AWS has introduced a new way to consume its Amazon WorkSpaces cloud desktop service: desktops by the hour. The new service is designed to appeal to businesses with employees needing only occasional computer access and should allow many customers to reduce their costs, although buyers will need to pay close attention to how the service is used. Misconfigure it or underestimate the hours to be used, and you could see an increase in your existing bill.
I first reviewed Amazon WorkSpaces in October 2014 and found it sadly lacking when compared with competing DaaS solutions (Amazon WorkSpaces DaaS: Not A Lot of Desktop, Very Little Service). Thankfully, Amazon has not been standing still and has delivered a steady stream of updates over the last two years, which takes us to last week’s announcement.
Desktops by the Hour
Until now, AWS billed Amazon WorkSpaces by the month. With packages starting at $25 per month for the basic “Value” level ($21 if you bring your own Windows license), it is hardly expensive. However, for those customers looking for a limited-hours service, there are more flexible alternatives from other service providers. Now Amazon is getting into the fractional DaaS market, offering desktops by the hour, a move that will put pricing pressure on competitors and may yet push Microsoft to contemplate launching its own DaaS offering.
Effective immediately, Amazon WorkSpaces can be run in two different modes: AlwaysOn and AutoStop.
- AlwaysOn: This is the existing service, branded for the first time to distinguish it from AutoStop. Billed monthly, it offers immediate access to a WorkSpace that is always kept running, regardless of use.
- AutoStop: This is the new hourly service. WorkSpaces starts running and billing when you log in, and stops automatically when you remain disconnected for a specified period of time.
There’s a $7.25 fixed cost per month for creating an AutoStop WorkSpace. After that, it’s just $0.22 per hour for the Value package, rising to $13.00 per month and $0.57 per hour for the Performance package, with Amazon’s usual regional price uplift the farther you get from the US. Full pricing details can be seen here. There’s no hourly pricing for the WorkSpaces Plus applications bundle; that remains fixed at $15 globally, even if you are using the service for only an hour per month. Unlike Microsoft Azure RemoteApp sessions, AutoStop billing isn’t capped. Keep an AutoStop desktop running for more than eighty hours per month, and it will cost you more than an AlwaysOn desktop.
Two years ago, this lack of price capping could have been a big problem. It’s all too easy to lose track of billing in an unmanaged environment. Fortunately, Amazon added support for WorkSpaces to the AWS CloudWatch monitoring/alerting service last year, so now there are no excuses for failing to spot when your desktops are starting to exceed their quota. Should you find that running an AutoStop WorkSpace is likely to exceed the cost of a fixed-price AlwaysOn desktop, it’s possible to switch from AutoStop to AlwaysOn when it becomes more economical. You can then switch back to AutoStop at the end of the month to minimize ongoing costs. Take careful note, though; mode switching like this is something you have to set up yourself. Amazon does not do this for you.
At some point, it is inevitable to want to compare AWS services with the equivalent Azure offering. So far, Microsoft and Amazon have, perhaps wisely, chosen not to compete directly here. The nearest comparable service that Microsoft offers is its RDS-based service Azure RemoteApp. While one is a full desktop, and the other an RDS app hosting service, they have enough in common to overlap to some degree. In price-sensitive situations, much depends on the number of applications the user might want to access. In situations where only a single application is needed, RemoteApp is clearly going to be a low-cost solution. However, as the app count rises, Amazon WorkSpaces starts to look increasingly attractive. Neither solution is fully satisfactory from a management perspective today, although the recent announcement that Microsoft is retiring RemoteApp in favor of a new service developed in partnership with Citrix (covered for TVP Strategy by Jo Harder in Citrix and Microsoft Step Up Cloud Domination) will most likely put Microsoft ahead of Amazon here.
As it is, neither Microsoft nor Amazon represent the pinnacle of remote desktop or hosting services today. Cheaper and better solutions exist. While AWS continues to make progress, it is not yet showing signs of being fully committed to this platform.
Amazon WorkSpaces Timeline
Alongside the introduction of hourly billing, Amazon has announced an increase to the size of the WorkSpaces root volume to 80 GB, making it possible to support bigger machine images with more and larger applications. This change automatically applies to all new WorkSpaces desktops, although existing WorkSpaces must be rebuilt to take advantage of the larger root volumes.
The timeline of WorkSpaces updates looks something like this:
- New “value-sized” virtual desktop introduced
- Standard and Performance desktop specs improved
- Prices reduced
- Public API to support programmatic management, an essential feature that should have been part of WorkSpaces on day one
- Application management services in the form of the WorkSpaces Application Manager (WAM) and the AWS Marketplace for Desktop Apps (Amazon WorkSpaces Gains App Subscriptions but Still Falls Short)
- Support for the AWS CloudWatch monitoring/alerting service
- Encryption of WorkSpaces storage volumes added in
- Support for high DPI screens
- Bidirectional audio, essential for videoconferencing, etc.
- Hourly billing
- Larger root volume