Amazon's EC2 Isn't A Good Windows Desktop

It is tempting to think that you could have a configured Windows desktop computer on Amazon EC2 that you turned on whenever you like paying 12.5 cents an hour, then turned off and have it cost you nothing but storage of the hard drive. This computer you could use as a configured desktop with all your favorite applications installed to check email, do work and that you could access anywhere. However, Amazon EC2 isn’t set up that way; in fact it would be very hard to work day to day on an EC2 machine unless you left it turned on constantly. Here are the reasons that Amazon EC2 doesn’t make a good desktop environment:
  • Amazon EC2 only runs Windows 2003 (As of 10/24/2009). Most people are used to a better desktop experience provided by Windows 7, Vista, or Windows 2008 and the Windows 2003 Windows 2003 desktop will feel old to them.
  • When you terminate your Amazon EC2 instance (which stops the meter) EC2 deletes the underlying hard drive and everything that you have saved to that drive unless you take the time to bundle the AMI and register it. This really is a drawback, since bundling and registering the AMI (operating system hard drive) can take up to 15 minutes. If you never terminate the instance you can work on it indefinitely, however the meter never stops running.
  • Remote Desktop Connection (RDC) is the only way to work with the EC2 computer like a desktop and there are things that RDC doesn’t handle like a desktop computer. You can’t stream video, watch movies, and the updates when browsing appear clunky. There are no burning CDs, watching DVDs, or playing video games.
  • EC2 instances do not turn on very fast, sometimes up to ten minutes. The idea that you have a computer that you turn on and off, and only pay for when you used is romantic, however with a ten minute turn on time, you start to wonder why you turn it off.


  1. Thanks for posting your thoughts on this. I was considering whether this would be feasible and I appreciate the feedback.

  2. Have you found any services that would work better for this? (Or at the very least, run a non-server Windows OS in the cloud?)

    I'm trying to reduce our organization's reliance on laptops to do on-site demos by creating a set of virtual "demo appliances" (instances of Windows XP/Vista/7 running our software). Then a sales engineer can bring a computer with much less power (say, a netbook) to a client site, open up a RDP/webRDP connection, and voila!

  3. To your 2nd point
    2) You can use EBS volumes. EBS volumes can be attached to WIndows instances and they appear as a drive. When the instance is shut down, the EBS volume isn't destroyed. Next time when you start the instance, So, after you create your starter windows instance, create and attach an EBS volume, and configure windows to put all the "data" on the EBS volume. Create the image. Next time when you bring up the instacne, you will have to attach the volume (or put startup scripts that attach the volume for you) and you'll be good to go

  4. Considering the ability to 'boot' from EBS now.

    Does this make EC2 a viable Windows desktop platform?

  5. You can turn on/off instances without using the terminate option which in turn will turn the meter on/off. You will still have the delay in booting it up, but you will not have to go through the AMI process. Although you are correct that RDP does not handle refreshes very well, if your looking for an online place to store important data, say Quickbooks or similar, this may still be a viable option. Just not as a daily use desktop. If you want an online desktop you should really be looking at XenDesktop, XenApp, Quest or similar solutions as they are actually designed to handle a desktop over the internet. Also keep in mind you pay for the instance, storage and bandwidth. So to say the cost is 12.5 cents is really far from the truth. Still reasonably cheap, but I think 30-50 cents is probably a more accurate estimate.

  6. This is out of date.

    1) You can boot 2008 or 2003, but yes it's principally designed to replace workstations and servers rather than desktops.

    2) EBS backed volumes are the default and should not be terminated.

    3) Yes, RDC for a desktop is unlikely to be suitable for most companies.

    4) Starting an EBS backed volume takes a similar amount of time to starting a regular computer

  7. One thing I may add - You may use online DNS updater service (like - which is free of course for two addresses) and automatically map your dynamic DNS whenever your EC2 instance is started. In that manner you can use a fixed dns name instead of dynamic DNS address during remote desktop connection.

    An alternative to remote desktop is web based services like (which is also free for standard use)

    EBS backed Windows Instance is default. However you can attach additional EBS volume to store your data. And the original volume to store your program.

    Time to time saving a snapshot of your original EBS volume will create a save point of your system.

    My point is EC2 based online instance can be a smart choice for many applications including anytime-anywhere desktop usage.

  8. UPDATE. If you run Window Server 2008 R2 it has desktop acceleration which means you can watch Video and run games over RDP. Although not an ideal solution this does mean that it can be done. There are often situations where you want to get a high performance PC in the cloud for a short period of time and EC2 / Rackspace cloud can provide this.


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