU technology.

"User experience can mean the difference between success and failure of a desktop virtualization initiative and graphics performance -- even for basic services like YouTube video," Johnson said. "While WorkSpaces uses the same communication protocol as VMware's offerings, it doesn't play video well."

However, Amazon's big perk is that companies can deploy WorkSpaces without a long-term contract. That, along with no minimum desktop requirement, may entice IT pros, IDC's Waldman said. VMware's Horizon DaaS requires at least 50 users.

Companies that use WorkSpaces can also offload some of their desktop infrastructure costs, but they'll still need a method for installing applications, patching them, maintaining policies, applying antivirus and other maintenance tasks, Johnson said.

He evaluated Amazon WorkSpaces this week using a hotel Wi-Fi network and noted "occasional freezes that last several seconds," most likely due to the quality of the Wi-Fi network, he said. This points to the downside of all DaaS services; a reliable Internet connection is a must. WorkSpaces' is also "bare-bones in terms of apps," he said.

Users need an AWS account and a PC or Mac to run the WorkSpaces client. A mobile version of the client is available on Apple's. iPad, Amazon Kindle Fire HDX and Google Android tablets, but noticeably missing is Microsoft's Surface device.

Meanwhile, industry watchers expect Microsoft to soon release its own Windows DaaS atopthe Azure cloud platform. DaaS providers hope Microsoft will also change its Windows client service provider license agreement.

"The governor on the growth of DaaS is Microsoft's tight hold on the Windows 7 desktop licensing, which doesn't allow service providers to rent Windows 7 instances," Johnson said.

That licensing restriction is why Amazon and other DaaS providers use Windows 2008 Server instances running in a Windows 7 desktop experience mode, he added.

Amazon WorkSpaces pricing

There are four WorkSpaces bundles with 1 or 2 virtual CPUs, 3.75 or 7.5 GB of RAM, and 50 or 100 GB of storage. Prices start at $35 per WorkSpace per month. The WorkSpaces Performance Suite, with 2 vCPU, 7.5 GB memory and 100 GB user storage, is priced at $60 per user per month.

That pricing is competitive with other persistent DaaS services.

VMware Horizon DaaS standard service lists at $35 per user per month (for 50 users or more), and the price declines as volume increases. It includes 1 vCPU, 2 GB vRAM, 30 GB hard disk, security services and a 99.9% SLA. Advanced package pricing for Horizon DaaS starts at $50 per user per month, with 2 vCPU, 4 GB vRAM and 30 GB storage. The service can be deployed on-premises as well.

Companies can shop around for lower prices, too. Nonpersistent hosted virtual desktops from companies such as tuCloud cost less than $20 per user per month.

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Will you try Amazon WorkSpaces?
No virtualization service that lets end users run virtual versions of Windows 7 Amazon try to win storage customers away from Microsoft's OneDrive
Only allows managers to provision five WorkSpaces at a time accepting sign ups for a limited preview of the service