The Cloud Workspace, Part 2: Virtual Workspaces

In part one of this article, we looked at the different types of DaaS products and services that masquerade as cloud workspaces, breaking down the marketplace into:

  • Desktop Platform as a Service: A bare-bones service offering licensing, infrastructure, and very little else;
  • Integrated Desktop as a Service: Mainstream DaaS complete with integrated image and application management services; and
  • Managed Desktop as a Service: The cloud desktop as a fully managed outsourced service.

This week, I examine the products that look beyond delivering a virtual desktop to incorporate features targeted at a mobile workforce. While it is possible to deliver desktops to a mobile workforce centered on smartphone and tablet use, direct access to full-screen applications delivers a far better experience than is possible when attempting to cram a Windows desktop onto a four-inch display. Where the enterprise mobility management market focuses exclusively on the delivery of mobile applications to mobile devices, workspace services need to consider both mobile devices and desktops.

Whereas DaaS platforms can be grouped into three well-defined categories, cloud workspace products are more diverse. DaaS platforms all do more or less the same thing, differentiated chiefly by the level of service offered. Workspace products, however, vary greatly in implementation and services. Most significantly, while DaaS almost by definition is invariably implemented as a public or hybrid cloud service, a large part of the workspace market is rooted in complex on-premises infrastructure that only superficially touches the cloud. In fact, I prefer not to use the label “cloud workspace” at all, instead sticking with “virtual workspaces” as a suitably generic label (although I fear the possibility that somebody will turn up from Second Life wearing an Oculus Rift headset, claiming prior art).

The key to understanding virtual workspace services is that they are not either/or solutions. Instead, they complement and extend existing systems, improving usability as work transitions from desktop to smartphone to tablet and back again. They deliver not just access, but appropriate access shaped by the characteristics of the devices in use. You can get a good understanding of how virtual workspace services enhance mobile working by looking at how Microsoft OneDrive and Microsoft Office are implemented across multiple platforms. As well as being accessible through any browser, OneDrive is available for Windows, Mac OS X, Android, iOS, Windows Phone—even Xbox. On each platform, its behavior follows the expectations set by the host platform. When files are opened for editing from within OneDrive, the appropriate Office application is automatically launched. When accessed from a desktop browser, if it offers a choice of running either Office Online or Office 2013, or should you have an Office 365 subscription but a copy of Office 2013 is not already available, it will prompt you with the option to download and install it. In essence, OneDrive takes on the role of a workspace services client, ensuring that the appropriate tool is delivered based on the environment in use at the time.

Continuing with this analogy: On the desktop, Office Online, Office 2013, and Office Mac 2011 all function exactly as you expect a desktop application to function—as fully featured tools for creating rich documents, spreadsheets, and presentations. Office Online and Office 2013 even look more or less the same. However, the Office implementations for Android, Windows Phone, and iOS are very different. The user interfaces for these mobile versions are tailored to be consistent with each platform’s design guidelines, and the user experiences are tailored to the type of activity performed on each platform. Creation on the desktop—review on a tablet or phone.

Together, Office and OneDrive exhibit two of the key characteristics of a workspace service: they span multiple platforms, and they deliver a user experience tailored to the characteristics and use of the target device.

Exploring Workspace Services

Most virtual workspaces align with the Integrated Desktop as a Service model I described in part one. There is no virtual workspace equivalent of the Desktop Platform as a Service as typified by Amazon WorkSpaces. Where DaaS can be delivered as a raw platform without any image-management features, virtual workspace products require management services to enable applications to be integrated into the platform. The level of integration offered varies between competing platforms, which are differentiated primarily into those that support Windows and web apps, and those that also support mobile applications. They are further differentiated by the range of mobile platforms they support and the degree of control they exert over those mobile platforms.

Virtual workspace solutions can be broken down into the following categories:

  • Webtops: Browser-based virtual desktops, usually incorporating a suite of platform-specific applications and sometimes providing access to SaaS and generic web apps. In short, your core business apps on a web page.
  • Workspace Aggregators: Client applications (usually for Android and iOS) or web portals that provide a single point of access to some or all of the following: server hosted virtual desktops, hosted applications, SaaS applications, self-service app stores, data sources.
  • Virtual Workspace Suites: Single-vendor suites of applications encompassing server hosted virtual desktops, presentation virtualization, desktop and mobile clients, and enterprise mobility management features, with limited integration between modules.

As of yet, service providers don’t appear to be offering either fully managed cloud workspace environments or dedicated cloud workspace DR services to complement equivalent DaaS offerings. It is likely that these services will start to emerge as the market matures and current DaaS providers extend services to incorporate Virtual Workspace products.

