VPN vs RDP: what should your business choose?


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.

Key differences:

  • 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.

  • RDP requires an active session to be maintained for access, while VPN allows secure remote access across devices once connected.

  • VPN traffic routes through a private gateway, while RDP traffic is direct internet traffic that may require additional security configurations.

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 the public infrastructure. A Virtual Private Network connection encrypts data passing between local devices and central networks as an encrypted tunnel. 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.

VPN benefits

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 protocols (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

Regarding RDP vs. VPN, 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.

Branch-to-branch networking

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 for a secure internet connection. The use of internal IP addresses simplifies network architecture.

VPN challenges

While VPNs provide strong benefits for securing remote access and networking, their usage also presents some potential challenges for businesses to consider. Some of the common challenges of relying on virtual private network technology include:

Configuration complexity

For large companies with distributed workforces, setting up and managing multiple VPN configurations at scale requires in-house network expertise and ongoing administration.

Limited vendor options

Relying solely on third-party VPN vendors limits a business’s control, customizability, and ability to quickly address service disruptions impacting all remote workers.


While VPN encryption protects data, it can add latency and reduce bandwidth compared to direct connections. This can impact the user experience of bandwidth-heavy tasks.

Shared infrastructure

VPNs route traffic through shared entry points, creating potential security vulnerabilities if the VPN or user devices are compromised. However, NordLayer can easily solve this issue by assigning a dedicated (fixed) IP address to your business, removing this single point of failure.

Understanding Remote Desktop Protocol: how does it work?

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 benefits

Looking at RDP vs. VPN, 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. Examining RDP vs. VPN, 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 computer 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.

RDP challenges

In the analysis of RDP vs. VPN, while RDP provides secure remote access with benefits like low bandwidth usage, familiar interfaces and reduced device costs, it also presents administrative and operational challenges for businesses to consider. A few potential drawbacks include:

Configuration complexity

Configuring and managing RDP across an entire remote workforce requires network expertise. Scalability and centralized control can be challenging without the right tools.

Device compatibility

RDP is designed mainly for Windows devices, potentially limiting access from other operating systems like Mac or Linux. Non-Windows devices may have less functionality.

Lack of local access

As all applications and data remain on centralized systems, workers have no offline access and rely on consistent connectivity. Outages impact productivity until connections are restored.

System scalability challenges

While RDP connections are efficient over low-bandwidth links, ensuring optimal performance as the remote user base and geographical distributions grow can be difficult. Performance may suffer over high-latency links, slowing productivity.

Key differences between VPN vs. RDP

Both VPN and RDP provide remote access to shared network resources. However, 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 computer, 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. This is a crucial distinction in the debate over VPN or RDP, as 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:

RDP vs VPN comparison table

Choose RDP if you need to connect remote workstations for customers to use

In the comparison of VPN vs Remote Desktop, 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

When we compare VPN vs. RDP, 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.

Comparing VPN and RDP, 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. Discussing VPN and RDP, 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 of a VPN solution. 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.

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