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VPN or Remote Desktop
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VPN vs. Remote Desktop: Which Is Better for Your Remote Workers?

Thought Leadership piece with Robert Hogg, Managing Partner, Ancero

Almost overnight the COVID-19 pandemic forced most organizations, large and small, to shift to a remote working environment. While some businesses had the solutions and policies in place to enable a seamless transition, many have been scrambling to figure out how to provide remote workforces with secure access to corporate systems, applications, and data.

While Ancero has been working with organizations to make the switch, we’ve learned there is a general confusion about the differences between remote working via virtual private network (VPN) and a remote desktop protocol (RDP) session.

Most consider a VPN and RDP to be the same. Although both provide a secure connection to resources on a corporate network for remote workers, a VPN and RDP are two very different solutions with distinct advantages and disadvantages. Let’s see how they compare so you can make an educated decision about which solution makes sense for your organization.

Virtual Private Network (VPN)

A VPN uses advanced encryption and tunneling techniques to create a secure internet connection between a user and a network. Business networks can connect with each other, and remote workers can access sensitive data from a business network without exposure to unauthorized users. This is obviously more secure than an open, public Wi-Fi network, which offers no such protection.

Because internet traffic and user identity are protected with encryption, VPN is technically a security solution, although it does enable remote network access, whether users are working from home, a coffee shop, or an airport.

The simplicity and cost-effectiveness of VPNs make them an attractive option.

There are several drawbacks, however, to keep in mind when considering a VPN as a remote work solution. First, VPNs generally require significant amounts of bandwidth. Files are transferred to and from your computer and the remote network so users can access and work with those files. Since the VPN does not compress or optimize data, file size can have an impact on performance.

Also, VPNs aren’t ideal for databases and line-of-business software applications, most of which were designed to run on a local area network (LAN) with enough bandwidth to support high speeds. Databases generally don’t perform well, or won’t run at all, over a VPN connection.

Finally, printing and scanning can be difficult depending on the type and size of the print job and the volume of printing and scanning activity. Specific firewall configurations are often required, and end users need to navigate driver files and other local computer settings to enable printing and scanning via VPN.

Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP)

RDP is a secure network communication protocol developed by Microsoft to enable the remote management of and access to virtual desktops and applications. RDM makes it possible for a remote user to not only log in to a network, but also to use network processing and storage resources by mirroring the graphical interface of the remote computer. By tapping into the cloud for RDP, you can eliminate the need to purchase and maintain dedicated server and storage systems.

With RDP, all processing occurs on the remote computer. Only screen images, keystrokes, and mouse clicks are transmitted across an RDP connection, which greatly reduces bandwidth requirements. In short, everything is happening on the network, while the user merely sees this activity via the RDP connection.

Unlike VPN, RDP typically enables users to access applications and files on any device, at any time, over any type of connection.

The biggest advantage of RDP is that you have access to network resources, databases, and line-of-business software applications without the limitations and high bandwidth demands of VPN. Because so little data passes through the connection, RDP is ideal for low-bandwidth environments. Printing and scanning are greatly simplified by the use of cost-effective utilities that help to automate jobs and overcome driver file issues. RDP also enables resource sharing, the use of multiple displays, and the ability to temporarily disconnect from the remote desktop without logging out of your applications.

Early versions of RDP had security problems, including a vulnerability that made RDP sessions susceptible to compromise by unauthorized users. Modern versions of RDP offer much more robust security features. No data is stored on the end-user device, which makes it easier to satisfy increasingly strict compliance regulations.

In addition to basic encryption and smart card authentication, newer versions of the Windows operating system are capable of identifying users who are authorized to access a network or system through an RDP session. Microsoft also provides the option to limit remote access to users with network-level authentication.

VPN or Remote Desktop or Both?

If your organization has no bandwidth-intensive data, no databases, and no line-of-business software, as well as limited printing and scanning requirements, a VPN solution is generally an effective solution. You should be able to remotely access network resources without performance or security issues.

If you need a wide range of processes, functionality, and capabilities that aren’t supported by VPN, an RDP solution is the better choice. Although RDP does require more time and effort to install and configure than VPN, the RDP environment will feel more natural to remote workers while requiring less bandwidth and minimal premises-based hardware. With RDP, remote workers can operate exactly as they would in the office without limitations. RDP can also be combined with VPN to provide maximum functionality and security.

If you’re concerned about the productivity and security of your remote workforce, contact us and lets’ discuss your current configuration and if you should be using a VPN or Remote Desktop, or a combination of both. We are currently conducting free virtual consultations to accommodate you.

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