AWS: Our virtual desktop will succeed where others have stumbled
By Joab Jackson
With the launch of a new hosted virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) service called WorkSpaces, Amazon Web Services (AWS) is hoping to convert more enterprises to virtual work environments, something other IT companies have enjoyed only modest success in doing.
“Before today, VDI was very challenging. There was a lot of complexity and cost,” said Matt Wood, AWS principal data scientist. “We see the opportunity in simplifying things, making it easy for customers to use VDI at an attractive price point.”
As the name suggests, VDI encapsulates an instance of an operating system and its desktop within a virtual container that can be accessed over a network. Most all of the virtualization software vendors, such as Citrix, VMware and Oracle, offer VDI platforms.
The VDI approach offers a number of advantages over regular desktop deployments. A virtual desktop can be accessed from different devices, which can be handy for mobile workers, or workers who want to access their work materials from home. It offers a potentially more secure environment, because the administrator can manage the security settings a lot more closely and just regenerate a new VDI should the old one be infected with malware. It also allows employees to use their own preferred hardware, for those organizations interested in pursuing a BYOD (bring your own device) strategy.
Despite these appeals, VDI adoption in the enterprise has moved slowly over the past decade, perhaps due to cost issues and complexities in implementation. Amazon is hoping to lure more enterprises in through a combination of lower prices, less maintenance and superior performance.
As with other VDI offerings, WorkSpaces provides a virtual desktop environment that can be accessed from multiple devices, such as Apple Macs or iPads, computers running Windows, or Android tablets. When the user moves to another device, the desktop will be in the same state as it was in the previous device. “Persistent state is incredibly attractive to customers,” Wood said. When the user logs on to a new device, the session on the previously used device automatically shuts down.
Although the user must have a network connection to use WorkSpaces, AWS did a lot of work in minimizing network latency, which can slow VDI responsiveness.
To help in this regard, WorkSpaces uses the PCoIP (PC-over-IP) remote display protocol, first developed by Teradici. Amazon also deployed its SDX (Streaming Experience) protocol, which is based not on the standard TCP (Transmission Protocol) but rather on the less chatty UDP (User Datagram Protocol). AWS also used variable bit rate (VBR) encoding to smooth performance in choppy bandwidth.
“It will adjust the bit rate coming down from the cloud depending on what conditions are on the network,” Wood said..
It also includes multi-channel redundancy, for where there are two or more networks available. So if one network offers better throughput than another, “it is smart enough to know which one to use,” Wood said.
WorkSpaces can provide advanced (for VDI) features such as video streaming and support for USB devices (except for printing).
Another advantage WorkSpaces can offer is a competitive price. During the opening keynote of the Amazon Re:Invent conference, being held this week in Las Vegas, Andy Jassy, Amazon senior vice president who heads up Amazon Web Services, noted that WorkSpaces costs about half of the typical in-house implementation.
The service, which is now offered in a limited preview, can be paid for on a month-by-month basis. A WorkSpaces desktop with one virtual CPU and 50GB of storage space will cost US$35 a month, and the “performance” desktop with 2 virtual CPUs and 100GB of storage will cost $60 per month.
Because AWS is handling details such as hardware maintenance and configuration, enterprises don’t have to devote administrators and engineers to these tasks, potentially offering greater savings, Wood said.