A Hobbyist’s Guide to Amazon WorkSpaces

Reading time ~4 minutes

Amazon WorkSpaces are virtual desktops in the cloud. As designed, they’re an office sysadmin’s dream: a simple thin client, integration with Active Directory, and the ability to rebuild WorkSpaces from scratch with the click of a button. But how are they as a personal desktop? I decided to find out.

They can be incredibly useful

A WorkSpace is valuable so long as you 1. switch computers often and 2. you have actual work to do. If you’re not a hobbyist developer, chances are a cloud drive service will suit your needs just fine.

But if you are a hobbyist devops kinda person, you will know the nightmare of keeping everything “in sync.” Notes are easy: there’s Evernote, Google Keep, Dropbox, good old-fashioned git; code can be committed to private repositories while in progress. But then there’s all the little things. Shell and IDE history. Bookmarks and tabs. Configuration files that are never up to date. Local webservers that you forget to start after every boot.

It’s never anything major, and it’s certainly nothing that stops you from getting stuff done, just a thousand niggling things that aren’t quite the way you expect them to be in the moment. And yes, all of these things are syncable, but most require individual solutions with varying degrees of robustness and headache.

And even when everything is running smoothly, who among us hasn’t had that oh crap! moment of kicking off a long-running script just before the Internet drops?

The brilliance of a WorkSpace can be summed up with the word continuity. You are always exactly where you left off. Your WiFi or your battery may have betrayed you, but your WorkSpace is eternal, ready for you to reconnect and get on with shit.

They need Active Directory

Yes, even the Linux WorkSpaces. It’s just how authentication is done. If you create a WorkSpace manually in the console, AWS will quietly make you a pleasant-sounding Simple AD domain called CORP.

This might ring some alarm bells. After all, nothing in the cloud is free! Except, as it turns out, this is.

As AWS explains on the directory pricing page:

If you use Amazon WorkSpaces, Amazon WorkDocs, or Amazon WorkMail in conjunction with AWS Directory Service, you will not be charged an additional fee for either Simple AD or AD Connector directories registered with these services, as long as you have active users of Amazon WorkSpaces, Amazon WorkDocs, or Amazon WorkMail.

Specifically, you need one active user to keep your small directory free. That’s you!

Since you’re going to have a domain created one way or another, it’s probably worth creating the domain yourself to avoid being stuck with a dreary, generic CORP. You can create your own domain from the ‘Directory Service’ console. Then, once you’ve made it, go to the WorkSpaces console and deploy a WorkSpace from your new domain.

Hourly WorkSpaces are a scam

As you peruse the pricing page for WorkSpaces, you might be tempted to choose an Hourly WorkSpace over an AlwaysOn one. This is because most things in the cloud are cheaper if they’re not on 24/7, and you’re probably not going to be logged in 24 hours a day anyway.

Don’t do it. The per-hour pricing is over five times more expensive going with Hourly over AlwaysOn. Even at a modest use of three hours per day, the cheapest Hourly Linux instance will run you more than the AlwaysOn monthly fee. You also get charged the initial flat Hourly fee immediately, before your first hour ticks over, and you will get charged it again if you re-provision your WorkSpace without waiting for the previous WorkSpace to be deleted. Trust me, I speak from experience.

That’s to say nothing of the awful wait for your Hourly WorkSpace to dredge itself out from whatever depths of the cloud it slumbers in, should you dare to rouse it. Hope you like staring at the word RESUMING with increasing incredulity. Just don’t bother with Hourly.

They will get rebooted

Part of my motivation to check out WorkSpaces was my impatience with Windows clobbering my Linux VMs I worked in whenever it felt like updating. Unfortunately, you don’t escape updates here either. Fortunately, they are completely predictable!

WorkSpace maintenance windows are between midnight and 4am Sunday in the WorkSpace’s timezone. I will happily take a predictable reboot period over the surprises of Windows 10. It would be nice if we could define the maintenance period ourselves, but at least AWS picked a time when people are the least likely to be awake, let alone online.

They are free tier eligible

If you still qualify, you can nab a decent sized WorkSpace under the free tier plan. Go check it out!

As for me, I haven’t been free tier for some time, but I’m finding my $21/month Linux WorkSpace to be fast enough for my needs.

A WorkSpace of my own

While they’re not for everyone, I can report that I’ll probably be staying with my WorkSpace for the immediate future. It’s been an easy transition from having multiple Linux VMs playing configuration leapfrog to a single Linux VM running on someone else’s computer. Having a persistent desktop brings back a certain comfort in a world of increasingly transient devices.

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