The Cloud Workspace, Part 1: DaaS by Any Other Name?

In reviewing various DaaS services over the last few months, a common theme has emerged: Any and every service provider wants to deliver, or at least wants you to think that it can deliver, some sort of cloud workspace.

But just what is a cloud workspace, and how does it differ from DaaS? 

Understanding DaaS is not that difficult. It’s a cloud-hosted operating system desktop (typically Windows-based, but Linux desktops are also found) delivered as a pay-per-use service and accessed using a remote display protocol. That uber-analyst and purveyor of inflated estimates, Gartner, punts on defining what a cloud workspace might be, coming closest with Digital Workplace, which it claims “…enables new, more effective ways of working; raises employee engagement and agility; and exploits consumer-oriented styles and technologies.” Vendors’ marketing departments are not much help either. Amazon has branded its cloud desktop service Amazon WorkSpaces—reviewed here and here. Not satisfied with offering both Workspace Suite and Workspace Services, Citrix has trademarked Software-Defined Workplace to describe its all-encompassing vision for delivering everything everywhere. VMware has its own Workspace Suite, and IndependenceIT has labeled its DaaS platform Cloud Workspace Suite—reviewed here.

Five minutes on Google reveals the tip of the iceberg of service provider offerings, such as Zürich-based Colt’s Workspace as a Service, which bundles together VMware’s Horizon Suite of end user computing products as a pay-as-you-go service; the eponymous Legal Workspace, which offers a DaaS + apps service targeted exclusively at law firms; EarthLink and its Cloud Workspace; ASG’s imposingly named Dynamic Hybrid Workspaces; Dell Workspace-as-a-Service, a white-label implementation of VMware Horizon DaaS; Fronde Cloud Workspace; Synchronoss WorkSpace; and no doubt hundreds of others.

The problem is that, with the exception of the workspace suites from rivals Citrix and VMware, the only thing that some of these products have in common is the name. Some are pure DaaS platforms delivering a Windows desktop and nothing else. Others acknowledge that delivering a Windows desktop to a four-inch smartphone is rather pointless and provide full-screen Windows apps for use on small form factor devices. Then there are the true cloud workspace products that attempt to deliver all apps to all things, managing Windows desktops and applications along with web apps, SaaS, and shared data, all the way to native mobile apps for iOS and Android. And to bring home the point that not all cloud workspaces are created equal, we have Synchronoss WorkSpace, which ignores Windows altogether. Instead, it’s a rather nicely implemented cloud file sync and share service with editors that support Microsoft PowerPoint, Excel, and Word-format documents. More work-niche than workspace, Synchronoss WorkSpace is the kind of product that Gartner’s Digital Workplace definition best describes.

Blow away the marketing fog, and you’ll see that whereas DaaS is just a cloud desktop, a cloud workspace is a delivery platform that incorporates DaaS within a broader set of application delivery services optimized for mobile devices. It’s not quite that clear-cut, though. Take the “workspace” products I listed above: there’s too much variation to put everything into just two baskets. So, what’s the best way to carve up the market? This week I’m going to look at the four different types of DaaS products that are currently on the market, following up next week with a closer assessment of the various cloud workspace offerings.

Desktop Platform as a Service

At the lower end of the value-add scale is the basic Desktop Platform as a Service. Here, the service provider is responsible for software licensing and the core infrastructure components: the connection broker, application delivery controllers, hypervisor, storage, and virtual networking. It may provide a starter desktop image to build from, but after that, customers are on their own. This can be a good fit in SMB environments in which the customer has a minimally complex desktop environment, with one or two standard desktop images that can be managed interactively. It may also fill a niche in a large enterprise that supports offshore developers or remote employees, with each persistent virtual desktop managed as if it were just another physical desktop. But it isn’t a good fit for organizations looking to gain operational advantages by using management tools purpose-built for virtual desktop environments.

A typical example of this type of DaaS implementation is Amazon WorkSpaces. Amazon offers the customer very little in the way of desktop image management, and it doesn’t provide any value-added services or APIs that would enable a service provider to take on management responsibility on the customer’s behalf.

There is room beneath Desktop Platform as a Service for a pure infrastructure offering built on desktop workload-optimized hardware—i.e., GPU support and desktop workload-optimized storage capable of delivering when the customer brings its own licenses to a cloud-hosted VDI environment—but so far I’m not aware of any providers marketing this type of service.

