Over the past few weeks, I have been putting several DaaS providers under the microscope. I first looked at Amazon WorkSpaces and found it to be a decidedly lackluster service that was all the more disappointing coming from a company that has a proven ability to do far better. Next I looked at dinCloud, an independent DaaS platform developer and hosting provider, and found a capable second-generation DaaS platform being offered with a better SLA, lower cost, and greater flexibility than Amazon provides, from a company that knows and understands desktops. Having said that, dinCloud’s big differentiator over Amazon is not the incremental improvements it offers over Amazon WorkSpaces, but rather is something that Amazon is actually very good at: enabling customers to add value through service automation—in short, providing a DaaS API.
In talking to DaaS customers, I noticed that those who have been working with DaaS longest are beginning to recognize that the benefits of DaaS are not restricted to capacity on demand and the budgetary benefits of exchanging capital equipment cost for a service consumption charge. Instead, an increasing number of DaaS customers are looking at the opportunities inherent in service automation as being the greatest benefit of adopting desktop cloud computing. With that in mind, this week I am looking at IndependenceIT and its Cloud Workspace Suite (CWS). (Note to product marketing directors: no more products incorporating the word “Workspace” or any variation thereof, please.)
Like dinCloud, IndependenceIT has a background in providing hosted desktop services. However, unlike most DaaS platform developers, IndependenceIT has chosen to focus exclusively on building the best platform, eschewing both the border cloud services portfolio and the enterprise IT market in favor of being an enabler to hosting providers, system integrators, and independent software vendors. On first inspection, this approach appears to make a lot of sense. Getting DaaS right is difficult; bringing together demanding compute and storage requirements to deliver highly diverse interactive workloads in a single package is hard enough. Addressing all the technical challenges of in-house VDI, combined with the difficulties of extending platforms to support multitenant operations at scales exceeding those of even the very largest enterprise IT deployments, DaaS is probably the most complex of all the major X‑aaS platforms to implement. Offering prospective hosting providers and system integrators a turnkey DaaS platform as a best-of-breed building block within a more comprehensive set of cloud service offerings enables service providers to focus their efforts on value-added services.
From this starting point, IndependenceIT has built Cloud Workspace Suite (CWS) to offer service providers ease of administration tied to a compelling core platform with hypervisor independence, capable of competing on equal terms for customer market share. Rather than attempt to build an entire DaaS system from the ground up—the approach adopted by Virtual Bridges and Desktone—Independence IT has focused on the management layer, optimizing and extending the Windows Server Remote Desktop Session Host role where needed to create a multitenant DaaS platform. Prior to the introduction of Windows Server 2008, this approach may not have worked. However, since 2008, Microsoft has committed considerable resources to improving the Windows core Remote Desktop Session Host (RDSH) services, to the point that a ground-up approach is no longer necessary. While CWS is based on Windows RDSH, there is no further lock-in to Microsoft. CWS works unmodified on vSphere, Xen, Hyper-V, and KVM, allowing the service provider to choose the platform with which it is most comfortable, either self-hosted or hosted on one of the major cloud hosting providers.
IndependenceIT gave me access to a development environment in a Tier 4 data center located somewhere outside Kansas City, where I was able to take on the role of a service provider. Right from the start, it was clear that lot of thought had been given to the end-to-end user experience for customers and service providers alike. With no prior experience and no training on CWS, it took me about three minutes to create a new customer from scratch and start creating individual user accounts. It probably would have taken less time, but I stopped to read the small print. With the user accounts created, it was time to start working on applications. In contrast with other DaaS platforms, IndependenceIT places major emphasis on applications as managed components of the cloud desktop. Central to IndependenceIT’s approach to applications is a common library that details configuration information for over 800 applications and is available to all service providers. With this in place, application installation is as simple as selecting from the list of applications in the library and clicking “Save.” The library is a repository not of application packages, but rather of detailed instructions on how to install an application on the target platform to ensure correct operation. It still necessary for the customer to provide access to a copy of the application. Minor versioning differences being what they are, it would be incorrect to assume that the application listed is the exact release that the customer requires. My one gripe with the entire process is that the pop-up window doesn’t make full use of the available screen size, necessitating more scrolling around windows than might have been necessary otherwise. If a customer has a requirement for an application that is not already available in the IndependenceIT library, IndependenceIT will bring it on board for processing, if necessary working with the application developer to ensure that any unique considerations are taken into account before releasing it to the client for testing. IndependenceIT provides this service to its service providers and their customers free of charge in return for permission to incorporate the application into the CWS library. Once captured, applications can be included in a CWS Dynamic Desktop. The Dynamic Desktop allows applications to be installed, updated, or removed from user desktops in real-time without requiring the user to log off an active session. On-the-fly updates to user desktops are the holy grail of desktop management; while the CWS Dynamic Desktop does not offer quite the same flexibility as that provided by CloudVolumes, which VMware acquired in September, it gives IndependenceIT a significant advantage over its competitors that have to integrate external technologies to achieve similar results.
If a customer wishes, it can choose to have an application certified by IndependenceIT privately, without its appearing in the application library, for a nominal fee. The certification process does not prevent IndependenceIT partners from installing other applications that are not included in the “official” app store, although these apps cannot take advantage of the CWS Dynamic Desktop features.
