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VPN vs. VLAN: What's the difference?

VPNs and VLANs are different technologies with some similarities. VPNs connect authorized users to corporate network resources, while VLANs connect geographically separate devices.

The technology answers to most remote work and education requirements have one word in common: virtual.

While many technologies touted virtual capabilities prior to the boom of remote work, these technologies have seen a renaissance of their usefulness. Interest in technologies such as VPNs and virtual LANs (VLANs) has increased greatly compared to their less popular or near-endangered status before the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the word virtual is one of the only similarities between VPNs and VLANs.

This article explores VPN vs. VLAN technology, including the definitions of both terms and notable similarities and differences between them.

Defining VPN and VLAN

Virtual private network. VPN software connects remote employees to their company's network and network resources through encrypted connections so only authorized users can access secure network resources. VPNs are on the older end of the remote access technology spectrum, yet this technology has consistently proved its usefulness amid the pandemic.

Prior to the boom of remote work, many technology pundits claimed the VPN was dead, soon to be replaced by new technologies, such as software-defined perimeter. When the pandemic struck and organizations were suddenly forced to enable their workforces to operate remotely, they were either stuck with their existing remote access technologies or forced to quickly roll out new initiatives to support long-term remote work. As VPNs are a longstanding staple of remote work, using those services was an easy choice for some IT teams -- though many teams were unprepared for the level of scale they would need.

how a VPN works
VPN services securely connect authorized, remote users to their organizations' corporate network and network resources.

Virtual local area network. A VLAN is a subnetwork -- a separate, typically smaller part of a larger network -- that operates similarly to a standard LAN. A LAN comprises various devices and endpoints in a specific geographic area. For example, if an organization operates on multiple floors of an office building, the sales team's floor could have its own separate LAN. VLANs, however, create a logical -- or virtual -- subnet of specific endpoints in separate LANs, or devices not connected to the same managed network switch.

VLANs are not typically associated with remote access technologies, but that doesn't mean they lack a place in remote work. Some network-savvy professionals have set up VLANs for their home networks. The benefits of VLANs for both corporate and home networks stem from VLANs' core segmentation capabilities, which can provide more control over network traffic, boost endpoint security and simplify network administration.

Differences between VPN vs. VLAN technology

In short, the difference between VPNs vs. VLANs is everything; these are completely different technologies used for different reasons. Yet, the two technologies do share similar goals to improve security and provide some control over network traffic.

At their cores, VPNs vs. VLANs are different types of technologies. VPN technology is a service, while VLANs are a type of subnetwork. VPNs provide authorized users and employees with secure connections to their organizations' networks, while VLANs group geographically separate devices together to improve communication among the devices and simplify how network administrators make changes to network infrastructure.

An IT team looking for a service to help connect their remote employees to the organization's network in a secure, reliable way will want to choose a VPN service. IT teams looking to segment their corporate network for simplified management and traffic control would likely set up VLANs.

This was last published in January 2021

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