Remote access VPN: what are they, how do they work and which are the best

remote access vpn
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The ability to work remotely is one of the perks that many businesses offer employees to help sweeten the deal. The recent coronavirus outbreak has only exacerbated that, leading many more organizations to allow their employees to work remotely. While this is good news for employees, it could end up causing a great deal of disruption to organizations that aren’t prepared and one way to do so is to look into remote access VPN solutions.

In an effort to help ease this transition, a number of tech companies, including Google, Microsoft, LogMeIn, Cisco and others, have begun offering free or upgraded access to their online collaboration tools

While having access to better video conferencing solutions and online collaboration tools is good start (with the likes of Google, Microsoft, LogMeIn, Cisco and others, beginning to offer free or upgraded access to their tools), there's also the need for employees to stay secure while working remotely. Besides installing antivirus software on your computer, using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) can add an additional layer of security that helps protect you online.

While VPNs have grown increasingly popular among users looking to protect their data and privacy online, using the right type of VPN can make all the difference when working remotely. In this article, we’ll be taking a closer look at remote access VPNs, who offers them (like Perimeter 81, our top ranked business VPN)  and the benefits they can bring to organizations looking to mobilize a remote workforce quickly.

What is a remote access VPN?

Businesses use remote access VPNs to establish a secure connection between their network and the devices used by remote workers. Once connected, employees are able to access the resources on the network just as if their devices were physically plugged in at the office.

A remote access VPN works by creating a virtual tunnel between an employee’s device and the company’s network. This tunnel goes through the public internet but the data sent back and forth through it is protected by encryption and security protocols to help keep it private and secure.

The two main components of this type of VPN are a network access server (often called a NAS but not to be confused with network-attached storage) and VPN client software. 

A network access server could be a dedicated server or it might be a software application running on a shared server. Users connect to the NAS over the internet in order to use a remote access VPN. In order to sign in to the VPN, the NAS requires that users provide valid credentials. To authenticate these credentials, the NAS uses either its own authentication process or a separate authentication server running on the network.

Users must also install client software on their devices to establish and maintain a connection to the VPN. Today most operating systems ship with built-in software which can connect to a remote access VPN, though some VPN services may require users to install a specific application instead. The client software sets up the tunnelled connection to the NAS and manages the encryption required to keep the connection secure.

How would a remote access VPN be useful to me and my business?

Using a remote access VPN provides several advantages for businesses. The most important benefit though is data security. When an offsite employee sends data through a VPN, it is encrypted, so even if a hacker is able to intercept that data, they won’t be able to use it. This is particularly important if an employee accesses their companies’ network using public Wi-Fi while traveling because traffic sent over these networks is usually not encrypted.

Another advantage of remote access VPNs is that they provide companies with an affordable way to secure data sent by offsite employees. The initial investment needed to set up a remote access VPN is minimal and they can easily be scaled as a company grows and this is especially true if a VPN service provider is used.

Since remote access VPNs are affordable and secure, organizations can feel more comfortable with letting their employees work from home or while traveling. Employees who can work where and when they want also tend to be happier as well as more productive.

Which VPN providers offer remote access VPNs?

If you’re in the market for a remote access VPN, you may find it difficult to determine which providers offer them. From our own research, we found that many of the other providers on our list of the best business VPN services offer remote access VPNs.

Take Perimeter 81 (#1 in that list) by way of an example. It's worked to build in super easy single-click access to remote in to local networks and cloud-based resources while its unified cloud management platform seeks to make it easy for IT to manage networks and permissions from remote locations. Unlike more consumer-focused VPNs you’ll have better luck finding a remote access VPN if you narrow down your search to business VPNs. 

However, it is still recommended that you check with any providers you’re interested in to ensure that they do in fact offer remote access VPN services. Or head to the Perimeter 81 website to discover more about what its remote access VPN can offer you and your business.

(Image credit: Image Credit: Bruce Mars / Pexels)

Site-to-site VPN vs remote access VPN

A site-to-site VPN and a remote access VPN both offer similar benefits but they actually have different use cases.

A site-to-site VPN uses a secure gateway to connect a network at one location to one or more networks at another location. This type of VPN doesn’t require each device at the end location to have a VPN client installed because the gateway handles the traffic. A site-to-site VPN allows companies with multiple locations to use their resources more efficiently by allowing one location to share the resources of another through the encrypted VPN channel. For instance, a field office can connect directly to a company’s headquarters to allow employees to access the resources there and vice versa.

Instead of connecting whole locations through gateways, a remote access VPN connects individual computers or devices to a private network. With this type of VPN, every device needs to have the VPN client app installed.

Remote access VPNs use the public internet to provide remote users secure access to their company’s network. The main gateway then requires each device to authenticate a user’s identity to join.

Whether your company decides to opt for a remote access VPN or a site-to-site VPN depends on how many offices you have, though you can certainly use both types of VPN at the same time if you want to.

  • Also check out our complete list of the best VPN services
Anthony Spadafora

After working with the TechRadar Pro team for the last several years, Anthony is now the security and networking editor at Tom’s Guide where he covers everything from data breaches and ransomware gangs to the best way to cover your whole home or business with Wi-Fi. When not writing, you can find him tinkering with PCs and game consoles, managing cables and upgrading his smart home.