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AWS Workspaces vs Azure Virtual Desktop: choosing your VDI solution

Clint Bonnett
Clint Bonnett

There are not too many things more stressful than working in IT and hearing your manager tell your team that the company is going fully remote in a couple of weeks and your team needs to be ready to support that shift! Any of us that were working in the IT world in early 2020 can certainly relate! If you’re ever faced with this challenge, many things will probably race across your mind. How will we provide the hardware and software required for the employees to do their jobs? How will we keep the coffee machine full while we work around the clock to get infrastructure in place? 

Using a cloud provider to provide virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) to your employees is a great way to solve many of these issues, so let’s take a look at Azure Virtual Desktop (formerly Windows Virtual Desktop) and AWS Workspaces to find the fit that’s best for you.

What’s a Virtual Desktop?

In short, we can utilize Azure, AWS or many other options to provide virtual desktops to users that have the applications they need either pre-installed or provided as needed. Now you could just deploy a virtual machine and call that a virtual desktop, but if you want scalability, security, ease of use, and more, you’ll want to go with a virtual desktop infrastructure solution.

Comparing Azure Virtual Desktop to AWS Workspaces

Let’s say you work at Gnomes Inc, a company that produces garden gnomes and garden gnome designs. You just got word that the designers, call center employees, and finance departments are going fully remote. Thankfully, you’ve been keeping up to date with the cloud world and you know you can use either Azure VDI or AWS Workspaces to provide virtual desktops for your co-workers, but which one should you choose? Let’s take a look and help our little gnome friends out!

Features

Both products offer a lot of the same features such as remote connectivity from anywhere, using a native app or web browser, persistent file storage, deploying custom applications, so let’s look at how they differ.

With AWS Workspaces each user gets their own personal desktop that can either be Windows or Linux OS. Below is a screenshot of the Linux desktop provided by AWS Workspaces.

Linux desktop by Amazon Workspaces.

On the Azure Virtual Desktop side, Windows will be the only OS option and users can have either a personal desktop or many users can share a virtual machine. Many users sharing a virtual machine is a good way to help with cost and reduce virtual machine count.

The next important thing to consider is that AWS Workspaces Windows offering is actually Server 2016. To get Windows 10 on AWS Workspaces you’ll need the appropriate licensing and a minimum of 200 workspaces per region!

Showing Amazon Workspaces Windows Server 2016

Pricing

Now let’s look at the pricing for each offering. For now, let’s say that we’re planning to create virtual desktops for the Gnomes Inc. finance department of 10 users. For the finance department, the IT team has determined that they’ll need a 2 virtual CPU machine with 8 Gigabytes of RAM with a Windows OS.

AWS Workspaces pricing scenario

We’ll first take a look at AWS Workspaces. With those requirements in mind, and taking a look at the AWS Workspace pricing page, we see that a single 2 VCPU and 8 GB-of-RAM virtual machine will run us $47/month; that also includes the Windows licensing. Perfect. So for 10 users, our bill would be sitting at $470/month total.


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Azure Virtual Desktop pricing scenario

Next up, Azure Virtual Desktop. There are two ways we can look at pricing with Azure Virtual Desktop: where each user gets their own virtual machine (known as personal), or where many users share a virtual machine (known as pooled). Let’s take a look at the personal configuration first, where each user gets their own VM, to compare it directly to AWS Workspaces.

Personal pricing

First, I’ll pull up the Azure pricing calculator and plug in our information of the virtual machine we want. Just a D2_v4 virtual machine with 2 VCPUs and 8GB of RAM alone is going to cost us $80/user/month and we still have to consider licensing! Let’s figure each user will use the Microsoft 365 Premium subscription, which will allow them to use Azure Virtual Desktop VMs and which runs us $20/user/month. So, with all that in mind, it’d be a little more than $100/user/month, For 10 users, that equals out to $1,000/month total!


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So in a personal user desktop situation, Azure Virtual Desktop is more than double the cost of AWS Workspaces. But how about if we pooled our users? How would our costs change?

Pooled pricing

Back to the pricing calculator. This time I’ll select the pooled configuration, and choose a virtual machine based on Microsoft’s VM guidelines. Since we’re less than 20 users and assuming the “Heavy Workload” type, Microsoft recommends an D8s_v4 (8 VCPUs and 32GB of RAM). Now, if we calculated the VM price, plus a little bit of storage costs, and Microsoft 365 Premium subscription for all 10 users, we come out to $600/month total. 

Even with a pooled configuration, AWS Workspaces still ends up being the cheapest option.

workspaces and vpns
Read more from ACG: With VPNs besieged, cloud desktop get their close-up

Performance and Reliability

Finally, we’ve come to performance and reliability. From my experiences of using Azure Virtual Desktop and AWS Workspaces, I would say they both perform fairly similarly using the native remote applications. With both of them you can tell there is a little bit of delay launching programs and applications but I would say I personally felt the delay was slightly less with Azure Virtual Desktop.

On the reliability side, AWS workspaces offers a 99.9% uptime SLA. Azure Virtual Desktop, on the other hand, “strives to attain at least 99.9% availability” and “Microsoft does not offer a financially backed service level agreement.” So if you need a guaranteed SLA, then AWS Workspaces is going to be your best bet.

Which is right for me: AWS Workspaces or Azure Virtual Desktop?

Now that we’ve taken a look at the features, pricing, performance, and reliability of both offerings, which one should you choose? Well, that’s going to depend on your situation (and on how much your company is staffing up for peak garden gnome season). If you need to offer a Linux desktop or your workloads can run on Server 2016, then I would recommend you use AWS Workspaces. However, if you need Windows 10 for less than 200 users or would like to ease the complexity of managing lots of VMs, then Azure Virtual Desktop is a good choice for you. 

If you want to learn more about Azure Virtual Desktop and how you can use it to provide a secure, scalable, and seamless virtual desktop to your end users, check out my course Introduction to Azure Virtual Desktop where I cover Azure Virtual Desktop topics such as terminology, figuring out pricing and licensing, and show several demos of it in action.

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