Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) connect remote workers and business resources. With remote access growing in popularity, comparing RDP vs VPN has never been more important.
Both RDP and VPNs make it easier to work from home and access workloads on the move. But while they share a similar function, they have very different features and use cases.
The essential difference is this:
RDP resembles screen sharing, while VPN is a form of secure networking.
VPNs extend private networks to remote devices, while encrypting data and anonymizing users. Remote Desktops make applications available to remote users without data residing on their devices.
Both RDP and VPN connections make sense in certain situations. But are they right for your remote work challenges? Let’s find out more.
What is a VPN?
VPNs expand private networks across public infrastructure. A Virtual Private Network connection encrypts data passing between local devices and central networks. Devices could be located anywhere. As long as users have access to the internet and a VPN server, they can connect to company resources.
Virtual Private Networks operate above the public internet. Most corporate VPNs are maintained by the organization itself, although third-parties provide some cloud VPNs.
When we compare RDP vs. VPN, VPNs have plenty of advantages. The benefits of relying on VPNs for remote access include:
Ease of use
As some VPN providers offer easy-to-use applications, it can be a tremendous help when setting everything up. Users just download and configure clients, which connect via VPN servers (unless legacy workarounds are needed).
By contrast, it takes more time to set up remote desktop protocol (unless they also rely on easy-to-use apps). Users must establish network or device access before RDP can operate. This adds another element to remote working practices.
Simple security solution
VPNs are great when securing communications, especially when using public networks. Travelers can check emails securely as they transit through airports. Employees can work on their projects remotely without worrying about information security.
Site-to-Site VPNs work well when connecting multiple locations. Companies can extend network coverage to distant offices and branches. Traffic between locations is protected by encryption. The use of internal IP addresses simplifies network architecture.
What is RDP or Remote Desktop Protocol?
Microsoft created the Remote Desktop Protocol in 1998 to link remote devices and central networks.
RDP allows remote workers to view and use applications that do not reside locally. Instead, all data is stored either centrally or in the cloud. This essentially makes RDP a form of remote access screen sharing.
Workers can carry out tasks as if they were using applications on-site. They can make code changes, maintain databases, communicate with co-workers, and edit texts. But nothing remains on their own device.
This remote access method operates across the public internet. Every session is initiated centrally. Users must set up connections between remote devices and network resources before applying RDP.
This setup can compromise network security. RDP includes its own encryption and authentication systems. However, these security controls are not watertight in legacy RDP clients.
For this reason, RDP tends to require real-time security monitoring. Security teams must check for anomalies and ensure workers use remote devices responsibly. Regular updating of clients is essential.
RDP is an efficient solution for remote network access and has a range of strengths. Benefits of choosing Remote Desktops include:
With RDP, workers instantly see a familiar OS and apps they use daily. Mirrored screens extend office tasks into remote access locations, allowing staff to complete tasks as normal.
Low bandwidth requirements
Bandwidth is an important factor when choosing between RDP and VPN connections. RDP uses much less bandwidth to create connections.
Routing traffic through third-party connections or applying anonymization and encryption is unnecessary. This makes an RDP connection ideal for data-intensive operations.
Reduce hardware and software costs
Remote Desktops allow businesses to reduce their spending on network hardware. Organizations can connect workers via remote desktop sharing and minimize the need for separate workstations.
Companies can store applications in the cloud, further reducing on-site infrastructure. It’s possible to create lean workspaces that are easy-to-use and cheap to run.
Minimal local storage
With RDP, users do not need to store sensitive data or documents on their local machines. Workers can travel without carrying large amounts of valuable data. Less data is physically exposed if devices are compromised or stolen.
Minimal local storage also has compliance benefits. Companies can easily show evidence of compliance to relevant authorities if all data is held in secure cloud containers or encrypted data centers.
Key differences between VPN & RDP
Both VPN and RDP provide remote access to shared network resources. But the two remote access methods are far from identical. Understanding the key differences between RDP and VPN is of critical importance for security and practical reasons:
Remote Desktop Protocol provides much more control over devices for remote workers. When users connect via RDP, they have complete control over the remote desktop, within access privileges granted by administrators.
