A Brief Look at the Amazon WorkSpaces Beta

16 Mar 2014
March 16, 2014

imageAt the beginning of the year, we were invited to participate in the beta for Amazon’s upcoming WorkSpaces product. We just had to demonstrate a “reason” to be in the beta and then they’d hook us up.

Our beta plan was to use ourselves as the primary users and address on-call engineer needs. We rotate on-call coverage but sometimes you don’t want to carry a laptop everywhere you go during your on-call week. Or sometimes you’re caught with just a tablet or smart phone. These days you can get a lot done with a mobile device, but it rarely can compare to what can be done with a proper computer.

We built a Workspaces machine for each engineer and then configured  the WorkSpaces client  for all of our various devices. There is support for Android, IOS, Windows and Mac. The client is lightweight and snappy and the Android client has some nice extra shortcuts and menu’ing to help you get more done without a keyboard. (I have to confess I haven’t seen the IOS client – presumably it has similar niceties).

On my Android tablet (an HP Slatebook X2) with the snap-on keyboard and touch pad dock, the experience is just like I’m using an ultraportable laptop – with far more powerful than my Slatbook. If I detach the keyboard it still works quite well though, Just not as “native” feeling, of course.

I’m not entirely sure how exactly Amazon is provisioning these, I haven’t done the research . It appears that each WorkSpaces client machine is a dedicated Windows Server 2008 R2 instance running the Desktop Experiences feature. What you see is a desktop that look like it is running Windows 7. It isn’t a terminal server and you’re not sharing the instance with anyone else which is cool.

To illustrate that this is 2008 R2 under the covers, here’s a peak at Windows Updates:

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This next picture shows the “Windows 7” start menu along with the 2008 R2 System Properties:

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One more shot just to show the Windows WS client in action:

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Remote access to the WorkSpaces machine is generally quite snappy even over some of the slow/sketchy wireless networks I have been on.. It uses a protocol like RDP but a bit more full-featured apparently. For instance, it supports screen re-sizing if you change the size of the client area from the host machine.  Any USB storage devices plugged into the host will show up as drives on the WorkSpaces PC too. That can be handy for shuffling files around.

Speaking of which, there’s a new file sync program that uses S3 storage that you can use between your main PC (or PCs) and your WorkSpaces PC called AWS WorkSpaces Sync.. As I understand it, it works a lot like Dropbox but I confess I haven’t tried it out yet (I have been using OneDrive (aka SkyDrive) and Dropbox without issues though).

WorkSpaces machines can be built with the following specs and options, called “Bundles”:

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(click for a larger version)

We went with the “Performance” bundles and are very pleased with how they run. Great performance, even after we dropped full installs of Office 2013 (from our Office 365 subscription) onto them.

Getting a bundle built is dead simple. Select the size and options you want, specify a user name to use it get it going. Right now they all go into a private VPC (AWS Virtual Private Cloud) for the beta, but I’m told after launch we’ll be able to deploy them to our own pre-existing VPCs which will be incredibly handy in some DR type scenarios. Also told that we’ll be able make them domain PCs after beta as well.

We still have some challenge to work out with printing (isn’t that always a pain?). For instance, there’s no pass-through printing to access the printer on your host device. Network printing may be an option, depending on how your environment will be built.Other USB pass-through type things are current no-go as well. Granted – that’s not critical if you are connecting from an Android tablet (ignoring POS card scanners) but in a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) environment it may be issue. I’m thinking of things like scanners, transcription devices, etc.

Overall, we’re pretty happy with what we’ve seen so far. Definitely looking forward to see how this is deployed when it comes out of beta and we’re spending a fair amount of time working on use cases. Disaster Recovery, business continuity immediately leap to mind. Support contractors with their own devices is great too – they use their device to connect to a “corporate” WorkSpaces device which isolates the corporation from any crud that might be on that personal device… Works for any BYOD play, really.

What else would you think of for use cases?

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  1. […] following up from last week’s article on the AWS WorkSpaces beta, I’m happy to see the product has gone live […]

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