What is a VPN? Virtual Private Networks Explained

A Virtual Private Network, or VPN, allows computers, or whole networks of computers, to securely and confidentially connect with each other over the Internet.

When you send data from your computer to a web site, or an email address, or one of the many different locations and services on the Internet, you might think the data (or traffic) goes directly from Point A (your computer) to Point B (the destination). But this isn’t how the Internet works. In fact, your data will travel through many different locations before it reaches the final destination, like a baton being passed from point to point.

Think of it like the road network in a major city. There are many different routes you can choose to drive from your home to the office. You’ll probably have a favorite route, usually because it’s the quickest or avoids the traffic. But if part of your route gets shut down, say for road repairs, you pick a different route and navigate around the problem.

That’s how the Internet is designed. Computers and related devices are connected together in such a way to provide many routes from an origin to a destination. That’s the way the US military designed it, so if one route or even multiple routes are destroyed there’s still plenty of routes available to transmit data and communications.

As useful and resilient as the Internet is, because your data is passing through many computers or devices (called servers and routers) if any of these waypoints has been compromised, say by a hacker snooping on data passing through, it can pose a serious threat to your security and privacy. For example, if your private email is travelling from point to point, or router to router, on its way to your boss’ inbox and a bad guy has hacked into a computer along the way, it may be possible for him to view the content of your confidential message unless you have taken steps to prevent it. This is what virtual private networks (VPN) are designed to do, secure data as it travels over the Internet.

If you need help configuring or installing a VPN on your computer or network, consider HelpCloud Technician by-the-hour. We can connect and get you setup in no time!

How do VPNs Secure Your Data?

VPNs use two main methods to secure your data. First, the data is encrypted. This means it is converted to a secret and highly complex code with only the authorised recipient of the data holding the key to unlock the code and restore the original message. Next, the VPN wraps your data in a tunnel and extends the tunnel along the route to your destination.

In reality this tunnel is special software that is designed to detect attempts to compromise or spy on your data as it travels from point to point. Should any attempt at intrusion occur, the tunnel is automatically shut down and reopened using another route. Like knowing there’s a bad guy lurking on the street corner, so you don’t go that way, you choose an alternative and safer route.

Even if the hacker is highly skilled and can somehow break into the tunnel without being detected, your data is still secure because it is encrypted and he won’t have the key to unlock it and recover the original data.

VPNs can provide other benefits related to security and privacy.

What is a VPN and Why You Need One

Remote Access

Businesses have all sorts of private and confidential data on their computer systems and it wouldn’t do for this information to escape into the public domain. Employee records, internal memos and meeting minutes, designs and blueprints, financial information, all of this data needs to remain secure. So company computers are generally shielded from the outside world by firewalls. Firewalls are special software or physical hardware designed to examine all data moving in and out of a protected computer or network of protected computers. The firewall is configured to decide what is allowed in and what is allowed out. Generally very little is allowed in or out. The company web site might be accessible to the public, email will be permitted to flow in and out, but computers and data storage systems containing private information will be locked down and inaccessible from outside the company.

But what if an employee wants to work from home, or has to go on a road trip yet still access customer records, or send details of a sale back to base? In such cases a VPN is a secure way to allow private resources to be accessed securely from just about any location that has an Internet connection.

Enhanced Privacy

We all know by now there is a growing number of organisations that collect and store the personal information we transmit across the Internet. Marketing companies store our web browsing habits so they can target us with advertising they think we might be interested in. Governments scan our email for signs of potentially or actual criminal activity. Hackers, spammers and other cybercriminals gather whatever information they can to use for illegal purposes such as identity theft.

VPNs protect this data while it is in transit, or can remove it altogether. VPNs work in both directions, not only protecting the traffic we send but also the traffic we receive. Some VPN services can block unwanted advertising or filter out potentially harmful or nuisance traffic.

VPNs are also very useful when accessing the Internet from a public location, such as an Internet cafe or an airport lounge. Computers at such locations are available to the public by design and an ideal target for hackers. Securing any data passing through such computers is therefore essential.

Anonymity and Bypassing Restrictions

Whenever you send data out onto the Internet it carries your IP address with it. Your IP address is a unique identifier for your computer and it can be used to approximate your physical location. Some governments or service providers block certain content on the Internet, maybe on political grounds or due to licensing restrictions or regional availability. VPNs can strip out information from your data that might be used to identify you or your location, such as your IP address, and this might allow you to access content and services that would otherwise be blocked.

VPNs can sometimes be the only way for citizens blocked behind a government censorship firewall to enjoy free speech or communicate with certain parts of the world.

Internet service Providers (ISPs) can sometime place restrictions on the amount of data that is permitted to pass to and from your computer over a certain period of time or the maximum speed at which the data is transmitted. This is called bandwidth throttling and is generally deployed when too many people are trying to use the ISP’s resources. VPNs can sometimes bypass this throttling and restore a full speed service.

Shouldn’t We Be Using VPNs All the Time?

If there are so many potential benefits to using a virtual private network then why isn’t everyone using one all the time? Along with the benefits there are potential downsides to VPN.

Connections through a VPN can be slower than standard connections. The VPN needs to encrypt data and set up secure tunnels and this takes a little processing time.

Behind the scenes when you use a VPN what you are doing is connecting to a special computer, called a VPN server, that acts as a proxy (or a middleman). Instead of connecting directly to your desired service, such as a web site or a company network, you instead connect to the VPN server and this server passes on your data having secured it. This is known as client/ server technology. Your computer is a client of the VPN server. The VPN server is providing services to the client and acting on its behalf.

If there are many users connecting to the server performance can degrade. Good VPN services will have VPN servers in multiple locations in several countries.

Private individuals looking to use a VPN service provider for security or anonymity will have to pay a fee for the better services, over and above the usual ISP connection charge. Free VPN services are available, or some individuals set up their own server. Generally though, the free services have limitations and often come with undesirable trade-offs such as advertising or slower, more congested connections. Setting up your own VPN server can be technically challenging, so generally a paid service will be the easiest route.

Some of the better known VPN services include:

If you need help configuring or installing a VPN on your computer or network, consider HelpCloud Technician by-the-hour. We can connect and get you setup in no time!

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About the author

Photo of Erik Fullmer

Erik Fullmer

Erik was raised in many places but has long since called Utah home. Rooted in mountains, he spends a lot of time with his dogs in the mountains and in the winter he skis… a lot.

Erik is actively earning the necessary certifications and training to become a certified AMGA Ski Guide.

With over a decade of content writing experience, Erik finds passion when writing for the tech and outdoor recreation industries.