You’ve probably heard the term VPN if you spend any time at all on the Internet. You probably even know that VPN stands for Virtual Private Network, and you may even know the basics of using a VPN client. That’s about as far as most people get, however, and if you’re thinking about using a client to set up and access your own private network you should have a better understanding of how the platform works.
We’ve put together a basic primer that will help you understand a VPN and how to use it. Read the information below and bookmark it for a quick reference.
Exactly what is a VPN, anyway?
As we stated, VPN stand for Virtual Private Network. The simplest way to explain it is by comparing it to the network you use to access your Internet at home. Your home network is configured to restrict access to those who have permission to use the network. We hope it is, at least. When you access your home network you do so with a certain amount of security depending upon how you have set it up.
Whenever you access a network away from home or work, like a Wi-Fi hotspot at Starbucks, you sacrifice some security by exposing yourself to other computers on a shared network. What a VPN allows you to is create a secure network, very similar to what you use at home, that is Cloud-based or accessed from the Internet.
To be more technical, a VPN basically extends private networks across public networks like the Internet. Resources are accessed the same way as they are on the private network. Think about it like this. Let’s say you have a business that is based in Los Angeles. Your business network is served from a host computer in the main office. You also have branch offices in Sacramento and Palo Alto, as well as salespeople who are on the road and use Wi-Fi connections in their hotels. By creating a VPN the individuals in your branch offices and your salespeople on the road can use the Internet to access the secure network served by your main office, thereby preserving the security of your sensitive data.
Of course, there are many other uses for a VPN. We’ll look at those shortly, but first let’s have a closer examination at how VPN’s work.
How does a VPN work?
There are two basic types of VPN. A remote access VPN is very much like the example we gave above. Individuals away from the office can access their company intranet this way. A site-to-site VPN basically connects two networks. Again, this is very similar to the example. Users in different geographical locations can use a site-to-site VPN to share one virtual network.
These advantages are obvious, but the most important one is security. Because VPN’s use authenticated access and a variety of encryption devices, data shared across the network is less vulnerable to attackers.
Built-In VPN Clients
Technically, a VPN is software, but almost every computer platform today comes with a built in VPN client. You will find a VPN client in the Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS operating systems. In order to use the existing VPN client you will need to use a VPN service, but if you have a device that runs any of the operating systems we mentioned there is no need for you to purchase additional software. Subscibe for a VPN and configure it.
Encryption is one of the biggest benefits of using a VPN. We should talk a little about the process of encryption and how it works.
Information sent across networks is delivered in what is known as packets. This is what allows the information to be sent so quickly. In the early days of the Internet this was a very slow process, but technology has improved and that’s why we have the Internet speeds we have today.
Think about packets this way. Let’s say you want to access data on a network, or even a website. In order for you to see that data on your computer the data must be sent from a server to your device. Rather than sending information in large chunks, which would delay the speed of the network, data is broken down into much smaller pieces known as packets. These packets are then reassembled when they reach your machine and you are able to view the data. This process takes only seconds, and you are never really aware of it.
The problem with packets of data is that they are vulnerable to something known as “packet-sniffing”. Packet sniffers, or network monitors, are used to view the traffic on a network. They can be used legitimately by administrators for troubleshooting purposes, but many hackers and information thieves use packet sniffers to uncover sensitive information like network passwords.
What encryption does is protect the data in packets by means of something similar to a secret code. It takes the data and transforms it into a complicated cipher of sort. When a hacker attempts to sniff an encrypted packet all they see is the encrypted data instead of the data as you will receive it on an authorized device.
Anonymous Internet Access with a VPN
One way many individuals use VPN’s today is to access the Internet anonymously. There can be many reasons for doing this, but the biggest one seems to be preserving Internet freedom. Many people today are concerned that their online activities are being observed by various agencies.
Other individuals may simply wish to keep their browsing activities private. Perhaps they visit adult websites or are doing some searches on controversial topics in order to write a research paper. Those searches can sometimes be misconstrued and garner the attention of watchdog agencies. Using a VPN to anonymously surf the Internet can give users a little more comfort about leaving trails. Also, if a users is in a country such as China, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, United Arab Emirates UAE then the VPN would allow them to access blocked sites and more.
Aside from the security benefits and convenience afforded by a VPN, the technology is yet another example of the move toward Cloud-based computing.