What is a remote access VPN, and how does it work?

Anton P. | October 12, 2023

People use a remote access VPN to connect to a private network from remote locations. It is one of the best-known types of VPNs. Many who have used VPN for professional reasons are familiar with precisely this type of VPN. 

In this overview, we will look at how remote access VPNs work and how they differ from other VPN solutions.

Is remote access VPN a trustworthy solution for granting access to an organization’s internal resources?

What is a VPN in general?

In general, a Virtual Private Network (VPN), as the name suggests, is a private network created within the public one, usually the internet. VPN tunneling and traffic encryption make this privacy possible.

VPN technology has many applications. For example, a private user might utilize a VPN to hide their IP address and browse the internet anonymously. 

In this case, the VPN client routes the user's traffic through a VPN server before sending it to the intended destination. This way, the user's device acquires the VPN server's ID for the duration of the session. 

Companies utilize VPN services with a different goal in mind.

How does a remote access VPN stand out?

Remote access VPN is a VPN solution that enables secure remote access to specific resources. For example, remote workers use this type of VPN to securely access their firm's internal network.

Due to network security reasons, these organizational intranets are usually only accessible from within the company. However, the need to provide remote workers with access to the firm's databases and software tools leads to extended access options.

This is how it differs from the way a simple, privately used VPN works. The latter does not provide access to specific server resources. It establishes a secure connection to any website that the user chooses to access.

What is a remote access VPN vs. site-to-site VPN?

The main features of remote access VPN show up clearly in comparison with site-to-site VPN.

A site-to-site VPN is a VPN connection between two or more local area networks (LANs). Companies usually use it to connect internal networks of different branches or connect remote offices with headquarters.

Remote access VPN is also a host-to-site VPN, which brings attention to the contrast with site-to-site VPN. The host, in this case, is the user's device, which connects to the organization's network (site).

The two VPN solutions for organizations differ in the following ways:

  • Remote access VPN requires installing VPN client software on every connecting device. Meanwhile, devices connected to the local network can share information through the site-to-site VPN gateway without installing additional software.
  • Site-to-site VPN is a permanent connection between the networks. Remote access VPN establishes a temporary connection between the client and server.
  • Remote access VPN typically uses TLS encryption protocol, which operates at the client level. Site-to-site VPN utilizes IPSec protocol, operating at the network layer.
  • Companies need site-to-site VPN to ensure secure data flow between different branches or with networks of partner institutions. Remote access VPN enables remote work by allowing a remote user to connect to the firm's data center applications safely.

To sum up, remote access and site-to-site VPNs perform different functions. Thus, organizations that are spread across different geographical locations combine both VPN solutions.

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How does a remote access VPN work?

Organizations implement a VPN remote access solution in the following way:

  1. The firm's IT team configures the internal network to only be accessed through a particular VPN server.
  2. Users install a specific VPN client software on every device to connect to the server.
  3. A remote user opens the software and enters their credentials to start a session. The software sends the connection request to the VPN server over the Internet.
  4. The VPN server authenticates the user, checking if the provided username and password grant network access. It might also use additional authentication methods for increased network security.
  5. The client and server negotiate a secure tunnel according to the encryption protocol that the VPN solution supports.
  6. As the tunnel is established, the client and server can securely share data, enabling the user to access network resources.

Challenges to VPN-based remote access

Providing remote access to employees and other network users comes with a set of risks and challenges. Thus, organizations consider zero-trust remote access solutions, such as ZTNA and SDP, as alternatives to remote access VPN.

When using or going to use a remote access VPN, companies should take into account that:

  • Multiple remote connections to the VPN server might slow down network operations.
  • Hackers can target VPN servers, thus disrupting access for remote workers and threatening business continuity. For example, they can use Denial of Service (DoS) attacks that can render the server unavailable.
  • Unauthorized users could gain access to the firm's network resources with stolen VPN software credentials.
  • Compromised remote devices could spread malware throughout the network.

Benefits of the remote access VPN

Many organizations find ways to mitigate the risks and continue to use remote access VPNs for the following reasons:

  • Remote access VPNs have been around long enough to build a reputation for providing secure network access. Many organizations are familiar with this solution and would rather build on it than implement something else from scratch.
  • VPN software is easy and convenient to use, facilitating a seamless user experience.
  • Cutting-edge remote access VPN solutions allow for greater access control. Servers can identify different levels of clearance and differentiate access accordingly. This functionality also helps corner malware in case of infection, preventing large-scale damage.
  • Remote access VPNs can also integrate additional authentication layers. These can include multi-step verification or repeated authentication in order to access different network areas.
  • VPN is a cost-efficient way to ensure effective collaboration between users in multiple geographical locations.

Due to these benefits, remote access VPN will likely remain among the top choices for organizations. Technological developments that continue to improve VPNs add to this likelihood.

Anton P.

Anton P.

Former chef and the head of Atlas VPN blog team. He's an experienced cybersecurity expert with a background of technical content writing.


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