As more and more of you start to explore the possibilities of becoming part of the mobile workforce, I am frequently asked about one area in particular: How do I get access to the things I normally use at work when I’m on the road or working from home? This question is often followed up by: What’s the difference between remote access software and a VPN, and which one should I be using? Even if you think the answers might be more technical than you are ready to handle, I’ll try to provide some plain-English clarity to this complex topic, as understanding which one is appropriate for your work situation will be critical in determining how successful you will be as a true “road warrior”.
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Most often, when the term “remote access software” is used, it is typically referring to commercial platforms like GotoMyPC, TeamViewer, LogMeIn, or VNC. In a nutshell, these programs are installed onto a computer that you wish to remotely access from another computer. For example: let’s say you have an office desktop and a laptop which you use at home. You would install this software on both computers, and it would allow you to “remote” into one from other. Typically this would be set up to allow your laptop to remote into your office desktop, primarily to provide you with access to the applications and data that are only available in your office, but from the “comfort” of a remote location outside of the office.
As you may have realized by now, the reason you need remote access software to work outside of the office is because the office network is separate from your home network by design, and the remote access software provides a “bridge” between the two networks, allowing your separate machines to talk to each other using the internet to do this.
“Wait a minute,” I hear you ask. “If this program can connect my office and my home network together via the internet, why do I even need these programs at all? Can’t my networks just talk straight to each other through the internet?” Well, they could, but it would be akin to you having a confidential conversation with someone by shouting at them across a crowded room full of strangers. Aside from simplifying the process of connecting two private networks together over the internet, they also provide some measure of security and privacy to your data as it crosses the internet.
“Surely the technology exists for our two networks to be connected without having to involve a third party that costs $XXX a month?” As a matter of fact it does, and it’s called a “virtual private network” or VPN, and works by creating a “virtual”, dedicated connection between two networks, usually your office and you (wherever you are). This VPN connection is often referred to as a “tunnel” which is also an apt analog to describe what it actually does.
“OK Chris, but why would I use a VPN over remote access software?” The most common reason is actually something that people often overlook: what if you don’t have an office desktop to remote into? What if your primary office machine is a laptop that goes home with you every night? The data is in the office on your server, but your laptop is on the road with you. This is where the VPN shines – regardless of where you are, if you have an internet connection and a VPN tunnel, your laptop is connected to the office network and all the services that are normally only available when you are sitting in the office. Granted, with the rise in popularity and acceptance of cloud-based services, some businesses are moving away from traditional premise-based services in favor of putting all of their data into the cloud, but for many industries, this is just not acceptable. And for those instances (of which there are legion) the VPN is the solution of choice. Keep in mind, building a VPN is not trivial – it requires the correct hardware and software and a level of technical configuration that is often best left to IT professionals, which is why commercial remote access services exist and are quite popular despite the cost.
TLDR; Use remote access software when you want to access one PC from another. Use VPN when you need to access an entire office network (and all of its private services) from a PC on different network. Keep in mind, certain functions, applications and services will be slower when being accessed over the internet, depending on the mode of access (remote or VPN or both) and the speed of your connection on both networks.