Security Technology Explained

What’s the Difference Between SSH vs. VPN and Which Is More Secure?

Bertel King 05-07-2017

Just like stepping out the front door, heading online has risks. There’s no need to bury your head in the sand, but there are times when you would like privacy, and it’s not unreasonable to expect a degree of safety.


SSH and VPN aren’t competing technologies. They both came about to solve different problems, and they function in dissimilar ways. But both enhance your online experience with a degree of privacy and protection.

So which do you use, when, where, and why?

What Is SSH?

SSH stands for Secure Shell. To understand what that means, we should probably define a few terms.

First there’s shell. A shell is a piece of software that allows you to communicate with the core of your operating system. This is typically done via a command line interface.

You don’t need to be at a computer to access a shell. A shell account is a personal account that lets you access a shell from a different computer. These used to be commonplace, used to access files, email, news, and more.


A web browser uses the HTTP to communicate with websites. A shell account uses a different protocol. That’s where SSH comes in What SSH Is & How It's Different From FTP [Technology Explained] Read More . It uses public key encryption to provide more security than other insecure shell protocols such as FTP or Telnet. Two major versions, SSH-1 and SSH-2, are now the dominate ways to access shell accounts.

It’s not what SSH does that’s exciting. It’s merely a means of establishing a connection with more safety than before. But through this conduit you can take more control of your security and have a lot of fun How to Set Up SSH on Linux and Test Your Setup: A Beginner's Guide Need to access your Linux computer or server remotely? Here's how to set up and configure SSH on Linux, Windows, and mobile. Read More .

What Is a VPN?

A VPN is a Virtual Private Network. A physical private network is one such as a local area network (LAN), which allows all the machines within the same building to communicate. Larger private networks include wide area networks (WAN), which can establish a network across multiple buildings.

There comes a point where it’s no longer affordable to lay down enough cable to maintain a physical private network. Consider the cost and difficulty of trying to connect two offices located in different countries. For this task, it’s better to use the internet infrastructure that’s already in place. You can establish a virtual private network What Is The Definition Of A Virtual Private Network Virtual private networks are more important now than ever before. But do you know what they are? Here's what you need to know. Read More over this public network, replicating the experience of a physical one.


Using a VPN, employees can access a company’s local or wide area network when they’re working remotely. You’re essentially on the same network, even though you’re in a different physical location. Your traffic is encrypted, protecting your activity from prying eyes.

Some companies make a business out of selling VPN access to anyone 4 Reasons a Paid VPN Is Better Than Free Ones I used to be big fan of free VPNs. Why pay when free alternatives exist, right? But it turns out they're selling you short. So here's why paid VPNs always beat free VPNs. Read More . They often establish servers in many countries. People are drawn to these services for various reasons 5 Refreshing Uses For A VPN Read More that have nothing to do with connecting to an employer’s infrastructure.

When Would You Use One Over the Other?

SSH and VPNs both allow you to access computers remotely, but they do it in different ways. SSH connects you to a specific machine. A VPN will connect you to a network. But that’s not the whole story. Both SSH and VPNs offer us an extra layer of security and privacy — and that can be the entire reason you choose to incorporate them into your digital life.

Benefits of SSH

SSH has more of a command line focus, which is both a pro and a con. This makes it more difficult for non-technical users to grasp. You can pull up your target computer’s graphical interface, but doing so requires additional syntax, and severing the connection typically closes whatever software you open.


But this also allows you to interact with your machine without all of the extra overhead. Right away, you can access your files. With knowledge of scripts, you can set up your own file syncing solution using rsync Back Up Your Data With Rsync (No Desktop Required) Backing up files in Linux shouldn't be difficult. You could use Grsync, but to get to grips with the tool's full features, you need to discard the user interface and try rsync. Read More . You can also access files through a browser How to Use SSH in Windows: 5 Easy Ways SSH is an encrypted network protocol used for remote access. Here's how to use SSH in Windows using native and third-party apps. Read More .

