A virtual private network (VPN) allows remote users to securely connect to a private server from any location. For example, employees on the road or working from home can use VPNs to securely connect to the office network from their laptops. Large companies with offices spanning multiple locations use VPNs to ensure a secure and universal network for all office sites.
Then there are commercial VPN services, which let people who wants to camouflage their locations or secure their transmissions connect to the internet via private servers.
The purpose of VPNs
VPNs can connect multiple sites over tremendous distances, similar to a wide area network (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.
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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.
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 protcols, 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 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 apps and be sure to check user reviews for both free and paid apps.
Best VPN Services and Apps
Private Internet Access VPN
Private Internet Access covers the basics of a VPN, and it does this well. For those who value the anonymity of the service it is a good choice, but it has less servers than some competitors, which gives us pause for thought.
Windscribe is a strong player in the VPN space, with a range of affordable plans, plus a free tier. Those who step up to one of the paid plans are rewarded with access to a much larger choice of servers, with additional features such as Windflix to facilitate Netflix streaming.
CyberGhost’s VPN offering is a good service, with affordable long term plans, and up to 7 connected devices. Misses for the service include the lower number of platforms supported, and the super short 24-hour trial period.