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Amazon's WorkSpaces: Why is it needed?

Learn about the direction Amazon WorkSpaces could take in application architecture in the cloud.

Many companies have been reporting that it costs far more to support worker use of PCs than the PCs themselves cost. VDI or Desktop as a Service are aimed at centralizing application hosting to reduce these support costs, but these technologies seem to be overtaken by the onrush of mobile devices and BYOD policies, and by the need for more application and resource agility as offered by cloud computing. Now Amazon WorkSpaces is hoping to be the right answer.

Historically, virtual desktop applications have simply created a fixed "PC instance" on a server and connected it to a thin client interface in a remote PC. In many ways, this corresponds to the virtualization approach taken for server consolidation, and it does have the advantage of improving hardware utilization and centralizing service and support. Adoption of virtual desktops has generally increased over the years, but the most rapid rate of advance is usually considered to have been in the 2007-2010 period. It would seem that most users who can benefit from the current model have already converted.

Probably the largest reason for the decline in the pace of VDI adoption is mobility. Users shifting to smartphones and tablets shift to platforms not supported by traditional VDI, and many users move almost regularly between these mobile devices and traditional PCs while doing their work. To impact overall user and software support costs, companies need an approach to virtualization that goes beyond the desktop, one that embraces all the technology options in use and on the horizon.

The cloud is also a factor in VDI adoption because many companies linked desktop virtualization to server virtualization, and are now seeing the latter more as an opportunity for cloud migration. The cloud offers elasticity of resources and potential resiliency improvements difficult to obtain with standard VDI, and it also marries well with the mobility trend.

Some might see WorkSpaces as virtual data infrastructure (VDI) in the cloud, but it's much more. In particular, it's VDI for a mobile world.

That's the combination that drives Amazon's WorkSpaces. It's a cloud-based application hosting strategy that combines cloud application elements, cloud services bundled by Amazon and a new approach for linking a remote user device to a hosted "device instance." Some might see WorkSpaces as "VDI in the cloud" but it's much more. In particular, it's VDI for a mobile world.

First and foremost, WorkSpaces is designed to be client-independent, unlike traditional VDI that focuses on Windows PCs. While WorkSpaces are based on Windows Server and include traditional office applications, they can be linked to a wide variety of devices through custom WorkSpaces clients. These devices harmonize the applications' GUI (essentially, Windows 7) with the specifics of the client devices. Amazon uses the Teradici PCoIP protocol to create a secure link between the WorkSpaces instances in the cloud and the clients, and because the protocol carries only the GUI and not the underlying application data, there's inherently less exposure of secure information as well as encryption and authentication (via Active Directory) protection for applications.

Data compression and the fact that the client connection carries only the GUI mean that performance of WorkSpaces is normally good. While some reports suggest that branch office connections might be too slow to handle the volume of traffic generated there, it's more likely that users would find congestion in public WiFi locations the problem. These connections would also impact any other VDI or remote data access application.

In its initial form, and limited to Windows applications, WorkSpaces still offers a significant benefit in supporting Windows applications through Android and iOS clients as well as through Windows PCs. For users who mix tablets and PCs in their daily activity, it could be a real boon. The biggest benefits may be yet to come, though, because Amazon has two directions in which it could (and is rumored to be planning to) enhance WorkSpaces.

One path is to utilize more of Amazon's cloud services to accelerate the PCoIP connection. Amazon now uses Web page pre-processing in the cloud for Kindle, and this feature is likely to be used in a custom Kindle client to make Kindle a better and more competitive tablet platform for businesses. In fact, many believe that WorkSpaces is aimed in large part at creating a business market for Kindle tablets. This would mean that other AWS services, including content caching and flow processing, could be incorporated in WorkSpaces later on.

A second path is to generalize the PCoIP connection to the client so that it becomes a presentation interface for any cloud application and not just a Windows application. This would mean that Amazon would be providing what is effectively a cloud-hosted application architecture that could be used with any mobile device or (potentially) any laptop or desktop computer through a WorkSpaces client. That would allow developers to build platform-independent applications and present them to businesses through the full range of mobile and fixed hardware, and also cement Amazon as a player in the enterprise market — a platform player and not just a cloud player.

Right now Amazon offers four bundles that differ in their virtual CPU performance and in the installed software (the "Plus" bundles include Office, for example). Users can install their own Windows-Server-compatible software in their WorkSpaces for customization. Bundle prices are competitive with the TCO of the hardware and software included. It seems likely that Amazon will evolve these bundles over time, likely adding other software packages that are popular with users. This bundle-supplementing is also how Amazon is likely to incorporate other AWS platform services, and eventually evolve WorkSpaces to be that "application architecture in the cloud" that its design promises.

Amazon hasn't committed to any specific enhancements to WorkSpaces, but it seems certain that they'll come along quickly. The current Windows focus of the offering doesn't differentiate it sufficiently from other VDI strategies from vendors like Citrix or VMware and doesn't fully exploit the power of Amazon's cloud. Never one to undershoot market potential, Amazon isn't likely to announce something like WorkSpaces without plans to make it the definitive leader.

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If your company isn't using virtual desktops, what's the main reason?