A lot of people who are very computer literate but lack a deep level understanding of the technologies they are using often confuse the idea of a VPN and remote access software like VNC or RDP (Remote Desktop Protocol). While these two pieces of software work in tandem extremely well, the underlying technologies are completely different. To help you understand the differences between these technologies, we’re going to break down how they work as well as their pros and cons.
While both technologies can be used to access your network devices remotely, they offer different levels of security and access. To begin, let’s analyze VPNs.
A VPN tunnel back to your home network will give you a connection to your entire home network. It is basically as though your computer – no matter where it is in the world – is connected to your wireless router at home when your VPN tunnel is connected.
But it offers two key advantages: security and privacy. VPN tunnels encrypt your data so no one can capture it and read it. Furthermore, it helps hide your data so your ISP can’t see what type of data you are sending over their network. Though a VPN can be used to provide remote access to devices and enable services like Telnet, SSH, and RDP, its focus is security and privacy. Just know that while VPN tunnels do provide remote network access, they are drastically different from RDP since a VPN wasn’t solely designed to allow you to control a computer remotely. Creating a private connection between two networks is called site to site VPN, but subscription based services use a PC to VPN server tunnel instead, giving you access to the world wide web.
Remote Desktop Protocol, on the other hand, is a completely different animal. This protocol was designed to let you remote control a computer as though you were sitting directly in front of the remote workstation. Another way to think of this is that the protocol transfers all of your input – from your mouse and keyboard – to the target remote machine. Also understand how the Internet and network resources are used on the remotely controlled computer. If you were to perform a Google search on the remote machine, it uses that computer’s Internet connection to transfer data – not the Internet connection on the computer you are sitting in front of.
Also understand that RDP was created by Microsoft and used to be only available on Windows machines. Now it has been ported to most major operating systems, and there are tons of third party remote access programs that basically do the same thing. Some of them are even open source.
After you have remotely connected to a computer, you do actually have access to all of the local network resources – similar to a VPN. The biggest difference though is which computer can directly access local network resources. With a VPN, the computer you are physically sitting in front of has access to the remote network resources. Conversely with RDP, the computer you have remotely logged into has access to the network services. However, one drawback with RDP is that it isn’t as secure as other solutions and there are ways to break into systems that are accepting RDP connections.
The bottom line is that it is perfectly fine for you to use RDP as long as you enhance your security. The best way to access devices remotely is to first use a VPN to connect to the remote network and then use RDP through the VPN tunnel. When doing so, you will need to RDP to the host’s private IP address. The less secure method is to open up ports on your firewall and setup port forwarding, but this is a bad move because it would allow anyone on the Internet to make a connection to the login prompt for that host. In the end, RDP (and other similar tools) is great but I wouldn’t use it unless I had some form of encryption and security technologies in place to protect my connection and make sure my remote machine doesn’t get hacked.