I’ve been using Amazon Workspaces since January 2014 and I’m both impressed and disappointed in it. Impressed, because it provides a Windows desktop as a service that is almost indistinguishable to the user from a real local desktop. Disappointed because the only clients Amazon has so far don’t address the most compelling use case I see for the service.
Setting up Workspaces is very easy. Once you have an Amazon Web Services account, log in to the console and select the Workspaces tab. Click the Launch Workspaces button and a wizard guides you through the steps. Basically, you just have to enter information about each user who needs a desktop and click Create Users. The next step is to select one of the pre-configured desktop configurations offered by Amazon. There are four of them right now: Standard (1 CPU, 3.75GB RAM, 50GB disk) and Performance (double what Standard has), and Plus versions of each (add Microsoft Office and Trend Micro Security Services). Then click Launch Workspaces. That’s it.
AWS creates the desktops and sends email to the new users with instructions on installing the client and connecting to their new desktop. The clients are extremely easy to install and use. And the user experience when connected is excellent, much better than the standard Windows remote desktop. Mouse and keyboard responses are instantaneous, and the display automatically adjusts to your client display, and supports dual monitors flawlessly.
I think that the prices are pretty good: $35/month for the Standard and $60/month for the Performance configurations. The Plus versions cost $15/month more. I know you can buy cheap Windows machines, even with Office, for very little money, but if you’re a business you’ll have to manage and support them. Amazon does that for you. Amazon Workspaces is a turnkey, no-worry solution that I find attractive for business use.
Unfortunately, the only available clients are for Windows and Mac desktops and Android and Apple phones and tablets. I find the phone and tablet versions to be nearly useless. Yes, they work, and it’s an impressive achievement, but using desktop apps with just a small, touch interface on a mobile device works poorly. The only actual use I see for this is emergency access, where the pain of using it is offset by the need to get something done on a Windows desktop right away, with no physical desktops directly available.
The Windows client seems pointless. If I have a business that provides my employees with a Windows desktop already, how is a Workspaces desktop useful? I’ll mention some use cases I see for this in a bit, but I find this to be mostly useless.
How about the Mac client? Again, if your business provides Mac desktops, you already have the cost and complexity that the Workspaces desktop is supposed to alleviate. There are a few more use cases for this than if you have a Windows desktop, but not many.
What would be a useful client? One for Chromebooks and Chromeboxes, more than any other. I’ve used them for several years now, and they are ideal in a corporate environment. Any single device can be used by any employee at any time; just log in and all your own data and configuration is just there, and there securely. There is literally zero administration required beyond providing Internet access, and they are inexpensive. Best of all, if one gets broken just give the user a new one. No setup is required at all. And if one gets lost or stolen, don’t worry. The cached local data is stored strongly encrypted with no decryption keys on the device itself. The only downside to Chrome devices is the occasional need for users to run Windows programs, and Amazon Workspaces would be the perfect way to remedy that.
Why isn’t Amazon supporting ChromeOS devices? Chromebooks make up three of the top five best-selling laptops on Amazon, and a Chromebox is the number one selling desktop computer there. It might be difficult to make a ChromeOS client, but (thanks to technologies like WebRTC) I’m sure it’s possible. And Amazon Workspaces has been live for half a year now, which seems like plenty of time. Last November, at the AWS re:Invent conference, Amazon even stated that they would support Chrome (and Linux, and web browsers in general).
Maybe Amazon has something against Google? They don’t support Amazon Prime Video on Android devices or via Chromecast (their number one selling item in Electronics), even though it’s on their own Android-derived devices. Whatever the reason, Amazon needs to stop dragging its feet and support ChromeOS, or they’re going to leave out the most promising potential market for Workspaces.
Oh, well, with no ChromeOS support, what are the use cases for Amazon Workspaces? I can see a few:
- BYOD. Companies can have their employees bring their own devices (pretty much all of which are Windows or Mac machines) and have them do all their work on an Amazon Workspaces virtual desktop. No company data is stored on the employee’s personal machine, and any malware doesn’t propagate to the company’s (virtual) PCs.
- Demonstration machines. Instead of installing, configuring, and maintaining demo systems with demo data on each customer-facing employee’s PC, just set it up in Amazon’s environment and let users share it as needed.
- Travelers. The risk of data loss and theft is greatest for traveling users. Having that data in the cloud instead of on the device solves that problem.
- High Internet bandwidth needs. If you want to run an application requiring lots of Internet bandwidth, you can either make sure every user has a big pipe available, or put the application in the cloud. The Amazon Workspaces desktops have fantastic Internet bandwidth, and your client doesn’t need much on its own to connect to them.
- Rare Windows use. Users with Mac or Linux machines might need to run Windows once in a while. You can always set up virtual machines, but Workspaces is easier.
Windows desktop as a service is a great idea. Lots of companies need to give their users Windows desktops, and they are a pain to manage and support. When you’ve only got a handful or two of them that hassle isn’t very visible, and just seems like normal corporate overhead. But when you’ve got dozens, hundreds, or thousands of them it is a major undertaking and cost. At the first AWS re:Invent conference in 2012 I asked Amazon and many of its partners about such a service, and generally got the brush-off. Citrix in particular said that we should work with its partners to create and run a Citrix-based infrastructure on the Amazon cloud if we needed that. One year later, Amazon announced Workspaces, and I think Citrix lost a great opportunity to lead in this new area.
But Workspaces is not yet a compelling product because it doesn’t remove that hassle from you at all. You still need to manage Windows or Mac PCs in order to get to that cloud-based desktop. There are other, smaller issues with Workspaces desktops, including performance that is less than I’d expect given the claimed specs, but this is the big one. Chromebooks and Chromeboxes are the first thin client. zero management PCs I know of that provide a useful platform by themselves. Adding access to a cloud-based Windows desktop would be a killer product. Come on, Amazon, we’re waiting.