IT admins can use SSH to manage servers How to Remotely Manage a Linux Server with SSH SSH is very functional, which is why it's a go-to for remote server management. Learn how to remotely manage a Linux server via SSH, from connection, to installing software, and file transfers. Read More while developers may use the protocol to test software on a mobile device. Casual users may use SSH to manage their music library from a distance.

You can even imitate a VPN connection by setting up an SSH tunnel How to Tunnel Web Traffic with SSH Secure Shell Read More , though there are more limits. Still, this has its uses. You can tunnel your passwords through a secure home network when away from home, protecting them from prying eyes. Or you can replace all of your passwords with keys How To Authenticate Over SSH With Keys Instead of Passwords SSH is a great way to gain remote access to your computer. When you open the ports on your router (port 22 to be exact) you can not only access your SSH server from within... Read More .

Benefits of a VPN

A VPN replicates the experience of being on a local network. This means you can access files and communicate privately in a way that could leave a co-worker unsure if you’re at your cubicle or working from home. SSH is not intended for that kind of workflow.


Using a VPN doesn’t require terminal commands, reducing the barrier of use — though clients can be a pain to set up the first time. Yet once that process is done, non-technical people can connect to a VPN like they would a Wi-Fi network. There’s so much you can do with SSH, but you need a fair degree of computer knowledge to do it.

VPNs also have uses that have nothing to do with you connecting to either your own or an employer’s private network. I use a VPN to browse the web with more privacy and security. Both are especially important if you regularly rely on public Wi-Fi.

When picking a VPN provider, do your research. Your web traffic isn’t necessarily private just because you’re using a VPN 6 Logless VPNs That Take Your Privacy Seriously In an age where every online movement is tracked and logged, a VPN seems a logical choice. We've taken a look at six VPNs that take your anonymity seriously. Read More . Some may also substantially affect your connection speeds.

VPNs can also provide a way to access online services Which VPNs Still Work With Netflix? Netflix is cracking down on VPNs, but there are a few that still work. Here are the best VPNs to use with Netflix. Read More that otherwise wouldn’t be available in your area. Some gamers use VPNs to replicate the experience of playing over LAN Tunngle: The Easy Way To Play Games On a VPN – For Free! [Windows] For a while now, there have been a number of free Internet VPN solutions available or private personal use. I’m rather new to the whole VPN idea, but even I can remember programs like Hamachi,... Read More . Taking advantage of a VPN is less about making a solution yourself and more about having a private internet connection that can simulate being somewhere else.

Why Not Use Both?

Even if you’re not all that concerned about privacy, a VPN is so easy to use that you might as well.

When you’re ready to take matters more into your own hands, SSH can be a great friend. Yes, there are times and places when one will better serve your needs than others, but there’s no need to only use one. Both are great to keep in your digital toolbox.

Have you used SSH? Do you use a VPN? What for? Jump into the comments below and let us know!

Image Credits: cybrain/Shutterstock

Related topics: Computer Networks, Computer Security, VPN.

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  1. MrBigglesworth
    August 8, 2017 at 2:03 pm

    I used to use an SSH tunnel running on at work to connect to the unblocked internet when I had to do research on security sites blocked as "hacking" or "file sharing" (pastebin). The IT dept blocked installation of programs so no VPN. Had a Raspberry Pi with an ssh server running on 443/tcp at home. Used PuTTY on my corporate computer. Worked great :)

  2. Dave Frandin
    July 7, 2017 at 11:52 pm

    I used/supported Windows for 20 years as a sysadmin, and I've come to the conclusion that the ONLY way to win with Microsoft is to NOT USE any Microsoft
    products. The abuse that Microsoft heaps on the poor folks who still use MS products
    is great entertainment for those of us who are MS-free. Though I must admit I do feel sympathy for those who MUST still use Windows OR simply *think* there is no alternative...

  3. Hank
    July 7, 2017 at 3:23 am

    I personally use ExpressVPN. Speeds are usually pretty good and the apps are easy to use.