Moving on-premise employees to the cloud? Making it make sense with Amazon Workspaces

There has been great hype around the virtualized desktop, but few solutions have managed to really win the hearts and minds of the computing community. But Amazon hopes that soon even on-premise employees with be using cloud hosted desktops running on their new Amazon Workspaces technology.

While employers have been leveraging the cloud for quite some time to enable remote workers on-the-job, businesses may soon turn to providers like Amazon to take advantage of solutions that are closer to home as well. WorkSpaces was among the new services explored at the 2014 AWS Summit in San Francisco. "The Amazon Workspace is our virtual cloud desktop that is designed to allow users to connect their workspace to an on-premise Active Directory and give them access to their apps, documents, and other resources from the device of their choice," said Gene Farrell, General Manager of Amazon WorkSpaces. This virtualization solution was rolled out to an initial trial group of 10 thousand customers in November of 2013 and is now publicly available worldwide.

Better execution of an idea with great promise?

Desktop virtualization isn't a new idea by any means, but the first generation of virtual workspace tools has fallen short and failed to live up to the initial hype. "Anyone who's managed desktops on-premise knows that it's tricky and a little bit stressful." Said Senior VP of AWS, Andy Jassy. "It's hard to manage, and the security concerns of having it so distributed are hard to deal with. That's why you saw the rise of the virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) space because the promise of centrally managed desktops was very attractive from a manageability and security perspective. The problem was that these VDI solutions forced the customer to manage all the hardware, software, the data and infrastructure pieces. It was expensive, and the performance was flaky."

When we were building WorkSpaces, we heard a lot of feedback from customers about how important it was to support today's mobile workforce.

Gene Farrell, GM of Amazon WorkSpaces

Leading IT and operations providers that are active in the managed desktop space, such as Savvis and Accenture, might quibble with this assessment. However, Amazon's existing customer base created enough demand to make WorkSpaces a reality with a strong following in its own right even in the face of existing competition. In many ways, this newest offering works like other VDI solutions, but there are a few features that make it unique. Obviously, the cloud resources for provisioning new desktops and managing data across devices all come with Amazon's low prices and easy scalability. But there are also a few other details of interest as well.

Simple, streamlined setup for new users

One of the biggest selling points of AWS WorkSpaces is the fact that it makes provisioning new desktops incredibly easy. It's a process that takes just a few clicks to choose the desired bundles of hardware and software for the selected employee(s). Apps can be installed at this stage or added as-needed later. Depending on the role or status of the employee within the organization, a desktop can be created at a standard level or upgraded to performance with additional CPU, storage, and compute resources. And the changes only take about 20 minutes to move through the system, making it possible to set up a WorkSpace while a new hire is still filling out paperwork in HR.

Anyone who's managed desktops on-premise knows that it's tricky and a little bit stressful.

AWS Senior VP
Andy Jassy

From an IT perspective, this solution aims to be intuitive and transparent. IT administrators can access and deploy WorkSpaces using an existing Active Directory account on Windows. It's possible to deploy group policy behind the scenes using traditional tools. No complex training is required and virtual desktops can be added or removed for seasonal or contract workers with consumption based pricing to save money.

Users benefit at the desk and on the go

The experience on the user's side is designed to be just as efficient. With the emphasis on mobile devices in today's workforce, many traditional VDI solutions present a problem. Desktop applications often aren't designed for touch devices. AWS differentiated its cloud desktop offering by adjusting the user's experience based on the detected device in use. Employees can bring up a keyboard on screen or slide out a radial control to change to mouse mode on their smartphone. There's even a Windows key for better interactions with MS Office applications.

One virtual machine is supplied in the cloud for each end user, and employees can use their existing credentials to log in from any device. This is a key selling point for AWS. "When we were building WorkSpaces, we heard a lot of feedback from customers about how important it was to support today's mobile workforce," said Farrell. "These are users who move from device to device throughout the day depending on where they are and what they're context is. To do this, we made WorkSpaces persistent. The session, app state, and documents persist between sessions and across devices."

With desktops safely hosted in the cloud, workers don't have to pack a laptop to take to a meeting, sync devices, or email documents to themselves. They can grab their tablet and head out, confident that they will find everything up to date on their mobile device down to the last mouse click or keystroke. It's as if they never left their desk, and that's what a virtualized desktop has to feel like if it's going to be embraced by a broad base of users.

What has your experience been like with virtualized desktops? Let us know.

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