With privacy and security concerns increasing, along with ongoing conversation about net neutrality, the term “VPN” keeps popping up. But what is a VPN? This guide will help you understand exactly what a Virtual Private Network is and why you might want to consider setting one up for yourself.
If you’ve heard of a VPN, you might imagine a setup that lets employees hook up to central work servers so that they can work remotely. What many don’t realize is that you can do so much more with a VPN. In fact, setting up a VPN in your home can have dramatic privacy benefits, along with offering a handful of other conveniences that you’ve been missing out on.
If you’re a seasoned tech veteran, you’re probably not going to find anything in this article that you don’t already know. However, if you are vaguely aware that VPNs are a thing, then look no further: this post is for you. Here, we’ll be taking a surface look at how VPNs work, and why you probably want one.
What is a VPN?
So what is a VPN, anyway? Virtual Private Networks, as the name indicates, are simply a virtual version of a local, physical network. On a traditional network, computers are physically interlinked so that they can quickly and easily share files and resources. What makes VPNs different is that remote computers all over the world could feasibly connect with one through the internet.
Generally, VPNs are used to increase security on private and public networks. They can also be used by companies to keep sensitive corporate data secure. The modern workforce is becoming increasingly decentralized as more and more positions are able to tune in remotely or work from home, so VPNs are becoming increasingly popular for this purpose. In a world where face-to-face interaction is not always necessary to get the job done, these networks are serving as a catalyst to bring your office wherever you are.
VPNs also offer increased privacy because a user’s given IP address is replaced by one from the VPN provider. This allows users to safely browse in anonymity. They may appear to be accessing the internet from, say, New York while actually in the middle of Ohio. In this way, Virtual Private Networks can be used to circumvent regional restrictions as well.
If a streaming service isn’t available in your country, you can simply configure your VPN to make you appear to be living in a country where it is available. Of course, services like Netflix and Hulu are working to shut down all forms of access via proxy services, but there are still some VPNs that manage to bypass these measures.
What does a VPN do?
Now that we have answered the question, “What is a VPN?” what can you use it for? Security remains the cornerstone of the VPN market. This is why companies have been using them for years. Businesses can easily intercept data traveling on a network they control, which allows them to monitor user activity. However, this data is much more difficult to “hack” into by users outside of the VPN. One useful comparison often invoked is that a firewall protects data when it’s on your computer, but a VPN protects your data while it’s online.
All data transfers on VPNs are encapsulated using encryption protocols and tunneling methods. In today’s world of increased privacy concerns and rising cybercrime, many consider VPNs to be a crucial part of a well-secured system. Their integrity is ensured through a variety of checks that make sure no connections have been illicitly compromised and that no data is being intercepted by an outside source.
What is a VPN – Why you want one
So what can we use VPNs for? There are several reasons to get a VPN. As we’ve mentioned, many businesses use them to let employees gain access to secure files or applications remotely without compromising security. They can even use office resources like printers and fax machines from the comfort of their home or hotel room. This is essential for companies that handle sensitive data and have a wide employee base.
It’s also a handy way to securely interlink multiple networks. Many companies use a VPN to connect workplace networks all over the world, but unless you’re in charge of managing a slew of multinational offices, then this probably isn’t much use to you. However, you can use the same functionality to interlink home networks.
Getting down to the more personal uses, a VPN is perfect for someone concerned about security while using a public Wi-Fi hotspot. The VPN encrypts everything you do on the internet, making it far, far more difficult for anybody else on the unsecured network to monitor your browsing or attempt to get ahold of your passwords.
Geoblocking is another great use of a VPN. This is the method touched on above wherein a user can gain access to websites or services that normally wouldn’t be available in a given region. Journalists and political figures have obvious reasons to lean heavily on these tools so they can maintain their connectedness while in the field.
Other uses include accessing more… salacious content, if your country frowns on NSFW material. VPNs also allow for a way to circumvent other location blocks to access VOIP and messaging services like Whatsapp and IMO, social media services like Facebook and Twitter, and other websites that may be blocked in your country. The way this works is that your VPN provider essentially makes it look, for all intents and purposes, like you’re connecting from a region that is different from where you are actually located.
What is a VPN – Breaking down your needs
That should tell you what a VPN is and why you need one. So what do you need to pay attention to when you’re picking the VPN that’s right for you? Well, the first thing you need to take into consideration is choosing the right networking protocol. There are a couple of ways you can do this, and the choice is yours.
First of all, we’ve got PPTP. This is Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol, and it’s the least secure method of VPN configuration that you can select. It is widely supported and works on almost any operating system, especially older OS versions. However, PPTP shouldn’t be used because of the poor security overall, unless you are running a much older smartphone or PC.
