At first blush, remote desktop programs and virtual private networks seem like different names for the same technology. Both are used to remotely access materials on computers and networks outside of your own and to access the data on them. However, while similar, these two programs accomplish slightly different tasks in very different ways. They also have different benefits and drawbacks that make them better suited to one situation or another.
Remote Desktop Management
Remote desktop programs (RDP) enable you to access the desktop of another computer over the Internet. RDP can be used to access files on your desktop at home while on vacation with your laptop. The program recreates the desktop, enabling you to explore the files and access the programs on it. This tool can also be useful for tech support tasks, as you can quickly access important information and try different troubleshooting techniques without waiting on the computer's owner or dealing with user error.
Virtual Private Networks
Virtual Private Networks (VPN) are used to securely connect to and access materials on another network. VPNs use encryption to create a secure connection over a generally insecure connection like the Internet, enabling the transmission of potentially sensitive materials. VPNs are often used to connect to business networks from the home, enabling you to access the documents and data on your work computer without being in the building. VPNs also don't require you to connect to an online computer or workstation; all information is stored on the network itself.
Benefits and Drawbacks
Both technologies have good and bad points. VPNs are secure and enable you to access networked materials while on the move or at home, which is useful for increasing productivity. VPNs sometimes suffer from lag issues, and the computer you're using to access them needs to have compatible programs installed to view every file type on the network. Without compatible software, some files will be unusable from your home computer. RDP solves this problem by using the resources of the computer to which you're connected, but may not be as secure. If someone else gains access to your RDP protocol, they can also hijack the computer and rob it of information. RDP also requires that the computer to which you're connecting is powered on and online.
Synergy Between the Two Technologies
These two technologies aren't mutually exclusive. By using the two in tandem, you can actually create a more secure RDP experience. By connecting to the other computer via a VPN and controlling it using RDP, you can access your desktop remotely with greater security. Generally, using the two together is actually a better idea if you plan to use RDP, because of the increased security VPN offers.