Introduction to VPNs (Virtual Private Networks)

Do you use your laptop on public wireless (wi-fi) networks? Do you own a business and want to give remote staff a way to securely connect to your office network? If so, then you should know about VPNs.

VPN stands for Virtual Private Network, but this isn’t particularly helpful in understanding what it is or what it does. A VPN is an additional, virtual network that can be set up to exist over an existing physical network. In even simpler teams, a VPN is way to secure (encrypt) the data that leaves your computer as it travels across the Internet.

VPNs can be useful in a few situations, but my clients tend to use them in the following two situations. First, some clients want to provide part of their staff with secure remote access to the office network. This way, a staff person could work at home or travel to another city yet still have access to the business’ systems, like a file server or a database of client information. The staff person manually initiates a VPN connection to a VPN server in the business’ office. Once the connection is established, the person would be able to connect to the database or file server as though his or her computer was in the office. It’s important to note that the performance or speed of such VPN connections will be much slower than if the computer was actually in the office. This loss of performance is seen as a worthwhile trade-off since security is maintained and slow access is considered better than no access.

The second situation would be a person, like me, who travels regularly for business and often uses shared public networks like those found in coffee shops, airports or hotels. Many of these networks require no password to join and are thus far from secure. So, to prevent others on the network from determining what web pages I’m visiting or what emails I’m sending, I could use a VPN to encrypt all data as it moves from my laptop across the wireless network. Additionally, I find that some hotel networks or other public networks are configured to not allow users to send emails. While I understand that these networks are doing to for security purposes, it can be an inconvenience. Establishing a VPN connection would permit me to bypass this network limitation and send emails. There are other possible reasons why one might want a VPN service as described by Witopia, a provider of VPN services. To secure the data that I send and receive on my laptop, I could initiate a VPN connection to a VPN server. In this situation there is also a performance hit but the trade-off is increased security so it’s considered worthwhile.

Hopefully, these two examples illustrate how a VPN could be useful and what a VPN is.  A future article will compare a few personal VPN services.

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