Horizon Air Desktop DR: DaaS for Disaster Recovery

In my overview of Desktop as a Service (DaaS) delivery models last month, I touched on availability services, an emerging market that shows strong potential for future growth, and on DaaS services specifically tailored to disaster recovery. Now, fresh from witnessing the slightly embarrassing spectacle of San Francisco grinding to a halt after a little light rain, I thought it would be worth taking a closer look at Horizon Air Desktop DR. 

On the whole, IT doesn’t do a bad job when it comes to disaster recovery, at least as far as the data center is concerned. However, on the desktop it’s often a different story. Very few organizations have formal disaster recovery plans that provide a contingency in the event that disaster strikes the office while leaving the data center intact. In some respects, this is understandable. Logistically, it can be a great deal harder to provide disaster recovery services for an office building than for a data center. For many types of disaster—weather, fire, flood—the impact is more likely to be felt at the office than in the well-protected and frequently remote data center.

For organizations wanting to improve desktop disaster recovery options, server-hosted virtual desktops provide an attractive alternative to provisioning temporary office space and imaging dozens, if not hundreds, of PCs. If your end user computing strategy already incorporates virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), then as just another data center service, it can get rolled into the rest of the DR program and funded and managed accordingly. With the data center hardware cost of VDI now at under $200 per desktop, it is well within the reach of most organizations. However, choosing VDI as a desktop DR strategy only makes sense if you are already using VDI as part of your overall desktop strategy. Aside from the additional cost and complexity of using VDI purely for DR purposes, too many organizations still get VDI wrong in production. Having to rely on something nonstandard at the time when the organization can least afford any uncertainty is something that is clearly best avoided.

Using DaaS for DR is an entirely different matter. The two primary advantages that DaaS has over VDI are that no upfront capital investment is required, and the hard work of implementing and maintaining the core platform is handed over to a third party. With mainstream adoption of DaaS growing, it was only a matter of time before service providers started tailoring DaaS services specifically for DR.

VMware was first to market with a dedicated DaaS disaster recovery solution in Horizon Air Desktop DR (HAD-DR), which it launched at VMworld Europe in Barcelona in October 2014. I spoke last week to Josue Fontanez, product line marketing manager for Desktop-as-a-Service (DaaS) at VMware, who shared with me some of the detail behind the service and where it could go in the future. In its present form, HAD-DR is really no more than a repackaging of the platform VMware received with the acquisition of DaaS pioneer Desktone last year. VMware subsequently introduced the platform as VMware Horizon DaaS. It was rebranded in October as Horizon Air Desktops to maintain consistency with the “Air” brand, which VMware has adopted for all of its “as a Service” offerings.

The only real difference between Horizon Air Desktops and HAD-DR lies in the service level agreement. Whereas Horizon Air Desktops is delivered as an always-available, 24/7 service with a standard SLA, HAD-DR desktops require time to provision. They are assigned one of three different levels, segmented by the time it takes VMware to bring them online. Desktops in the Gold Reservation will be brought online within eight hours; Silver and Bronze Reservation desktops will be delivered in twenty-four and seventy-two hours, respectively. VMware envisions that Gold Reservation desktops would be assigned to staff needed to bring business services back to operation first, Silver desktops would go to staff engaged in essential business services, and the Bronze tier would go to supporting staff as necessary.

At $17.50 per desktop per month for a Standard Desktop (1 vCPU , 2-GB vRAM, and a 30-GB hard disk) in the Gold Reservation eight-hour SLA tier, HAD-DR is not exactly cheap, especially when the same desktop delivered through the standard Horizon Air Desktops service costs $35 per month. As the SLA decreases, the prices fall to a far more reasonable $5 per desktop per month for the seventy-two hour Bronze Reservation. VMware also offers high performance virtual desktops and a Hosted Apps Server (RDSH) option for customers who do not consider a full virtual desktop necessary.

