Unusually, I’m writing this blog post in a browser. Specifically, I’m writing it in Microsoft Internet Explorer, on Windows. Not particularly odd you might think, except that I’m not sat in front of my laptop. I’m using my iPad.
It’s ok, you haven’t gone mad. Hell might have already frozen over when Microsoft released Office for iPad last week, but rest assured it hasn’t happened twice: MS have not released Windows iPad Edition.
Workspaces is a virtual desktop product that allows you to run managed Windows 7 desktops in AWS with very little effort. Signing up takes minutes, and you can provision either a mostly vanilla workspace with just a few basic utilities installed, or a ‘Plus’ workspace which adds Microsoft Office Pro, and Trend Micro AV. In either case, licences for the installed software are included in the price, making it a great way to stand up a desktop machine with all the essentials fully licenced in no time.
There are two performance teirs: ‘Standard’, with 1 vCPU and 3.75GB of ram (which sounds suspiciously similar to an m3.medium instance), or ‘Performance’, which packs 2 vCPUs and 7.5GB of RAM (m3.large, anyone?). As is commonly considered best practice, each machine has a couple of disk volumes attached: one that holds operating system and applications (C:), and one for holding a user’s data (D:). Data on the user’s D: is automatically backed up every 12 hours.
Depending on the bundle you chose, prices range from $35 to $75 per month.
You access your workspace using an amazon provided client application that runs on Windows, Mac, iPad, Kindle or Android tablet.
So, that’s the basics covered. How is it to use? Honestly, from the UK it’s currently a little painful. This is to be expected as workspaces is currently only available in the US, so every pixel of my display is being shot across the Atlantic before I get to see it. I’m seeing latencies of just over 200ms, and Amazon recommend a sub 100ms latency for good user experience. I can confirm that both iPad and Mac clients work well enough (spot the Apple fanboy), although in common with any iPad based remote desktop product, the touch-your-screen-to-point-your-mouse impedance mismatch is disorientating at times. Swapping between devices seems to work much as you’d expect. If you’re logged on from your iPad, and then sign in from a desktop, your session transfers seamlessly to the desktop.
From an infrastructure/desktop manager’s perspective, it’s early days at the moment I think. AD integration is possible, allowing users to log in with their normal credentials, as well as allowing them access to local printers and (I assume) file shares. While deploying your own software is certainly possible, you’re pretty much on your own there: There is no concept of an AMI here, nor is there any support for packaging and deploying applications within the service itself. This in itself is probably not a disaster in some senses, since most enterprises have their own deployment tools, but the lack of custom AMI capability makes boot strapping a workspace into the deployment tool harder than it would otherwise be.
What about use cases? We can already see a couple of things we do for customers where workspaces could replace or supplement what we currently provide:
- Cloud DR solutions (for an example see our Haven Power case study). As things stand, the key issue preventing us from doing this is the fact that you pay for workspaces per month, regardless of how much usage of the workspace you make. Unusually for AWS, there isn’t an API allowing you to automatically provision/deprovision workspaces, making it hard to optimise the cost here.
- Remote desktops for 3rd Party users. We deployed a Windows Terminal Services farm in AWS for another of our customers, who use it to allow third parties to work on their applications. Both the applications and terminal services farm are managed by us in AWS, and are accessed globally. in theory it would be relatively straightforward to replace the terminal services farm with Workspaces, although we’d have to be confident that the performance is adequate.
Workspaces is a promising technology, but until it’s available in the EU-WEST-1, we’re unlikely to be able to adopt it except perhaps in very niche circumstances.
That’s the thing about Amazon though: Like Apple, when Amazon first release a new feature, it’s tempting to be a little underwhelmed. But then, like Apple, a few months or years later we look back at a now mature technology, and we can’t quite remember when it grew up from a metaphorical spotty teenager with potential, to an essential member of the team.
It’s this ability to start ‘simple’, but then improve and polish their products day in, day out, over and over again that has made both companies the unstoppable juggernauts they now are.
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