Alternatively, you might choose L2TP or IPsec, which are Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol and Internet Protocol Security respectively. These are far more secure than PPTP, but they are a bit more complex to set up. They’re almost as widely supported as PPTP, but they can also be vulnerable to some connection issues.
If you’re ready to get really secure, then you might want to check out SSL VPN systems. These are Secure Sockets Layer protocols, and if you use these, you’re getting the same level of protection that your banking site offers you on their website. Since the connection occurs via web browser, you tend to get much more stable connections than with the services listed above.
OpenVPN is a slightly different approach. It’s an open-source VPN system that uses much of SSL’s code, but you’ll have to install a client. Most operating systems will not support it natively, but there’s basically no connection issues to worry about. OpenVPN is definitely the best choice when using a third-party client.
When it comes to actually sitting down and creating your VPN, you’ll need to also consider what you’ll be using it for. For instance, if you just want to ensure that you can maintain remote access to a single computer, then you might just want to work with Window’s built-in VPN software. However, if you’re doing something more complex, like stringing together a large number of computers, then you should probably stick with stand-alone server software. For even larger setups that would require secure site-to-site connection, then you might want to look into getting a dedicated VPN router.
But if you just want to make your internet connection more secure when you’re roaming about on public networks, then just subscribe to a third-party VPN provider like ExpressVPN. Third-party VPNs are also ideal for beginners who don’t have to worry about the technical know-how related to setting up your own VPN. There are a slew of great services that offer one-click installations and user-friendly interfaces, along with all the security and privacy features you may need.
A lot of VPNs are advertising themselves as the go-to method to overcome any restrictions that may result from the upcoming relaxation of net neutrality rules. How well this will work is not yet known, since ISPs could always restrict all forms of encrypted data to block VPN use. Regardless, at the very least, using a VPN will go a long way towards keeping your privacy intact.
What is a VPN – Conclusion
Hopefully we’ve answered your major questions surround VPNs. If you represent a large business, and your company is not yet using a VPN, then you should probably seriously reassess the qualifications of your IT department. If you’re a small business looking to make your data more secure and accessible for those with the proper credentials, then we hope we’ve given you a good overview of what VPNs can do for you. Even if you’re just an individual user looking for better security or wanting to access goods that the government has slapped the “not cool” label on, then maybe you’ve gotten a better idea of what is really possible through the use of VPNs.
Anything you think we left out about Virtual Private Networks and how they can help you out? If so, let us know what we missed in the comments!
Also, stay tuned to Android Authority for our upcoming series of VPN reviews, to help you find the one that best suits your needs!
Our VPN Recommendation
Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are among the best security tools a web surfer can have. You can use them to surf otherwise seedy public Wi-Fi with more security and privacy. They can even be used to get around firewalls if your work has, say, Facebook blocked. Many people use them to overcome regional restrictions with various types of content as well. Whatever the reason, VPNs are powerful and popular tools. Here are the best Android VPN apps and free VPN apps (Spoiler alert: ExpressVPN is the clear winner)!
ExpressVPN is one of the most trusted, secure brands in the virtual private network industry, and that’s for good reason. It’s super fast and extremely safe, boasting an SSL-secured network with 256-bit encryption and, get this, unlimited bandwidth and speed. ExpressVPN has servers in 78 countries (including Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and others) in over 100 locations around the world, so there will always be a location near you to give you the best experience possible. What’s more, the service even has stealth servers located in Hong Kong which are specially designed to evade the GFW, making it look like you’re not using a VPN at all.
Many users around the web say they can achieve an average speed of around 6-7 mbps on the desktop. There are also a few extra bonuses thrown in that you don’t see too often in the VPN space. For starters, ExpressVPN doesn’t keep any browsing logs. All of your activities are mixed with the activities of other users as well, so it’s pretty near impossible to single out a user’s activity.
ExpressVPN has Android, iOS, Mac, and Windows applications, which are all really well done. At least for the mobile apps, you can easily connect on demand so it’s not constantly running in the background, taking up precious battery life. This is especially helpful in China as cellular data networks don’t always provide the strongest connection.
As for pricing, you’ll get the best savings (35 percent) with the 12 month plan at $8.32 per month. But no matter which pricing tier you choose, you’ll have access to all ExpressVPN apps, 24/7 customer support, and high-speed unlimited bandwidth.
ExpressVPN is the best all-around VPN for a reason, so if you’re not convinced, we recommend you take advantage of their 30-day money-back guarantee.
30-day money-back guarantee
Want to learn even more about VPNs? Check out our detailed guides: