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. 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.
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 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. They often establish servers in many countries. People are drawn to these services for various reasons 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. You can also access files through a browser.
IT admins can use SSH to manage servers 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, 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.
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. Some may also substantially affect your connection speeds.
VPNs can also provide a way to access online services that otherwise wouldn’t be available in your area. Some gamers use VPNs to replicate the experience of playing over LAN. 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!
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