To ensure compliance with licensed software terms and conditions, IndependenceIT also incorporates license management services within CWS. When requesting that an application be made available on a CWS desktop, the customer must provide an appropriate license key, delivered in the form of an application-specific license file, text file, or even .jpg file. The appropriate license key information will then be slipstreamed into the application installation during the desktop provisioning process. Even with this level of control, it remains the customer’s responsibility to ensure that it is in compliance with all application software licensing terms and conditions.
Behind the scenes, IndependenceIT has developed a comprehensive API to enable service providers to extend CWS out-of-the-box management services and integrate with any other services they might offer. In its current implementation, the CWS API supports ninety separate operations that cover everything from creating a new customer account from scratch, provisioning individual user accounts, and creating server resource pools, to day-to-day administration tasks such as resetting a user password or logging off a user session, to reporting and auditing activities for both service providers and their customers.
In common with most DaaS providers, IndependenceIT uses RDSH-based desktops that support both Windows Server 2008 R2, for a Windows 7–style user experience, and Windows Server 2012, for customers looking for desktops with a Windows 8 feel. IndependenceIT also supports dedicated desktops for power users. Further, in common with most other DaaS providers, it has chosen to implement its “desktops” using Windows Server in order to overcome Microsoft’s service provider–hostile licensing policies for desktop operating systems, although there is nothing to stop a service provider from using CWS to build a DaaS solution for customers who specifically need a real desktop OS. CWS supports servers with 2 to 64 GB of memory and 2 to 64 vCPUs, putting it the top end of the scale when it comes to cloud desktop sizing. (Just don’t ask IndependenceIT how much it costs; all pricing decisions are down to individual service providers.) CWS doesn’t offer any explicit support for GPU-enabled servers; however, there is nothing within CWS that would prevent a service provider from implementing a GPU-accelerated platform if its customers require it.
Making changes to server resources is as simple as moving a slider to select the appropriate value and clicking “Apply.” Changes automatically take effect when all users are logged off the server or during the next maintenance window. If for any reason it is essential to force an update, this can be done from the console when finalizing the update. This will prevent any new logons and notify all logged-on users that they have five minutes to log off, after which the server will be shut down and the changes applied.
As CWS is built on top of Windows Server, it does not require its own separate clients and can instead take advantage of Microsoft and third-party RDP clients out-of-the-box, with all the strengths and weaknesses that implies. Having said this, IndependenceIT has developed its own RDP 8–based clients for Windows that incorporate the Cortado ThinPrint Engine as a superior alternative to Microsoft RDS Universal Printing technology. The IndependenceIT client can be customized for individual service providers to configure it to connect directly to the service provider’s own DaaS infrastructure without any post-installation configuration. All users have to do is to install the client and enter a user name and password to be able to access their cloud desktop. IndependenceIT has also developed its own universal HTML5 client, delivered via a web access portal. As a further aid to service providers, the IndependenceIT client comes complete with built-in diagnostics that can email information about the client device and network configuration back to either the customer’s or service provider’s help desk. Support for Microsoft RemoteFX is not offered out-of-the-box by IndependenceIT, as this would entail restricting CWS to Hyper-V. However, there is nothing to prevent a service provider from implementing CWS on Hyper-V and introducing RemoteFX at this point. The same flexibility also permits a service provider to implement a solution based on Teradici PCoIP, Citrix HDX, or anything else, for that matter, provided the appropriate licenses are accounted for.
All things considered, Cloud Workspace Suite appears to check all the boxes necessary for any organization looking to build its own DaaS offering. By building on Microsoft Windows RDSH, it has taken advantage of all of Microsoft’s past and future efforts, extending it only when necessary to deliver a platform targeted directly at potential service providers. At the same time, by being hypervisor and cloud hosting platform–independent, it is flexible enough to allow service providers of any size and almost any level of experience to get on board with DaaS. IndependenceIT has scored some significant successes with Cloud Workspace Suite, recently unseating Citrix as one of Australia’s top cloud service providers. It remains to be seen how CWS will fare against Citrix Workspace Services (yet another product bearing the CWS initials) when it is released. While Citrix CWS encompasses both desktop and mobile application services, making it a less than clear-cut choice between the two platforms, much will depend on Citrix’s pricing strategy. Service providers looking to implement DaaS may find that IndependenceIT delivers enough product at a competitive price to enable them to build competitive desktop cloud services. Were Amazon to reassess its DaaS offering, I would not hesitate to recommend that they consider licensing CWS as a means of addressing all of Amazon WorkSpaces’ current shortcomings.
I do think, though, that IndependenceIT should look beyond cloud desktops and consider the opportunities inherent in Windows RemoteApp. Microsoft has already indicated that it believes there is a bigger market for cloud-based Windows application delivery than for cloud desktop delivery. Yet, while Microsoft is clearly committed to an application-centric approach, Azure RemoteApp is, for the moment at least, badly lacking in application management abilities. If executed promptly, extending Cloud Workspace Suite’s application management capabilities to support application publishing would give IndependenceIT and its partners the opportunity to get ahead of Microsoft in a rapidly growing market.