Horizon Air Desktop DR Pricing

  Standard Desktop (1 vCPU, 2 GB vRAM, 30 GB HD) Advanced Desktop (2 vCPU, 4 GB vRAM, 60 GB HD) Enterprise Desktop (4 vCPU, 8 GB vRAM, 120 GB HD) Hosted Apps Server (20 vCPU, 30 GB vRAM, 100 GB HD) Capacity Response Time
Bronze $5.00 $7.00 $14.00 $85.00 72 hours
Silver $10.00 $14.00 $28.00 $170.00 24 hours
Gold $17.50 $25.00 $50.00 $300.00 8 hours

See more at: http://www.vmware.com/products/horizon-air-desktop-disaster-recovery/compare.html#sthash.qhccY0qe.dpuf.

To get these prices, customers must sign up for minimum twelve-month term, with discounts available for longer-term commitments. HAD-DR pricing is almost all-inclusive; no additional Windows software licenses are required, and an always-on VPN connection is included with the service. However, daily usage charges are applied when it is called into action.

My initial impression was that the service looks to be generally well thought out but could benefit from further tuning. While I might have been willing to wait seventy-two hours or longer to restore desktop services to the guy whose job it is to approve changes to the approvals process, I’m not sure that I would be willing to wait 8 hours to get key IT and business leadership back online. As it is, though, it looks like VMware has this all well in hand. A customer HAD-DR implementation typically includes fifty always-on Horizon Air Desktops, creating in effect a Platinum Reservation available to whoever needs immediate access to disaster recovery desktops.

Given the speed with which it is possible to bring up virtual desktop instances today, the eight-hour lead time for the Gold Reservation appears to be extremely conservative. I’m sure that an enterprising service provider can offer an equivalent service with tighter SLAs for no more than VMware is currently charging. However, I expect to see VMware lower the setup time, as it takes advantage of some of the newer technologies it announced in the latter half of this year. That said, it takes more than just the ability to host DaaS sessions to provide effective disaster recovery services. If there is an expectation that the DR Service offers protection from a major weather event like Superstorm Sandy, the last thing a customer wants to see is the DR Service shut down by the same storm. Hosting a DR site next door to the customer’s data center clearly isn’t going to make the grade. In the US, VMware currently has vCloud Air data centers in northern California, Nevada, Texas, Virginia, and New Jersey, as well as having separate data centers dedicated to providing US government services in Arizona and Virginia. International data centers are located in the UK and Japan, with data centers in Germany and Australia coming soon. As part of the HAD-DR on boarding process, VMware will work with the customer to identify the right data center(s) to host the service, looking for the Goldilocks DR site far enough away to be protected from a regional emergency, but close enough to deliver acceptable performance.

Accepting that VMware is well-positioned to provide desktop DR services, I still have concerns about pricing. The Gold Reservation service starts at a full 50% of the cost of the standard Horizon Air Desktops service. This more or less indicates that VMware has adopted a 2:1 server over commitment of resources, assuming it accepts similar margins for HAD-DR and Horizon Air Desktops. As the number of HAD-DR customers increases, VMware should be able to afford to lower prices by overcommitting resources substantially more without putting service availability at risk, especially if services are distributed across multiple data centers. That said, an enterprising service provider may be able to substantially undercut VMware if it is willing operate at a higher level of risk or distribute its DR desktops across more locations, assuming, of course, that it can find customers willing to accept the risk in return for a possibly quite significant cost saving. Equally likely is the possibility of other service providers cutting deals with competing DaaS platform vendors to introduce DaaS DR services of their own. I fully expect to see competing services from dinCloud and through IndependenceIT within the first half of 2015, with Citrix and others quickly following suit. There is also ample opportunity for enhancements to the services offered by further tailoring platform features to better suit DR needs. While future alternatives to HAD-DR are almost certain to offer lower prices, the big pricing discontinuity is not between HAD-DR and future DaaS DR competitors, but between HAD-DR and specialist DR service providers such as SunGard Availability Services and Agility Recovery. Whereas HAD-DR provides just a virtual desktop, Agility Recovery provides power, temporary buildings, communications services, five servers, forty-eight desktop PCs, and the tech support needed to set them up all for just $495 per month. This is more or less the same cost as that of providing fifty desktops at the HAD-DR Silver Reservation tier. This does rather raise the question: If Agility Recovery, which has been in business for more than 25 years and is currently supporting more than 20,000 customers, can provide 100% dedicated physical desktops and an office to put them in, for the same price as a virtual desktop with no guarantee of access to it, just what is VMware doing to justify the comparatively high cost of its service?