VPN vs VDI vs RDS: Which Remote Access Is Best For You?

As the world is slowly moving to the inevitable way of working from home, most organizations are actively exploring remote work options. While they understand the need of the hour considering the Coronavirus pandemic, security happens to be a prime consideration. As important as ensuring business continuity, is ensuring the safety of the organizational data and processes. Virtual digital workspaces with employees spread across the globe, and yet managing seamless workflows amongst them, leading to consistently better user experiences is the goal.

However, hackers also thrive during such crises as they know that many people may (willingly/unwillingly) compromise on safety aspects to meet the business needs. But, any breach of data, can prove to be a costly affair, apart from the loss of reputation, which takes a long time to overcome, if at all. It is important then, to understand and evaluate the remote work options, and choose wisely. The most popular options considered are Virtual Private Network (VPN), Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) and Remote Desktop Services (RDS).

What is a VPN?

In an online world, VPN happens to be one of the best ways in which you can ensure the security of your data and applications while working remotely. This is not just about logging in and working securely every day. It also protects you from cyber attacks like Identity thefts when you are browsing the Internet through it. This is simply an added layer of security through an application that ensures your connection to the Internet in general if using a personal VPN or to a designated Server if using your organizational VPN.

So, when you try to connect to the Internet through a VPN, it is taken through a virtual, private channel, which others do not have access to.  And this virtual channel (usually a Server hosting the application) accesses the Internet on behalf of your computer and you are masking your identity and location; especially with hackers who are on the prowl. Many VPN solution providers ensure military-grade encryption and security via this tunnel. Usually, the security encryption differs and based on the need individuals and organizations choose what works well for them.

VPNs came into being in this every concept of enterprises wanting to protect their data over the public as well as private networks. Access to the VPN may be through authentication methods like passwords, certificates, etc. Simply put, it is a virtual point-to-point communication for the user to access all the resources (for which they have requisite permissions) of the Server/network to which they are allowed to connect. One of the drawbacks in this could be the loss in speed due to the encrypted, routed connections.

What is VDI?

This is used to provide endpoint connections to users by creating virtual desktops through a central server hosting. Each user connecting to this server will have access to all resources hosted on the central server, based on the access permissions set for them.  So, each VDI will be configured for a user. And, they will feel as if they are working on a local machine. The endpoint through which the user accesses the VDI can be a desktop, laptop, or even a tablet or a smartphone. This means that people can access what they want, even while on the go.

Technically, this is a form of desktop virtualization aimed at providing each user their own Windows-based system. Each user’s virtual desktop exists within a virtual machine (VM) on the central server. Each VM will be allocated dedicated resources that improve the performance as well as the security of the connection. The VMs are host-based; hence, multiple instances of the VMs can exist on the same server or a virtual server which is a cluster of multiple servers.  Since everything is hosted on the server, there is no chance of the data or identity being stolen or misused. Also, VDI ensures a consistent user experience across various devices and results in a productivity boost.

What is RDS?

Microsoft launched Windows Terminal Services with MS Windows 2008, and this later came to be known as remote desktop services. What it means is that a user will be allowed to connect to a server using a client device, and can access the resources on the server. The client accessing the server through a network is a thin client which need not have anything other than client software installed. Everything resides on the server, and the user can use their assigned credentials to access, control and work on the server as if they are working on the local machine. The user is shown the interface of the server and will have to log off the ‘virtual machine’ once the work is over.  All users connected to the same server will be sharing all the resources of the server. This can usually be accessed through any device, even though working through a PC or laptop will provide the best experience. The connections are secure as the users are working on the server, and nothing is local, except the client software.

The Pros and Cons of each

When considering these three choices of VPN, VDI, and RDS, many factors come into play. A few of these that need to be taken into account are:

  1. User Experience/Server Interface – In VDI, each user can work on their familiar Windows system interface so that it increases the comfort factor. Some administrators even allow users to customize their desktop interface to some extent, giving that individual desktop feel which most users are accustomed to. This is not the case in RDS wherein each user of the Server is given the same Server interface, and resources are shared among them. There is a very limited choice of customization available, and mostly all users have the same experience. Users will have to make do with the Server flavor of the Windows systems rather than the desktop flavor that they are used to. The VPN differs from either of these in that it only provides an established point to point connection through a tunnel and processing happens on the client system, as opposed to the other two options.
  2. Cost – If cost happens to be the only consideration, then VPN is a good choice to go with. This is because users can continue to use their existing devices with minimal add-ons or installations. An employee would be able to securely connect to their corporate network and work safely, without any eavesdropping on the data being shared back and forth. The next option is the RDS the cost of which will depend on a few other factors. However, RDS does save cost, time and money, with increased mobility, scalability, and ease of access, with no compromise on security. VDI is the costliest of the three solutions as it needs an additional layer of software for implementation. Examples of this software are VMware of Citrix which helps run the hosted Virtual Machines.
  3. Performance – When it comes to performance, VDI is a better solution, especially for those sectors that rely on speed and processing power like the graphics industry. Since the VDI provides dedicated, compartmentalized resources for each user, it is faster and makes for a better performance and user satisfaction. VPN connections, on the other hand, can slow down considerably, especially depending on the Client hardware, the amount of encryption being done, and the quantum of data transfer done. RDS performance falls in between these two options and can be considered satisfactory.
  4. Security – Since it came into being for the sake of ensuring the security of the corporate data when employees work outside the office, VPN does provide the best security in these three remote work options. With VDI and RDS, the onus on ensuring security lies with the administrators of the system, in how they configure and implement the same. But, it is possible to implement stringent measures to ensure reasonably good levels of security.
  5. End-user hardware – Where VDI and RDS are considered, end-user hardware is not of much consequence, except in using to establish the connection. In these cases, it is the Server hardware that matters as all processing and storage happen on it. But in ensuring VPN connections, end-user hardware configurations are important as all processing happens on this after establishing the secure connection. VDI offers access to clients for Windows, Mac and at times, even for iPhone and Android. RDS offers clients for Windows and Mac; however, a better experience is delivered with Windows.
  6. Maintenance – VPN systems usually require the least maintenance once all the initial setup is done. VDI, however, can prove to be challenging, as it requires all patches and updates to be reflected across all VMs. RDS needs lesser maintenance than VDI, but more than that of VPN systems. At best, RDS will have to implement and maintain a few patches.

The Summary

Looking at the above inputs, it is obvious that there is no common solution that can be suggested for businesses. Each enterprise will have to look at its existing setup, the number of employees, the business goals, the need for remote work, the challenges therein, and then decide, which factor needs to be provided more weightage. If the number of employees is less, perhaps VPN or RDS may be the better way to go. But, if your need is of better performance owing to the graphics kind of work, then you must look at the VDI option. VDI may be the way to go if you have a large number of employees as well.