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What is a VPN?

What is a VPN?
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So, what is a VPN? In recent years the privacy software business has taken off in earnest, and no longer do VPNs seem like they're just for geeks in V for Vendetta masks lurking on the darkweb. Now, you'll find them on tens, if not hundreds of millions of devices worldwide.

In essence, a virtual private network allows remote users to securely connect to a private server from any location. That often includes employees on the road or working from home, who can use VPNs to securely connect to the office network from their laptops. Large companies with offices spanning multiple locations also use VPNs to ensure a secure and universal network for all office sites.

On top of those fairly dreary business uses, there are also commercial VPN services. These allow individuals to camouflage their locations, secure their transmissions and access restricted websites by connecting to the internet via private servers.

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The purpose of VPNs

VPNs can connect multiple sites over tremendous distances, similar to a wide area network or WAN.

However, VPNs are used to extend Intranets — large private networks — worldwide and provide access to a wider user base. Educational institutions such as universities use VPNs to connect campuses and students to university machines.

MORE: Check out our favorite Free VPN services

To give a user access to a private network, users must first be authenticated using a unique identification and password via a remote portal. Commercial VPN software often logs the user on automatically.

A VPN is sometimes used through desktop software or a mobile app (a VPN client) that requires a user to log in to the system. The software then displays the remote computer’s desktop or network files, which can be accessed through the application. Other VPN client software encrypts and routes all internet traffic through the VPN service.

There are also browser plug-ins for VPN services, which are sometimes easier to use than the stand-alone client applications. However, the browser plug-ins will route and encrypt only the data going to and from the browser, and not data going to and from any other internet-facing application — including other browsers — on the machine in question.

VPN padlock

VPN protocols

Due to the secure nature of VPNs, they use a number of protocols that encrypt data traffic. This is especially important because data is being transmitted over a public network between two remote locations.

Protocols used by VPNs include IP Security (IPSec), Secure Sockets Layer (SSL), Transport Layer Security (TLS), Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP), Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol (L2TP), OpenVPN, Internet Key Exchange (IKEv1 and IKEv2) and WireGuard.

In all protocols, both endpoints — your computer, smartphone or router, and the VPN server — use a "handshake" method of authentication. To successfully initiate this connection, the connecting computer must share a key that matches the required parameters for the receiving location.

The advantages of VPN

VPNs are traditionally a very inexpensive cost-effective way to build a private network. The use of the  internet as a communications channel between sites is quite common, which is driving down the cost of such services. A VPN is an ideal choice for corporations needing flexibility - the popularity of business VPN use is certainly in the ascendancy.

The disadvantages of VPN

Performance issues can be common, often depending on the location of the remote client accessing the private network. A loss of data can occur due to the risks of transmitting data over multiple public networks. To combat this, many VPN vendors offers a guaranteed quality of service (QoS) to ensure no data is lost in transmission.

Also keep in mind that some free Android apps were found to be tracking users and infecting their phones. You should definitely we wary of free Android VPN apps and be sure to check user reviews for both free and paid apps.