By now you've probably heard that last week Amazon announced they're going to start selling Windows Desktops-as-a-Service (DaaS) directly to consumers and businesses from the AWS cloud (using EC2) via a service called "Amazon WorkSpaces." Pricing starts at $35 per user, per month.
While there's not too much information out there on the offering yet, I've dug through everything I can find and assembled it here.
Details of the Amazon WorkSpaces DaaS Offering
First, these "desktops" are actually Windows Server 2008 R2 instanced that are skinned to look and feel like Windows 7. There are two levels—"standard" and "performance"—the standard for $35 per month with 1 vCPU with 4GB RAM (well, 3.75GiB technically) and 2 vCPUs & 8GB RAM in the performance offering for $60. There's no lock-in or long term commitment. It's simply billed per month, per user.
Both offerings come with persistent storage. (Read that again because it's huge!) Both offerings come with persistent storage! 50 GB for standard and 100 GB for performance.
Customers have full administrative rights over the VMs. These are single-user instances of Windows Server, not Remote Desktop Session Host (RDSH) shared-session VMs. (Amazon can't host Windows 7 as a service due to Microsoft's bullshit licensing policies around the Windows client platform which don't apply to Server. So DaaS providers are forced to host single-user servers and call them desktops. Fun.) You can add them to your own on-premises Active Directory (via Amazon's Virtual Private Cloud or Amazon Direct Connect service), and you can install whatever applications or management agents you want.
For an additional 15 bucks a month you can add on Microsoft Office 2010 Professional and Trend Antivirus (or, again, if you have those already you can install them yourself).
Remote access to WorkSpaces is provided by Teradici's PC-over-IP protocol. Amazon has released their own software clients for Windows, Mac OS X, iOS, Android, and the Kindle Fire. (The Kindle and Android clients even support attaching a keyboard and pointing device or touch pad.) You'll also be able to use PC-over-IP zero clients with an upcoming firmware update from Teradici. (I still don't so how "firmware" and "zero client" go together, but whatever...)
What this means
This announcement is a big deal. We've written that 2014 will be the "Year of DaaS," and so far it looks like this is coming true. The fact that Amazon is doing this puts the idea of DaaS into the heads of everyone. (Just like VMware buying Desktone put the idea of DaaS into the heads of virtualization geeks).
Recall that last month I wrote that I believe all organizations under 500 seats (an arbitrary number, but you get my point) should just buy DaaS instead of building it themselves. Given Amazon's investments in technology, datacenter efficiency, and all the processes around it, I just can't imagine that anyone can build their own VDI for less than this? And for $35 a month, who'd want to? Sure, you have to make sure you have the bandwidth to support all these connections from your office, and yeah, you have to think about where your files and enterprise apps will live, but in terms of "how to get to VDI," I feel like we're moving towards DaaS being the way and you have to make a good use case as to why you wouldn't use DaaS if you want to build your own VDI.
Having zero up-front CapEx expenses is incredibly interesting. While you know what I think about cost models and how I would respond to Amazon's blog post about the ROI of their DaaS solution versus traditional desktops, there's really something compelling about literally paying for only what you need, as you need it, with no upfront costs. And again, with a fully persistent image that's run by someone else... I like it a lot!
That said, we still have a lot of questions. In terms of the technology, remember that all I care about is that your VDI supports persistent disk images. So knowing how they can do persistent storage is not one of my questions because I don't care. But I do care that desktop VMs have GPUs in them. And while Amazon recently announced EC2 instances with GPUs, they didn't mention this in their WorkSpaces announcement, so I assume that won't be an option out of the gate.
We also don't know the details of how Amazon has implemented PC-over-IP. I spoke with Teradici's CEO Dan Cordingley on Friday about this deal, and he said that Teradici has made their entire stack of technologies available to Amazon, but that we'd have to talk to them for the details. (So they could be using Teradici software encoders, the Teradici hardware chips, the PC-over-IP gateway, the network QoS stuff integrated with Cisco, Riverbed, and F5, etc.)
Another question is what exactly Amazon means when they say the WorkSpaces images are "fully managed." In one of the technical descriptions of the product, Amazon mentioned that they handle patching and maintenance. But how does that work if you join the instance to your own domain? Can you opt out of that?
Then there's the question of the service-level agreement. I couldn't find a specific SLA for WorkSpaces, but the standard EC2 SLA allows for almost 4 hours of downtime per month before they give you any credit (and even then it's only 10%). S3 allows for up to 8 hours a month before service credits kick in.
Amazon's marketing materials also indicate that they automatically (and "frequently") back up each desktop's My Documents folder to S3. Unfortunately we don't know what that means or how it works. Does it allow users to access their files from an S3 client directly? Do administrators have the option to do specific point-and-time and file-level restores? Do users? Can we add more folders to that? Can we turn that off and use Dropbox instead?
Overall there were several references to the WorkSpaces "Documentation," but I sure couldn't find and/or don't have access to that. There's certainly nothing about WorkSpaces listed on the AWS Documentation page.
We're working on a book for release in 2014 about DaaS, and as part of that we're interviewing dozens of DaaS providers, customers, and partners. So our list of potential caveats around DaaS is pretty huge. (Actually it's so huge we could write a book on it!)
I don't want to get into everything here, but suffice it to say, one of the biggest things to keep in mind with Amazon WorkSpaces (or any DaaS environment) is that you'll most likely have to upgrade your workplace's Internet connection if you want to switch an office full of traditional desktops to cloud-based DaaS. That would be my Number One concern.
People make a big deal out of the SLAs, but I'm not too worried about that. I mean they're Amazon. If they're down then they're in the news, and when they're down they have about 300 engineers working on it. When your current physical desktops go down, who even knows? Yeah sure, your desktops don't all go down at once, but what's the different? I guarantee Amazon can keep a VDI running more reliably than you can.
The Bottom Line
Amazon is offering a fully persistent desktop with PC-over-IP, 4GB RAM, a 50 GB hard drive, and no bandwidth charged (well, no bandwidth charges from them) for 4.7 cents an hour.
Think about that. This is not a bad deal.
WorkSpaces is currently available as a "limited preview," and I haven't actually been able to put my hands on it yet. Hopefully that will change soon. I'll be speaking to Amazon about WorkSpaces this week. I'll ask the questions I've listed here, but please share any other questions you'd like me to ask and I'll update this post next week. I'm really excited about this offering and hope that they and the other DaaS providers have huge success in the next twelve months!
EDIT November 26: I sent Amazon 50 (!) questions about this product, and they answered them all. Check out their answers in this post.