In a way, a Virtual Private Network (VPN) and Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) are similar. It is, therefore, easy to understand why, for many, there is some confusion about which is which. Both technologies typically employ encryption in some form or another, and they each offer a user private access to a device or server no matter how far away it is.

Remote desktop or VPN

There are important differences, though, especially in the way in which we actually use and experience these technologies.

Here is one easy way to distinguish between a VPN and RDP:

  • Using a VPN is akin to disguising your identity because it makes it seem as though you’re accessing the Internet from a server other than the one you’re actually
  • Remote desktop goes beyond that and lets you become that remote computer or server, giving you access to its desktop space, apps and files as if you were sitting right in front of the PC.

Remote Desktop Protocol: How It Works

Remote desktop works by creating a virtual connection between your device and the remote computer. If you’ve ever watched a video or live stream of someone broadcasting what is happening on their computer screen, you’ve had a glimpse of what RDP can do. The only difference with RDP is that it not only broadcasts the screen to you but it also allows you to control it, which means that you can use the processing power, programs and files on the host computer from a client device regardless of the distance between the two.

One aspect in which RDP is advantageous over a VPN is that with the former, you have at your disposal all the processing power of the remote host computer. Therefore, if you require special software that is only available on the host computer or if the host computer has more processing power for running heavy tasks such as detailed renders, then RDP is superior in this sense. You can command the power of a supercomputer from your laptop.

However, the disadvantage of RDP is that it can be frustratingly slow unless you’re using it over a very short distance. For example, if you’re connecting to a powerful central machine located in the same building. This is because, in addition to sending files, you’re sending app commands, mouse movements and a host of other information back and forth between the host machine and your device.

Another downside to using RDP is that it potentially leaves the host computer in a highly vulnerable position. You can use the host computer as if you were the system administrator if the actual system administrator doesn’t implement certain restrictions. This opens up the host to the risk of being breached in case someone hijacks your connection or compromises your machine. This is easy to achieve if your RDP fails to use state-of-the-art encryption. And even then, there’s still a slight chance that the host machine can be infiltrated.

It is important to note that Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) refers to the specific remote desktop access system developed by Microsoft and built into its operating systems. There are, however, many other remote desktop programs on the market.

Why Use VPN Technology

VPN technology works in a manner entirely different from RDP. With VPN technology, a connection is created between your device and a remote VPN server. The only functions that the VPN server carries out are connecting the user to the Internet and implementing a variety of security measures. Once the connection is made, the VPN servers process only your inbound and outbound online traffic, which includes your requests, the websites’ responses to those requests, and all the files that you send and receive.

The primary difference between VPN and RDP technology is that a VPN does not allow your device to avail itself of additional functionalities from a host machine the way RDP does. The only thing that changes is your IP address but you’re still limited to the functionalities of the device you’re using.

The greatest advantage of a VPN is that it offers unmatched privacy and security online. The encryption used by RDP doesn’t even come close to the level of encryption employed by the best VPN services.

Should I Use an RDP or VPN?

This will depend on whether you’re an individual user or a business. For a business:

  • Use a personal VPN service to offer your employees online security and privacy when they access the Internet in public places and while they’re abroad.
  • Use an Internet VPN to allow your staff to access files from your company’s central server.
  • Use an RDP to allow your remote staff to access and use the company’s central system. This is useful when the company’s network has technical capabilities and features that can’t be distributed to your remote staff.
  • Use an RDP to allow your team of IT technicians to access remote staff members’ computers for troubleshooting tasks or maintenance.

For an individual user:

  • Use a personal VPN to access the Internet privately and securely.
  • Use a VPN to stream content from your preferred streaming services while you’re abroad.
  • Use a VPN to benefit from specific security features, such as features that enable journalists and whistleblowers to broadcast information anonymously.
  • Use a VPN to get around online censorship and surveillance.

Note that RDP can also be used by individual users. The purposes are usually highly specialized, such as when a user needs to access a home computer or if they want to allow trusted friends to gain access to their device. You’re better off using a personal VPN unless you’re the system administrator of a business with special requirements.

Choosing the Right VPN Service

To begin with, give preference to VPN providers that offer a wide range of security protocols, including OpenVPN, L2TP/IPSec, PPTP and SSTP. OpenVPN is the most powerful among these, which means it’s also not the fastest. Make sure the provider you choose does not keep logs of your online activity. You also want a provider that has a large global server network to guarantee that you can always get a fast, reliable connection. Avoid free or extremely cheap VPNs. Their price tag reflects the minimal value they offer.