Remote Access vs Remote Desktop: What's the difference?

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With the rise of the remote workforce, hastened by the COVID pandemic, there are more and more options to work remotely. This includes full time remote work, along with hybrid models which are a combination of on site, and remote days, as the work demands. The challenge has been for industry to adapt to these new worker deployments.

Supporting such work models are options such as a remote desktop, and also remote access. Yes, at first glance all of this can start to sound the same, but there are differences worth understanding.

Before we get confused with these similar sounding terms, let's get into it, and break it down.

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Remote desktop 

With a remote desktop setup, a user can then connect to this computer from a location remote from the computer. This is done via the OS itself, or via dedicated software. The goal is then to be able to interact with the remote computer as if you were actually right in front of it. The typical scenario is for a worker when at home to have full access to their desktop at work, with all of the programs and data on the hard drive available.

This remote desktop scenario also comes up in a handful of other situations. These include the ability to print documents to an office printer when not physically in the office, access to the desktop when traveling on a vacation, and also the ability to demonstrate a process that is run from the office desktop while on another computer. Finally, logging into the desktop is not limited to the main user, so IT can also log in, and have the ability to troubleshoot and repair a computer remotely.

Remote access 

While the terms sound similar, now let’s talk about remote access. Unlike with a remote desktop process, where you are connected remotely to a single computer, with remote access the user is connecting to a network from a remote location. From there, any resource on the network can be accessed, again remotely. These resources can include files, whether located on a device or server- as long as they are connected to the network. It can also include software, again whether on a device, or available to the network on a server.

While this process of remote access sounds new, in fact it goes pretty far back to before the internet, when it was accomplished via terminal emulation software through a telephone modem. However, in more modern times the internet has become the mode for the connection. In order to keep the corporate network secure, and allow safe access from a potentially less secure network, the remote access is provided through a virtual private network (VPN). With a VPN, the data flows through an encrypted tunnel to keep it safe. Using remote access via a VPN over the internet is known as a software solution. Note that these are considered private VPN’s, and not the ones that the public uses to remain anonymous when online.

However, there are also other approaches to remote access other than through software, which is often the simpler, and less expensive option. One example is via hardware, so the user can connect to the corporate network via either a hardwired connection, or via Wi-Fi. This approach is better suited to a campus of buildings, so that the smaller buildings can have a direct connection to where the main computer cluster is. However, once this goes beyond a short distance, this makes little sense given software options that can easily be downloaded and set up on both the remote computer, and the corporate network.

Remote access has been used to allow IT to offer support to be able to fix a computer remotely. This facilitates IT taking control of the desktop, and being able to apply software fixes, without having to travel to the desktop. This increases the efficiency of the IT workers, while also reducing the time to repair, and therefore reducing the downtime as well.

Another increasingly popular application is for having users to access information on the desktop from a mobile platform. This then can have workers access data on their office desktop from their smartphone, even when not at work. IT can even login in to a desktop and troubleshoot it remotely right from their smartphone!


Remote desktop, and the related application, remote access each have their uses. Both have multiple variations and options, so it can be customized to suit a specific scenario. Whichever is chosen, there is the common goal of allowing workers to access information while remote to allow work to get done without physically coming to the office. Whatever the configuration, there are now plenty of ways to support remote workers, and current solutions make it easier than ever to configure it with a high level of security, along with ease of use. 

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Jonas P. DeMuro

Jonas P. DeMuro is a freelance reviewer covering wireless networking hardware.