Explaining the Similarities and Differences between VPN, Remote Access and Virtual Desktops
Updated: May 29
Accessing corporate resources remotely is nothing new. We’ve always wanted, and sometimes needed, to work remotely. Being able to work from home, when traveling, and dare I say even on vacation, allows businesses and employees to be productive from almost anywhere. This is especially important for disaster planning and business continuity.
Whatever the reason, most organizations have embraced the value of allowing remote work, even leveraging a flexible work environment as a recruiting tool. You may be looking for next steps to implement remote work, or perhaps you have a system in place but are not happy with its performance or reliability.
There are several methods commonly used to access your workplace resources when you are not enjoying that beautiful corner office (or second-hand cubicle!) of yours.
I will focus on the three we are asked about most often:
VPN (Virtual Private Network)
Internet Remote Access
1. VPN (Virtual Private Network)
Historically VPN has been the go-to for remote workers. With VPN, you connect your device to the workplace via an internet connection and it's like having your device on the local area network, as if you were in fact plugged in at the office. That’s pretty much it.
Whenever you open a file to work on it you are actually downloading that file from the remote location onto your local device, so it's a real bandwidth hog as you can imagine.
The other main drawback is the requirement to have any and all desktop applications loaded onto your remote device. Do you have all of the same programs you use at work already licensed and loaded onto your home laptop? I doubt it. Most organizations don’t allow you to load their software onto machines they don’t own and support. In that case you may have to lug around the company provided device at all times. Some employers will allow personal devices to connect to their VPN, but this of course can expose the corporate network to any problems on the home network, i.e. virus, malware, ransomware etc.
2. Internet Remote Access
This is the LogMeIn, VNC and TeamViewer type solution you may have heard of. These services allow you to access your workplace computer from another device with very little configuration required.
These solutions are typically very affordable. However, this type of access is dependent on your workplace computer being turned on at all times. Not a viable solution if the power at the office is interrupted or turned off.
The user experience can be slow and frustrating if both devices are not connected to a fast, continuous internet connection, and file transfers can be slow. In my opinion, this is the least desirable remote solution available.
3. Virtual Desktops (aka Virtual Machines or Desktop-as-a-Service)
With virtual desktops, the remote device you are using never actually touches the corporate desktop or servers. Access to the virtual desktop is usually via a thin client so the security risk is mitigated.
Applications, desktop settings, mapped drives, and preferences are all available from the virtual desktop regardless of the device being used to access it. Every user has his/her dedicated virtual desktop, not unlike being in the office where you have your own computer.
No data ever leaves the data center as all files are opened, worked on, and saved on the server hardware. This makes virtual desktops much less dependent on bandwidth and more secure.
One more thing I really like about virtual desktops is the ability we have to allocate additional resources on the fly. For example, you might have an entry-level user who doesn’t need a very fast virtual desktop, so they may start off with a basic configuration, 4GB/RAM and one processor which is pretty standard for most machines these days. But if you have power users (me included) who need much more horsepower, we can quickly allocate multiple processing power and additional RAM as requested with just a few clicks on our end.
Virtual desktops are not only for remote workers, but are replacing the traditional onsite desktops. Sure, it’s true you need some sort of device to access the virtual desktop, however this device can be very basic, therefore much cheaper since all of the processing and work is performed at the server level. All your device needs is an internet connection. Think about how much money can be saved on hardware and software licensing.
We include an Office365 subscription with every virtual machine allowing installation of Microsoft Office onto several devices as well as being installed on your virtual desktop.
Virtual Desktops are centrally managed, patched and updated at the same time. Your organization will always be running the same versions of software patched at the same level.
There are many factors to consider when you're ready to enable your team with a remote work solution, including budget, security, and usability. It's not a decision that should be made lightly.
If you have questions about which service would be the right fit for your organization, give us a call at 704.293.8233 or email me at email@example.com.
Colin Schmitt is President and Founder of CloudKoala, a full-service IT solutions firm based in Charlotte, NC supporting small and midsize businesses across the US since 2002. For more information, visit www.cloudkoalatech.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.