Amazon Offers Virtual PCs From the Cloud

Amazon Workspaces provides virtual tablets or PCs housed in the cloud.

Amazon Web Services (AWS) helped create the modern cloud industry by renting out computer services that customers didn’t want to maintain themselves. Now it’s trying to do something similar with virtual desktops.

Desktop virtualization has been on industry pundits’ list of next big successes since shortly after VMware’s introduction of x86-based virtual servers revived the idea of allowing more than one user or operating system to use a single piece of hardware simultaneously.

Virtual servers became popular almost immediately, because virtualizing two underutilized servers and running them on a third allows the owner to get rid of two physical servers or avoid buying new ones, cutting capital expenses for new hardware while also slashing maintenance and support costs.

The success of virtualized servers made it obvious that Virtual Desktop Infrastructures (VDI) could be the next big hit in virtualized computing. It never quite happened, largely due to the cost and complexity of virtualizing thousands of PCs assigned to individuals rather than dozens of servers assigned mainly to departments or branch offices.

Cost and complexity have kept VDI a dream for most companies, despite the obvious potential benefits of managing thousands of desktops via a console from a central location and eliminating the need for technicians to travel in person to fix often-simple hardware problems and provide in-person support for physical machines, according to Andy Jassy, the Amazon senior VP who introduced the Amazon WorkSpaces service at the company’s AWS re:invent conference in Las Vegas this week.

WorkSpaces is a service that offers ready-made, fully managed VDI that can scale on demand to companies that want to “live that dream of centrally managing desktops” without having to build or maintain the infrastructure themselves, Jassy said during the presentation.

WorkSpaces is Amazon’s effort to address the management cost of physical PCs and inconsistent performance and availability of VDI with “secure, easy-to-manage, high-performance desktops in the cloud at a fraction the price of traditional VDI,” according to Gene Farrell, GM of Amazon WorkSpaces, as quoted in Amazon’s announcement of the service.

As with other AWS services, WorkSpace allows customers to set the level of resources available: the CPU, memory, storage and applications for each virtual desktop. The service works with existing Amazon accounts, including data and applications housed in AWS, as well as Active Directory to allow customers to integrate WorkSpace authentication with their existing security.

Customers can provision as many desktops as they like – or define who is allowed to provision them – for a range of hardware including Windows and Macintosh PCs, iPads, and Kindle Fire and Android tablets. Client software can be downloaded from AWS or a range of app stores.

The infrastructure uses Teradici’s high-performing PC-over-IP communications protocol, which encrypts and compresses data traveling between client and server to improve performance. All compute work is handled on the back-end, so only pixels and commands travel between client and server, according to Amazon.

Amazon estimates WorkSpaces will cost about 60 percent of the cost of maintaining physical PCs, with pay-as-you-go pricing to allow customers to provision and pay for only the desktops they need.

The cost for a “Standard” WorkSpace bundle, which includes a virtual CPU, 3.75GB of memory and 50GB of storage, but no applications other than Web browsers, is $35 per month per user. “Standard Plus” adds Microsoft Office Professional 2010 and anti-virus software for $50 per user per month.

A “Performance” version gets 2 virtual CPUs with 7.5GB of RAM and 100GB of storage for $60; “Performance Plus” is the same setup plus Microsoft Office, for $75 per month, according to Amazon’s pricing schedule for WorkSpaces. mmar