VPN vs Remote Desktop: Definitions and Comparison
As two common ways to remotely access distant computer resources, VPN and remote desktop tools may sound a lot similar to each other, so comparing VPN vs remote desktop software seems necessary. In this article, we review each technology and explain the differences between RDP and VPN.
What is a VPN?
Recently, we hear a lot about Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). But what is a VPN and when do you need to use one? There are two types of Virtual Private Network that should not be mistaken for each other.
- Commercial pass-through VPNs: These are the most famous VPNs which are used by many people for privacy purposes, these days. A pass-through VPN connects your system to a server, that is basically another computer on the Internet and can be anywhere in the world. This way, it looks like you’re on the same local network as the server. Therefore, you can browse the Internet using that computer’s Internet connection and that network’s Internet protocol (IP) address. As a result, VPNs hide your online footprint and protect your privacy by masking your IP address. Also, many VPNs use encryption to send network traffic over a secure connection to the VPN. So, a VPN can somewhat shield you against identity theft by creating an encrypted tunnel for the data you send and receive and protecting it from the cybercriminals. Another important goal of VPN can be bypassing geo-restrictions or the Internet censorship.
- Corporate VPN intranets: Although Corporate VPN intranets are less known than the first group nowadays, these are the first VPNs that came to existence, and the third-party commercial VPN services were developed later by repurposing this type of VPNs. Corporate VPN intranets were developed to let mobile users and branch offices access corporate intranet resources securely via the Internet. This type of VPN is still popular in the business world.
Now that we reviewed both types of VPNs and explained that the second type, i.e. Corporate VPN intranets can be used for remote access, we see why comparing VPN vs remote desktop tools is necessary and why some people may confuse these two. So, from now on, whenever we say VPN in this article, we are talking about the Corporate VPN intranets, unless implied otherwise.
What is RDP or Remote Desktop Protocol?
Microsoft's Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) is a proprietary protocol developed by Microsoft that enables users to take over distant computers anywhere in the world.
But RDP is just one of many remote desktop tools that exist out there and can be used on different operating systems and platforms, including smartphones. If you are interested in third-party remote desktop tools, you can check out TeamViewer, AnyDesk, and VNCConnect to name a few. But Windows also has a built-in remote desktop tool called Microsoft Remote Desktop Services (RDS), formerly known as Terminal Services. RDS has a client application called Remote Desktop Connection that uses RDP to allow users to access remote systems.
Remote desktop tools are great options for teleworking, online troubleshooting, and remote support. For example, you can use Remote Desktop Connection to have unattended access to your work computer and use applications installed on it, while you are working remotely during the Covid-19 outbreak.
It’s worth mentioning that while using Remote Desktop Connection, the client who is connected to the remote computer can see and take control of everything, just like their own desktop, but the user sitting at the remote computer cannot see or control their own computer, due to Remote Desktop Connection’s screen blanking feature. This can be useful for some users for security reasons, but for applications like remote support or online education that require both sides to see the screen, Windows has another default RDP-based software called Windows Remote Assistance. Some remote desktop tools like AnyDesk offer screen blanking as an optional feature.
VPN vs Remote Desktop: The differences
While both VPN and remote desktop tools like RDP are designed to allow remote access, they have many differences in design and application. In this section, we compare VPN vs Remote desktop software to let you get a better grasp on each tool’s pros and cons.
- With RDP and other remote desktop tools, you can literally take over the remote system and do whatever a local user can do on their system. The only exception may be turning on the computer, and that is because you need to have RDP already running to be able to use it. Using RDP, you can run any software that is installed on the remote computer and access any data stored there. For example, you can use remote desktop software to take over your university lab’s powerful computers remotely and run some CPU-intensive software for your research. In contrast, a VPN gives remote users just as much access as connecting to a local area connection does, that means using a VPN, users can access servers and machines that are only accessible within the corporate firewall. For instance, you can use a VPN to connect to the LAN to use a printer or to access and copy some files from your work computer to your laptop when you are at home. But you cannot use a VPN to run some software or use the remote desktop like your local system.
- When comparing VPN vs remote desktop tools in terms of ease of setting up, the former is usually the winner. Unlike Corporate VPN intranets, Remote desktop tools like RDP have very little configuration complexity.
- VPNs can be rather expensive, when remote desktop tools are usually more affordable and sometimes even free. Especially if you use Windows, you already have its built-in remote desktop tool at your disposal.
- Unlike VPNs, Remote desktop tools may also provide users with some additional helpful features that could improve your remote access experience. For example, AnyDesk offers a session recording option, a chat tool, and a whiteboard to draw elements on the screen visible for both sides.
- Another important issue to consider is the possible need to granting access to non-members if they are for some reason required remote access to the corporate For example, a third-party expert may need temporary access to provide support. If you use RDP, the remote support provider only needs to have the Windows login information so they can access anything the local user has access to. But when using a VPN, depending on the intended resource, additional layers of access would need to be granted to the third-party person which can be time-consuming and prone to error. Besides, as soon as the work is done, all the granted permissions would need to be removed properly and thoroughly. Otherwise, the corporate network could be exposed to high security risks.
- While VPNs are not above having security issues, they are essentially designed to provide remote users with a secure connection to the company resources. While many top remote desktop tools use encrypted tunnels like SSL, it may not be the case in all such tools. Furthermore, considering the easy and complete access that RDP provides, even a strong encryption cannot fully prevent your system from being exposed to major security risks.
Is RDP safe without VPN?
Like many other remote desktop tools, Remote Desktop Service and its associated port are quite favored by cybercriminals. To secure your data traffic when using RDP and other remote desktop tools, you can use a commercial pass-through VPN over your remote desktop connection. But, is RDP safe without VPN? The answer is no, in fact, the RDP is not completely safe even with a VPN. Of course, using a VPN helps a lot by adding a layer of encryption and hiding your IP address, but RDP vulnerabilities are far more from that.
For example, hackers very often use brute-force attacks , to get into remote systems through RDP. Another common strategy used by cyber-attackers is exploiting a software vulnerability like BlueKeep to take control of an RDP server.
However, there are some security measures that if taken seriously, can secure your remote desktop connections effectively. They include, but are not limited to, always keeping your software up-to-date, setting up a powerful firewall (preferably a firewall specially designed for remote desktop protection), exploiting a commercial pass-through VPN, and using strong passwords.
VPN or remote desktop software: Which is better for you?
After reading this detailed VPN vs remote desktop review, hopefully, you are now able to decide which tool is a better fit for your needs.
But to put it in a nutshell, Remote desktop tools are easy-to-use and effective software that can be effective in most remote scenarios for individuals and businesses, both. Of course, the potential security risks these tools create, cannot be overlooked or underestimated. However, you can reduce this risk to almost zero, by taking necessary percussions.
As for the Corporate VPN intranets, they are usually only used by large corporations, these days, and there is a good reason for that. As mentioned earlier, setting up and maintaining VPN servers is very expensive. so, if you own a large company with sensitive data that needs to be accessed remotely, but your users do not need the ability to remotely control computers or their resident software, VPN can work great for you.