Much confusion exists regarding the difference between Virtual Private Networks and Remote Desktop Protocol software. Some people mistakenly believe they are one and the same, but in reality they have distinct advantages. A major contributing factor to this confusion revolves around the fact that there are two different kinds of widely used VPNs: consumer facing pass-through VPNs, and corporate VPNs for connecting to local LANs.
At ProPrivacy, we spend a lot of time reviewing commercial pass-through VPNs that can help gain privacy and security online, but today we carefully consider corporate VPN intranets, because it is these that cause VPNs to be conflated with Remote Desktop tools.
Both RDP and corporate VPN intranets can be used to access resources on a remote network. However, each provides a different level of access. A VPN will allow you to connect to the LAN to use a printer or to access files remotely and download them to your machine. RDP, on the other hand, allows you to take over a computer terminal remotely to make use of that PC as if you were actually there - including by using licensed software that is installed on that machine.
Corporate VPN Intranets
If you work for a company that uses a VPN intranet, the IT department will have provided you with software such as Cisco VPN. That software is used to let you securely access the business’ central servers.
Companies provide this kind of VPN so that their employees can connect directly to a company IP address provided by the IT department. When the connection to that static IP address is established, the employee can access assets on the local LAN. As a result, they can get hold of files and folders they need to work on from home (or in a hotel, etc).
What it is important to understand is that this kind of VPN is completely set up and controlled by the business. When this kind of corporate VPN is used, it directly connects each employee to the company’s network using encryption. This creates a secure tunnel between the remote worker and the company server, so that valuable business assets can be transferred without fear that they might be intercepted using a man-in-the-middle (MITM) attack.
What this kind of VPN connection cannot do, is to allow a remote worker to take control of a computer in the office physically to start using it from home. For some employees, this kind of remote control is necessary, usually because there is software on that computer that the employee needs to use. This is where RDP becomes useful.
- Can access work-related assets
- Encrypts your information and protects against MITM attacks
- Does not provide physical-level access to work computers
Remote Desktop Protocol
RDP is a tool that, although similar to a corporate VPN intranet on the surface, provides a completely different level of access and control.
RDP was originally developed by Microsoft to allow users to access their Windows desktop remotely, no matter where you might be. This is useful for permitting remote tech support, or for accessing and using a more powerful machine remotely to take advantage of sophisticated software.
Nowadays, a bunch of different Remote Desktop tools exist for various operating systems. Some more popular options include:
Zoho Assist - An excellent remote desktop tool that has a free tier and premium plans depending on your needs.
RemotePC - A secure cloud based remote access tool with robust AES 256 encryption.
AnyDesk - Free for personal non-commercial use.
TeamViewer - Free for personal non-commercial use.
Chrome Remote Desktop - Free to use.
If you want to connect to a PC remotely to directly use that terminal and its software, you will need to either use the Windows 10 built-in remote desktop app, or one of the third-party options mentioned above.
However, please bear in mind that Microsoft only lets you connect using its native Remote Desktop tool to a machine running either Professional or Enterprise Windows editions. You can connect from any version of Windows, but you can only ever connect to a Windows machine running Professional or Enterprise.
Click here for a full guide on how to use a remote desktop on Windows.
- Can access work-related assets
- Cheap, or even free
- Provides greater, physical-level access to work computers
- Could harbor insecurities that lead to hacking
RDP vs VPN - which option should I use?
For most people, a third party Remote Desktop application, like the ones mentioned above, will be the best option. This is because it is the easiest and quickest way to gain remote access to a desktop.
If you work for a company that requires you to connect to an office terminal remotely, the business will advise you on which remote desktop application to use. In these circumstances, the decision should have been made for you. This is because the IT department will have set up the RDP software on the business computers for you to connect remotely (and they will provide you with the password to do so).
If you run a small business yourself, you may need to connect to your office from home due to Coronavirus. And, if you have employees, you may need to set up remote desktop access for them also to work during periods of self isolation (or for any other reason).
In these circumstances, we recommend that you use one of the Remote Desktop applications mentioned above. Theoretically, you could use a VPN with port forwarding and Windows’ built in RDP tool - this is discussed in the guide we have linked above. However, this is more cumbersome, it is harder to set up, and it has some added potential vulnerabilities.
Finally, it is worth noting that if you do use an RDP application to connect to a computer remotely; it is highly recommended that you also use a commercial pass-through VPN. This is because the commercial VPN will add a layer of encryption to the connection to ensure your data is more secure.
Commercial pass-through VPN services
Commercial VPNs are the kind of VPN services that we regularly review at ProPrivacy.com. These kinds of consumer-facing VPNs are completely different to the corporate VPN intranets mentioned above.
A commercial VPN is designed to allow its users to gain digital privacy and security online. With this kind of VPN, internet users can encrypt their internet traffic to ensure it cannot be intercepted in transit by eavesdroppers.
One thing to remember is that when you use RDP, it is possible that the connection it creates contains some potential vulnerabilities. Security researchers agree that with a little persistence a hacker might gain access to your data because of the shoddier RDP connection.
For this reason, many experts recommend using RDP in combination with a commercial VPN. Doing this provides added security and privacy for anybody using a remote desktop tool, by ensuring that the connection to the remote PC is completely encrypted.
Commercial VPNs provide privacy by ensuring that your ISP cannot track the websites you visit online - sometimes on behalf of the government because of legally required mandatory data retention directives.
In addition, this kind of commercial VPN will conceal your IP address from the websites you visit, providing digital privacy by removing the potential for those sites to track you. Depending on the work you do, you may prefer not to have the websites you visit for work tracked by your ISP. This is especially true for people like journalists, lawyers, or anybody else who requires or desires privacy.
Commercial VPNs also allow their subscribers to access geo-restricted content, by allowing them to pretend to be in a different country. This allows internet users to access accounts and services that are usually restricted - which can be extremely useful for work purposes.
Combining RDP with a commercial VPN
- Can access work-related assets
- Provides physical-level access to work computers
- Full encryption to protect against MITM attacks
- Stops prying eyes from your ISP or elsewhere
- Allows the employee to access geo-restricted content, including streaming services like Netflix US
- The cost of a commercial VPN could be passed to the employee, but this is still cheap with many benefits
VPN vs Remote Desktop Protocol Conclusion
In this article, we have clarified some of the confusion surrounding Virtual Private Networks and Remote Desktop tools. We hope that you will now have a much greater understanding of not only the difference between RDP and VPN but also a clear distinction between the two different kinds of VPNs that often cause conflation between VPN and RDP.
VPNs and remote desktop tools are both useful in their own right. Which one you need will depend on the level of access to a remote network you require. For many people, a corporate VPN intranet will not be an option because setting one up can be expensive. For those people, RDP will be a better solution.
For anybody who uses RDP to access a computer remotely, a commercial pass through VPN is highly recommended to ensure the remote connection is established securely. For more information on getting a secure VPN, please check out our best VPNs guide.