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Amazon WorkSpaces two years on: Are we ready for cloud-hosted Windows desktops?

We wrap our claws around AWS's PCs-as-a-service

Amazon WorkSpaces on an Apple iPad
Amazon WorkSpaces on an Apple iPad

Amazon Web Services (AWS) released WorkSpaces, Windows desktop-as-a-service, towards the end of March 2014.

We took an early look, but encountered several niggling problems. "Don't dive in: it will get better," was my conclusion.

It is time for another hands-on, but first a quick recap. WorkSpaces provides a Windows desktop on Amazon's cloud. There are three specification levels:

Specification Monthly cost
1. virtual CPU, 2GB RAM, 10GB storage $27
2. virtual CPU, 4GB RAM, 50GB storage $37
3. virtual CPU, 7.5GB RAM, 100GB storage $64

In addition, you can pay $15.00 extra per month for Microsoft Office Professional, or you can save $4.00 if you bring your own Windows 7 desktop license. There are clients for Mac, Windows, iOS, Android and Chromebook; other operating systems such as Windows Phone and Linux are not supported. Standard Windows RDP clients are not supported.

Unless you bring your own license and create your own operating system image, a WorkSpace is Windows Server 2008 R2 with the Windows Desktop Experience. This is for licensing reasons, since Microsoft has stringent limitations around the use of Windows 7 in a virtual environment. Windows 7 is only available on Microsoft's own Azure cloud for test and development. In order to bring your own license, you need a Microsoft Volume Licensing agreement with Software Assurance.

Amazon has done a good job in configuring Server 2008 R2 as if it were Windows 7; after all, the core operating system is the same. In addition, Amazon told The Reg that "each WorkSpace is a full Windows VM," so there is no multi-user trickery going on under the covers.

WorkSpaces ties in with several other AWS services. You can integrate with on-premises Active Directory via Amazon's Virtual Private Cloud combined with a VPN connection. There is also a WorkDocs Sync client which lets the user synchronize documents across two or more computers, including their WorkSpace. WorkDocs, once called Zocalo, is a document storage and collaboration service.

Over the two years since WorkSpaces launched, Amazon has added several features, notably:

  • In May 2014, WorkSpaces launched in Europe, giving better performance for European users.
  • In August 2014, Amazon introduced multi-factor authentication.
  • Support for Teradici's PCoIP zero clients was added in October 2014. This enables use of WorkSpaces from lightweight thin client devices such as those from HP or Dell/Wyse.
  • In April 2015, the AWS Marketplace for Desktop Apps opened, together with WorkSpaces Application Manager (WAM), offering virtualized applications that can be purchased on a monthly basis and deployed to WorkSpaces. The full WAM costs an additional $5.00 per month. Europe did not get WAM until December 2015.
  • Amazon exposed a public API for WorkSpaces in April 2015, for programmatic management.
  • CloudWatch, a service for monitoring AWS servers and setting up alerts, got WorkSpaces support in July 2015.
  • Optional encryption of WorkSpaces storage volumes was added in October 2015.
  • In January 2016, WorkSpaces added support for audio in (enabling headset use) and high-DPI screens.

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