What is a virtual private network (VPN)?

Whenever you’re browsing the Internet, it’s important to consider what data you’re giving away. Every site you visit and the actions you take on it is likely being recorded by someone, whether that’s your Internet service provider (ISP) or the site itself. And that data doesn’t always exist in isolation. Advertisers benefit from building a picture of your Internet usage, and how it reflects your habits, likes and dislikes.

Uses of your data can also be more malicious than advertising, however. Not everyone wants their browsing habits to be recorded, whether for the basic principle of privacy, the safety of  financial transactions, or because that information could be weaponised against them, such as revealing their sexual or gender identity. Thankfully, there is a way to help protect your identity and stay safer online – a virtual private network.


What is a VPN?

A virtual private network (VPN) is a service for people who want to cloak their identities online. If you’re already aware of VPNs, it’s likely because of their use as a tool to get around geoblocking, where content on platforms such as Netflix is restricted to certain regions. Commercial VPNs allow you to appear as though you are browsing from a different region, tricking the site in question into providing content from that region. While this is far from the only use of a VPN, it does give you a basic idea of how they work.

Most VPNs essentially add a step to the normal process of browsing the internet. Normally, you communicate directly with a server: you send information to the server (i.e. a request to do something), and it responds by sending information back. This data may be encrypted, depending on the nature of the connection, but it can be intercepted, and there’s no question as to who’s sending the request.

A VPN adds a middleman. When you browse a site – or connect to your work computer or server – you send the request to the VPN server, and it checks your details, before forwarding it to its destination. This not only guarantees your identity, but makes your request appear to come from the VPN, rather than you, hiding your identity. The need for authentication and the encryption of your data also ensures that your browsing data cannot be understood, even if it is successfully intercepted.


How do you use a VPN?

Many people are understandably cautious about new technologies, and may not trust in their own ability to use them. Thankfully, most VPNs are extremely simple to use. Some VPN operators will provide their own software, while others use open source software such as OpenVPN. In all of these cases, the most you will normally have to do is open the software and click a button to run the VPN. It will then open a secure connection to the VPN server, which will remain open until you choose to turn the VPN off.

Commercial VPN apps will typically allow you to change the VPN you are connecting to to one in a different region, allowing you to bypass region restrictions, or to see different language or regional versions of a website, such as for testing purposes. Many VPNs also offer their apps on a range of devices, allowing you to stay secure when using mobile browsers or apps as well as your desktop or laptop computer. Business VPNs by contrast tend to be for a single purpose: connecting to your remote workstation or work server.


Why are VPNs important?

Commercial VPNs add a layer of security to all of your online interactions. They help to secure your browsing even when you are on an unsecured network, such as an open WiFi network. These free access points in cafes, airports and other public spaces are useful, but the lack of security can make them vulnerable to malicious actors, and lead to your data being compromised. Using a VPN on these networks helps to shield your data from prying eyes, and keep you safe from cybercrime.

Business VPNs allow you to make secure remote desktop connections. Were someone to compromise your connection to a work computer, it could cause significant damage, as they could use this to gain access to your workplace’s IT systems. Using a VPN helps to secure this connection, and prevent anyone from hijacking it or stealing your credentials, keeping your work systems and data safe.

This ability to connect safely to other computers or networks through a VPN can allow you to more easily scale your IT services. By accessing remote desktops or cloud environments with a VPN connection, employees can gain simultaneous access to key applications. Everything from email to resource intensive tasks such as video editing can be performed remotely from low spec hardware, with the only cost being the need to add more bandwidth.


How to implement a business VPN

Business VPNs come in two flavours: remote access and site-to-site. Remote access VPNs are primarily for remote workers to securely connect to their workstation, or your office’s local network. Site-to-site VPNs allow employees in the office to securely access the local networks of other offices. Remote access VPNs provide access from a single device, wherever that may happen to be, while site-to-site VPNs provide access from a single location.

A number of VPN solutions exist for businesses, which can either be delivered by your IT department or an expert IT services provider. Some VPNs are hosted on your work servers, while others are available in the Cloud. One of the drawbacks of a VPN that is deployed within your network is that it routes all traffic through that network, potentially slowing it down for other people who are using it. A cloud VPN allows you to connect from a remote desktop to the Cloud, giving you direct access to your enterprise cloud storage or software.

Using the Cloud in this way allows you to make a clear partition between your local network and your cloud deployment. Rather than putting your local network of office hardware at risk, that risk is transferred to the Cloud. Your cloud deployment can also be much more easily and affordably scaled than your local hardware, allowing you to offer VPN access and a range of cloud services to more people as the business grows.

However you intend to use them and whichever option you go with, it’s crucial that you mandate the use of VPNs for remote and inter-site communications.

Each insecure connection you make to your network or cloud deployment puts your cybersecurity at risk – something that a VPN can quickly and easily remedy. To discuss your cybersecurity protocols and how to implement a VPN, get in touch with Sota today.

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