The Not-So-Humble Webtop

Webtops (web desktops) integrate custom web applications and web services in environments that offer the look and feel and, in some cases, much of the functionality of a conventional desktop operating environment. Chiefly developed in JavaScript, PHP, HTML5, and AJAX, webtops’ strength lies in their minimal resource requirements and low cost—hosted services start at as little as $4 per user per month. However, while webtops have seen some success in niche environments, kiosks, and K-12 education, the webtop marketplace is a trail of scarred and broken remains. It is replete with well-meaning projects left incomplete as the market moved on in the face of increasing challenges from Google and the much larger application ecosystem available to both the Chrome browser and Chrome OS.

A few bright spots still remain. eyeOS, which was acquired by Spanish telecoms business Telefónica in April 2014, for example, has matured into a capable open-source platform that supports more than one hundred third-party developed applications, including the Citrix Receiver. It grants access to Windows applications and is used by a surprisingly large range of telecoms and enterprise customers. Most webtops fall short of deserving the title “virtual workspace.” Accessing eyeOS on a smartphone may be possible, but it suffers the same UI crush problems that any desktop interface does when running on a small screen renders it almost unusable. However, with the coming of smartphones and tablets, some webtops, such as ZeroPC and Glide OS, have evolved to deliver services across a broader range of devices, retaining the browser-based desktop interface where appropriate, while offering dedicated mobile clients running full screen apps better suited to smaller screen sizes.

The long-term future for webtops is uncertain. While the remaining webtop products are very good at what they do, they are increasingly vulnerable to competition from Google. It remains to be seen whether they will survive.

Workspace Aggregators

Workspace aggregators drop the webtop’s desktop paradigm and its bundled apps in favor of more open platforms that bring together enterprise apps and data along with web and SaaS apps. Some, such as Centrix WorkSpace Universal and Awingu Smart Global Office, retain a browser-based interface. Others, such as NComputing oneSpace, have developed mobile apps that can take advantage of local device processing to deliver the best possible user experience. ASG-CloudCockpit has taken a hybrid approach, embedding webtop-style calendar and email clients in a browser-based aggregator alongside applications and data sources, as well as offering native mobile clients for good measure. There’s quite a lot of variation in the degree of platform support between workspace aggregators. Most, but not all, offer access to Windows applications via Windows RDSH implementations, such as XenApp and Horizon View, to create a unified front end for all enterprise applications. Right now, Centrix appears to have the broadest connectivity here, with support for Citrix XenApp and XenDesktop; Microsoft RemoteApp and RDSH desktops; Wyse vWorkspace; VMware View, Horizon, and ThinApp; 2X Application Server; and more. Others stop short of providing access to Windows apps but offer file viewers or file editors in order to allow limited markup of common document formats. In line with the consumer-driven approach to mobile app provisioning, workspace aggregators frequently include a self-service enterprise app store. IT still controls which apps are accessible from the app store and who may select what, but this opens the door to improving productivity and reducing the number of service requests needed.

Regardless of implementation, workspace aggregators all have two common characteristics: they don’t attempt any form of mobile device or mobile application management, and they don’t concern themselves with application or desktop hosting/brokering services.

Virtual Workspace Suites

Workspace aggregators enable single point of access to best-of-breed application hosting services. However, this approach may not work for everyone. Organizations looking for a single vendor solution for all their enterprise application delivery needs, fixed and mobile, have little choice at present. Today, the market is largely shared between Citrix and VMware, both of which offer competing virtual workspace suites that bring together virtual desktop, presentation virtualization, enterprise mobility management, etc., into a single product. However, both product suites are really no more than bundled solutions lacking any meaningful integration.

With an increasing mobile workforce and the insidious growth of BYOD, interest in virtual workspace suites is growing. Without making any firm predictions, it seems likely that the intense rivalry between Citrix and VMware will drive both companies to further invest in their respective virtual workspace suites. It is essential for them to simplify management and extend workflow automation across all respective suite components if customers are to obtain full value from integrated virtual workspace suites, without which few customers are likely to move beyond workspace aggregation. Considering both today’s limited integration and the overall size of competing virtual workspace suites, it will be several years before any vendor is likely to achieve comprehensive integration. This leaves ample time for workspace aggregation products to mature and compete as virtual workspace aggregators and workflow automation engines. Expect also to see increasing competition in the virtual workspace market from new entrants as some aggregation platforms expand and other enterprise software vendors look to gain a foothold.