VPN connections simply allow network access for remote users. This is a blunt instrument without segmentation and access control.
VPNs can also be less flexible for workers. Remote Desktop Access gives users the control they would enjoy in on-premises offices. Using a VPN can limit the ability to run applications remotely.
Generally, VPNs are more secure. This is because they feature encryption and IP address anonymization. Data transmitted over a VPN connection is almost inaccessible to outsiders. There is minimal risk of interception.
Remote Desktops are often the source of data breaches and malware attacks. For example, the Venus Ransomware attack uses RDP as a point of entry before encrypting Windows devices.
Without robust access controls, Remote Desktops are a major security risk. Attackers with the right credentials can take over a remote desktop and use it to compromise entire networks.
Remote Desktops do have one security advantage. When workers use RDP, no data is stored locally. Everything remains on central or cloud servers. That is not usually the case for VPNs.
Both VPN and Remote Desktop connections are relatively easy to configure. If user convenience is key, it really depends as both RDP and VPN solutions come in easy-to-use apps.
RDP copies tools that workers know. Staff can immediately adapt to remote working without disruption. VPN connections add complexity to work routines. They may cause problems if compatibility issues arise.
Remote desktop systems use less bandwidth, improving app performance and transfer speeds. This is a major quality-of-life benefit for workers using databases or transferring large files.
Do you need a VPN or RDP?
Everyone needs secure connectivity, but they also need the right connection method.
To simplify things, VPNs provide a high level of security protection for businesses extending private networks across the public internet. Remote Desktop Protocol is preferred by businesses that need to access employee devices and control application usage. These use cases should provide a hint about which method to use:
Choose RDP if you need to connect remote workstations for customers to use
RDP works well in libraries, museums, or college campuses where many users require access to central resources. For instance, students need access to learning materials and testing apps. Libraries have to connect to book directories.
Remote Desktops are a lean solution for public-facing organizations. Each remote desktop is accessible and easy to use. Users only have access to apps that they need and nothing more.
This setup minimizes the risk of users introducing malware. It also fits well with cloud storage. Customer network data can be stored off-premises, and organizations need very little IT infrastructure on-site.
Choose RDP if you need to connect many users to a single workstation
Remote Desktops are useful when multiple users connect to a single set of resources.
Healthcare clinics are a great example. Clinics can distribute workstations to receptionists, admin staff, and doctors. Each remote desktop connects to a central server instead of housing apps and data itself, and workers connect via Remote Desktops.
Because local workstations contain no data, the clinic can easily secure critical resources and schedule regular backups. All medical staff will have access to the resources they need while networking costs will be low.
Choose RDP if remote workers need access to complex centrally-hosted workloads
Remote work users may need to access data-intensive applications like video rendering packages. Or they may desire access to complex equipment they cannot use at home. Printing and scanning are good examples, alongside many forms of scientific research.
A Remote Desktop Protocol connection makes sense here. Companies connect workers to on-site resources and allow them to work efficiently. There is no need to install burdensome apps or equipment elsewhere.
Remote Desktops also suit workers requiring constant database access. VPNs don’t work well with databases designed for LAN access. RDP is a more efficient option, enabling remote database work away from the office.
Are there VPNs that have RDP capabilities?
One of the biggest drawbacks of Remote Desktops is the lack of security features. Many cyberattacks originate from insecure Remote Desktop Protocol connections. So it makes sense to add encryption and device anonymization when using remote desktops.
Some VPN services include Remote Desktop features in their applications. Remote desktop over VPN services combine sharing screens remotely and VPN encryption.
NordLayer’s Smart Remote Access service is a great example. SRA creates secure connections between devices and central network resources. Admins can easily create VPN-encrypted point-to-point connections for Remote Desktop Access.
Smart Remote Access delivers the benefits of RDP without the security concerns. Find out more by contacting NordLayer today.