Amazon Web Services Exec: Virtual Desktop Market Is Our Next Frontier For Price-Slashing

Amazon Web Services has relentlessly driven down pricing for many of its cloud services, exerting a boa constrictor-like effect on its marketplace competitors. Now, it's trying to do the same with WorkSpaces, its Desktop-as-a-Service offering.

This is an ambitious undertaking, even for AWS, a company that has a track record of tackling Herculean cloud infrastructure challenges. As many organizations have learned firsthand, virtual desktops can be a beast to deploy and manage, and compute and storage costs can also quickly spiral out of control.

Matt Wood, general manager of product strategy at AWS, told CRN in a recent interview that compute and storage for WorkSpaces runs on the Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2), the epicenter for numerous pricing cuts in the past.

[Related: Here's Why Andy Jassy Is Amazon Web Services' $6 Billion Man]

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"The cost savings flywheel is very well aligned to virtual desktops," Wood said. "There are exactly the same advantages in terms of delivering out the infrastructure for [virtual desktops] as there are for pretty much any of our older services."

AWS WorkSpaces pricing ranges from $25 to $60 per user monthly in North America. For that, customers get a virtual Windows 7 desktop powered by Windows Server 2008 R2.

Wood said customers can also use Direct Connect, a private network connection between their data centers and those of AWS, to get "consistent, predictable networking," which is key to making virtual desktops function like their physical counterparts.

"If you can’t get end users to actually adopt and use [virtual desktops], it doesn’t matter how easy they are to provision, it doesn’t matter how secure they are. If they’re not going to use them because they’re too hard to use, then you've failed," Wood said.

Jeff Aden, founder and executive vice president of marketing and strategic development at 2nd Watch, a Seattle-based AWS partner that sells WorkSpaces, said the fact that it's hosted by AWS also helps from a security and compliance perspective.

"Let's say a company doesn't have [Sarbanes-Oxley] compliance but wants to run an app. They can run the entire desktop on WorkSpaces and be compliant, because it's part of the AWS infrastructure. Implementing virtual desktops internally isn't going to make these companies compliant," said Aden.

AWS believes that giving customers the option of buying virtual desktops as a monthly subscription, as opposed to paying for projects upfront, will entice customers that might have otherwise remained on the sidelines because of the setup costs involved.

"It hasn’t been possible to dip your toes in the water with [virtual desktops]. When people try it out, they are surprised to see that it actually works as well as it does," Wood said.

AWS, as it typically does with newer services, is adding functionality to WorkSpaces to attract more customers. It's now possible to buy applications on a monthly subscription basis and run them on WorkSpaces virtual desktops, through a new offering called AWS Marketplace for Desktop Apps, which debuted in April.

Many organizations get their software through long-term enterprise licensing agreements, so this is a big shift. While the Marketplace for Desktop Apps catalog is relatively small, it does include Microsoft Office.

AWS WorkSpaces also works with popular management tools like Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager, said Wood.

AWS is facing plenty of competition in the Desktop-as-a-Service market, both from VMware and from Citrix service provider partners. VMware's DaaS offering, called Horizon Air, ranges from $35 to $100 per user monthly, and unlike AWS Workspaces, gives customers the option of running the Windows 7 client operating system.

Both AWS WorkSpaces and VMware Horizon Air use Teradici's PC-over-IP technology, which improves multimedia performance on virtual desktops and devices, allowing 3-D graphics and high-definition video to run over a remote connection.

AWS hasn't said much about how Workspaces is selling so far, but one big reference customer is Johnson & Johnson, which is planning to have 25,000 employees using AWS Workspaces by the end of the year, according to Wood.

If AWS can get other large enterprises on board, it could not only jump-start the long-awaited virtual desktop revolution, but also show once again that its head start in cloud infrastructure gives it an edge on competitors -- even in markets where it's a new player.