Last week I had a conversation with Leostream CEO Michael Palin about their new cloud-based desktop service called “Leostream Mobile Desktops.” This service gives you a virtual machine hosted in Amazon’s EC2 cloud delivered by RDP or Ericom AccessNow (their HTML5 clientless remote desktop technique that Gabe wrote about a few months ago).
Along with the usual cases for VDI, Leostream is positioning this as a way to access Windows applications and desktops from mobile devices. I could also see using Leostream Mobile Desktops as an alternative to a client hypervisor for occasional Windows usage on a Mac.
The pricing is pretty straightforward: For $20 a month you get a VM with 512MB of memory and 20GB of storage, or for $50 a month you get 1.7GB of memory and 160GB of storage. You can buy up to the high level for just a short period of time, pay for only what you use (not the whole month), and then revert back down. For an extra $50 each month you can have them leave your VM running all the time. The service has a few other features, like the ability to take snapshots and push them out to other users (as well as multi-user management in general). Leostream takes care of signing you into EC2 with a single-use token.
Leostream claims that you can connect to this desktop from just about anywhere, via RDP or HTML5. If you’re connecting with an RDP client, you get client drive redirection and all the standard RDP capabilities. For mobile devices or scenarios where an RDP client is not available, you can connect using Ericom AccessNow and an HTML5 browser. However, in order to use the AccessNow HTML5 option, you have to have ports 8080 and 8081 open. (So “AccessNow” isn’t quite “AccessAnywhere.” :) [UPDATE: AccessNow only requires a single port, and it's configurable. Thanks to Ericom's Dan Shappir for pointing out the slip-up.] Leostream also has iPad and iPhone apps which let you connect via RDP.
One of the most important upcoming features will enable more use cases by adding the ability to create a virtual private network within EC2. Leostream said this is their next priority, based on user feedback, and that they’ll be rolling it out in the next two or three months.
The virtual machine that you get from Leostream’s mobile desktop service is actually a single-user instance of Windows Server 2008 R2 since that’s the only Windows OS offered in EC2 (thanks to a licensing agreement between Amazon and Microsoft). This raises an interesting question around RDS CALs, though. For their part, Leostream stays out of the fray, stating on their website “Remember, if you want to use the Windows Server 2008 operating system as a desktop instead of as a server, you must obtain the necessary Remote Desktop Services Client Access License (RDS CAL) from Microsoft.” However, you are allowed to connect to Windows Server via RDP without an RDS CAL if the purpose of your connection is administrative tasks. But what exactly can you claim as administrative use, and how is licensing for this use enforced? Based on how long you stay connected? Or just by good faith? I couldn’t find any conclusive information from Amazon about this.
Brian wrote about using Amazon EC2 for Windows desktops back in 2008, and he asked the question, “do you really want to do build this yourself?” At that time, there were still a lot of questions to be answered as to how it would work, or even if it would make any sense at all. Even now, there would still be a lot of back-end work to get everything wired together if you wanted to do this on your own.
So besides having Leostream put everything together for you, what else do you get by buying this from them? Leostream has a nice web interface front end that you can use to spawn VMs and manage your users, they give you the HTML5 connection capabilities with Ericom AccessNow, and they give you a simple pricing model (no need to figure out all of Amazon’s variables by yourself).
On the other hand, if your environment is complex enough that you’re considering VDI, then you can probably figure out how to put everything together yourself. You can get the Windows Server 2008 R2 instances directly from Amazon and configure everything exactly as you want it. And then maybe you can price everything cheaper than Leostream and just tell your users that they need to download an RDP client app if they want to connect with a mobile device.
So is using Windows Server as a remote desktop a viable option? (Check out Brian’s article from Monday for more on that or to join that discussion.) If so, would you set it up yourself or would you have Leostream take care of it?