Amazon Web Services' hosted virtual desktops have become generally available, priced from US$35, but the company and its competitors have a lot of hurdles to overcome before this sort of technology is widely used by businesses.
The desktop-as-a-service market has become interesting. Before Amazon's Wednesday announcement on its WorkSpaces service, VMware earlier this month launched its Horizon DaaS, based on the company's acquisition of Desktone.
The pitch for DaaS is the same as for many other hosted services, and includes lower capital investments and management costs. The cost of WorkSpaces is "highly competitive with traditional desktops and half the cost of most virtual desktop infrastructure" platforms, according to Amazon.
DaaS, or hosted desktops, comprise OSes and applications executed in the vendor's data center and then sent across the Internet to be displayed to the user. But such virtual desktops have struggled to gain mass market acceptance, and success won't come easy for these new services in the short term.
"It's very early days from a maturity perspective. I think there is a strong interest from organizations that want to move away from deploying the infrastructure themselves and making the up front capital investment ... But there are a number hurdles vendors have to overcome," said Nathan Hill, research director at Gartner.
Software integration is a major hurdle. Vendors have to ensure good performance of applications that require access to middleware or databases that are physically segregated from where the desktops are hosted.
"I am not saying that it won't work. But you have to test and validate all those applications. Emulating exactly what you have today with a large application portfolio could become a significant undertaking. The key is how you decide which users can survive on a hosted desktop, and I think that might be a small proportion for some organizations," Hill said.
There are also concerns about security, availability and how to manage the whole lifecycle of a desktop, according to Hill.
But vendors have to start somewhere. WorkSpaces is initially available from data centers North Virginia and Oregon with more locations coming soon, according to Amazon. Enterprises outside of the U.S. are welcome to evaluate the service, but if end users are located more than 2,000 miles from the two data centers the "experience may be less responsive," Amazon said.
The desktop it offers is based on Windows Server 2008 R2 with RDS (Remote Desktop Services), which gives users an environment that looks like Windows 7. Amazon is using Windows Server because Microsoft's licensing terms for the server OS are more straightforward than for cloud-based versions of its desktop OSes, according to Hill.
"Whether you regard [using a server OS] as a compromise or not, it is certainly going to have challenges in terms of ISV support for applications," Hill said. Running desktop apps on a server OS is more complicated than running them on a desktop OS, he noted.
WorkSpaces desktops can be integrated with Active Directory, which allows users to sign in with their regular credentials. Otherwise, users have to sign in to WorkSpaces with a separate password. Once set up, users can connect to their new desktop from PCs, Macs, iPads and Android-based tablets, including Amazon's own Kindle Fire family, after installing dedicated client-side software. When users move between devices, they can continue where they left off.
Amazon is also rolling out WorkSpaces Sync, which automatically backs up documents users create or edit to its S3 (Simple Storage Service).
There are four WorkSpaces bundles to choose between. The Standard and Standard Plus have one virtual CPU, 4.03GB of RAM and 50GB of storage, while the Performance and Performance Plus versions have two virtual CPUs, 8.05GB of RAM and 100GB of storage. They cost $35, $50, $60 and $75 per month and user.
VMware offers a standard desktop with one virtual CPU, 2GB or RAM and 30GB of storage for $35 per month, and an advanced option with two virtual CPUs, 4GB of RAM and 30GB of storage for $50 per month. Unlike Amazon, VMware lets users run Windows XP, 7 and 8, in addition to Windows Server 2008 R2 and Windows Server 2012. The company also lets users access their hosted desktops from thin and so-called zero clients as well as smartphones and Google Chromebooks.
Zero clients lack an operating system and have no general purpose processor, memory or disk.
On the software side, Amazon's Standard and Performance desktops have Adobe Reader, Internet Explorer 9, Firefox, 7-Zip and Adobe Flash preinstalled, and with the Plus versions Amazon also includes Microsoft Office Professional 2010 and antivirus software from Trend Micro.
Amazon WorkSpaces doesn't have any technical restrictions on the kind of software that companies can install on top of the desktops as long as they are compatible with the underlying OS. By default, users are configured as local administrators of their WorkSpaces. Administrators can change this setting and can restrict users' ability to install applications with group policies, according to Amazon
New services from Amazon and VMware will help increase interest for hosted desktops, but many IT organizations are still waiting to see what Microsoft will do. There has been a lot of talk about the Microsoft's Project Mohoro, but there has been no announcement yet, Hill said.
"Controlling the code and the platform gives Microsoft a lot of options. It is their game to lose," Hill said.
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