Integrated Desktop as a Service (DaaS)

A growing percentage of organizations that recognize the benefits of desktop virtualization are finding value in having a hosting provider take on the risk and responsibility of hosting the infrastructure, while the organization retains full operational responsibility for the virtual desktop environment in-house. To make this work, organizations serious about DaaS are looking beyond basic platform-only services. They are embracing solutions that offer integrated image and application management services, making this by far the largest part of the overall DaaS market today.

Most of today’s native DaaS platforms are able to deliver this type of service. Many are mainstream VDI platforms, such as Citrix XenDesktop, which has been co-opted into service by many first-generation DaaS providers. Vendor rivalry being what it is, quite a lot of noise has been generated about XenDesktop’s fit as a DaaS platform, which needs clearing up. While it is generally accepted that a DaaS platform should be multitenant, it is still possible to provide DaaS services using Citrix XenDesktop/XenApp. Citrix’s Kurt Moody offers “…Citrix XenDesktop is Multi-tenant when the Citrix Service Provider Reference Architecture [here–login required] and associated service provider extensions are implemented.” What really matters, though, is the customer’s perspective. From a customer’s point of view, the question “Is XenDesktop multitenant?” should be irrelevant. The only question that matters to the customer is “Can I get a cloud desktop service with XenDesktop?” Here, the answer is clearly yes. Customers don’t care about multitenancy. Multitenancy is something that only matters to service providers, and if a service provider thinks it can deliver a competitive service on XenDesktop or any other VDI platform, that is for them to sort out.

Hybrid DaaS warrants a mention here, if only a brief one. From a service perspective, a hybrid DaaS environment delivering desktops out of an enterprise-owned data center, with additional capacity available on demand from the cloud, is no different than a conventional all-cloud DaaS offering. Some platforms, notably Virtual Bridges’ VERDE, are particularly well-suited to this approach and can be delivered either as a customer-managed integrated DaaS offering or as a service provider–managed DaaS.

Managed Desktop as a Service

Stepping up from the customer-managed Desktop as a Service offerings, a number of providers offer DaaS services for which they will take on responsibility for managing the desktop on the client’s behalf. They will take care of the patch management activities, anti-malware updates, and bundled software updates as part of the core service, but all other activities are chargeable items above the basic services agreement. This effectively outsources desktop management to a dedicated service provider. There is a lot to be said for this approach for both provider and customer. From a VAR’s perspective, it quickly converts customers from low-value support services to higher-value services with greater revenue opportunities and significantly greater opportunity to lock the customer into a long-term agreement that will be difficult to escape. At the same time, the customer should benefit from a higher-quality and more responsive service that is free from high-cost disruptive refresh cycles and hopefully avoids the problems of having to manage a comprehensive outsourcing contract.

Both dinCloud webHVD and IndependenceIT Cloud Workspace Suite, which I reviewed here and here, as well as VMware’s Horizon DaaS, are good examples of platforms that enable service providers to deliver this kind of managed desktop.

DR Desktop as a Service (DaaS)

Platform vendors and service providers alike haven’t been slow to promote DaaS as a disaster recovery or business continuity service, either for use in conjunction with distributed desktops or alongside another DaaS offering. VMware has recently introduced Horizon Air Desktop DR offering reserved capacity to spin up desktops at eight, twenty-four, and seventy-two hours’ notice of a fan-hitting event. In common with other DR DaaS offerings Horizon Air Desktop DR, is very much a repackaging of an existing product: no real attempt has been made to optimize the product for disaster recovery purposes. Nevertheless it gets the job done.

It is important to note here that DaaS providers are not immune to service interruption. DaaS SLAs do not as a rule guarantee that the service provider will be able to deliver contracted capacity if it suffers a major incident. It may be better placed to restore service rapidly than most enterprise IT organizations, but ultimately it can still fail to deliver, and if it does it is often protected from the worst consequences by the detailed conditions within the SLA. In the same vein, DaaS subscribers shouldn’t assume that they can scale a 500 desktop DaaS subscription to 5000 desktops overnight should a sudden need arise. Capacity SLAs are not yet widespread and DaaS providers need time to provision hardware in response to large increases in demand. So  for organizations looking a DaaS for DR a dedicated DR DaaS subscription is the only way to go.