What Is a VPN?
Virtual Private Network, or VPN, is a group of computers (or discrete networks) networked together over a public network—namely, the internet. Businesses use VPNs to connect remote datacenters, and individuals can use VPNs to get access to network resources when they’re not physically on the same LAN (local area network), or as a method for securing and encrypting their communications when they’re using an untrusted public network.
When you connect to a VPN, you usually launch a VPN client on your computer (or click a link on a particular website), log in with your credentials, and your computer exchanges trusted keys with a faraway server. Once both computers have verified each other as authentic, all of your internet communication is encrypted and secured from eavesdropping.
The most important thing you need to know about a VPN: It secures your computer’s internet connection to guarantee that all of the data you’re sending and receiving is encrypted and secured from prying eyes.
Whether the VPNs you’re familiar with are the ones offered by your school or business to help you work or stay connected when you’re traveling or the ones you pay to get you to watch your favorite shows in another country as they air, they’re all doing the same thing. For much more detail on what VPNs are, how they work, and how they’re used, check out this How Stuff Works article.
How does a virtual private network (VPN) work?
A VPN extends a corporate network through encrypted connections made over the internet. Because the traffic is encrypted between the device and the network, traffic remains private as it travels. An employee can work outside the office and still securely connect to the corporate network. Even smartphones and tablets can connect through a VPN.
Some Uses for VPNs
VPNs are a relatively simple tool, but they can be used to do a wide variety of things:
Access a Business Network While Traveling: VPNs are frequently used by business travelers to access their business’ network, including all its local network resources, while on the road. The local resources don’t have to be exposed directly to the internet, which increases security.
Access Your Home Network While Travelling: You can also set up your VPN to access your network while traveling. This will allow you to access a Windows Remote Desktop over the internet, use local file shares, and play games over the internet as if you were on the same LAN (local area network).
Hide Your Browsing Activity From Your Local Network and ISP: If you’re using a public Wi-Fi connection, your browsing activity on non-HTTPS websites is visible to everyone nearby, if they know how to look. If you want to hide your browsing activity for a bit more privacy, you can connect to a VPN. The local network will only see a single, secure VPN connection. All the other traffic will travel over the VPN connection. While this can be used to bypass connection-monitoring by your Internet service provider, bear in mind that VPN providers may opt to log the traffic on their ends.
Access Geo-Blocked Websites: Whether you’re an American trying to access your Netflix account while traveling out of the country or you wish you could use American media sites like Netflix, Pandora, and Hulu, you’ll be able to access these region-restricted services if you connect to a VPN located in the USA.
Bypass Internet Censorship: Many Chinese people use VPNs to get around the Great Firewall of China and gain access to the entire internet. (However, the Great Firewall has started interfering with VPNs recently.)
Downloading Files: Yes, let’s be honest – many people use VPN connections to download files via BitTorrent. This can be useful even if you’re downloading completely legal torrents – if your ISP is throttling BitTorrent and making it extremely slow, you can use BitTorrent on a VPN to get faster speeds. The same is true for other types of traffic your ISP might interfere with (unless they interfere with VPN traffic itself.)
What Different VPN Protocols are There?
VPN connections use an encrypted connection, also called a tunnel. There are several different ways (protocols) in which such a VPN connection can be set up. The most common protocols are:
OpenVPN: OpenVPN is one of the most used protocols. It is an open-source protocol which uses encryptions based on the OpenSSL and SSLv3/TLSv1 protocols. Most VPN providers support OpenVPN, and it is available for a lot of different platforms (e.g., Windows, Mac (OSx), Android, iOS, Linux, DD-WRT routers). Most consider OpenVPN to be the best choice.
IPSec/L2TP: this protocol combines IPsec for the encryption of data with L2TP for the secure connection. Most operating systems include IPsec/L2TP and are the right choice if OpenVPN is not available.
PPTP: PPTP (Point to Point Tunnelling Protocol) is one of the first protocols that became available. This protocol does contain a few (potential) leaks.
For this reason, the use of this protocol is only advisable if speed is more important than safety. This could be the case if you want to bypass restrictions set up by streaming services.
Softether: Softether, unlike the others mentioned, is not a stand-alone protocol but an open-source application that works across different platforms and offers support to VPN protocols such as, SSL VPN, L2TP/IPsec, OpenVPN, and Microsoft Secure Socket Tunnelling Protocol. Softether supplies you with one VPN server.
How Do You Get a VPN, and Which One Should You Choose?
Depending on your needs, you can either use a VPN from your workplace, create a VPN server yourself, or sometimes host one out of your house — but realistically the vast majority of people are just looking for something to protect them while torrenting or help them watch some media online that they can’t seem to access from their country.
The easiest thing to do is head to one of these sites, sign up, and download the VPN client for your Windows PC, Mac, Android, iPhone, or iPad. It’s as easy as that.
- ExpressVPN – This VPN server has the best combination of ease-of-use, high-speed servers, and supports streaming media and torrenting, all for a low price.
- Tunnelbear – This VPN is straightforward to use, is excellent for using at the coffee shop, and has a (limited) free tier. It’s not suitable for torrenting or streaming media, though.
- StrongVPN – not quite as easy to use as the others, but you can use them for torrenting and streaming media.
All of them have free trials, so you can quickly get your money back if you change your mind.
What about using a proxy?
Proxies are very different to VPNs, and should not be confused.
A proxy is only suitable for spoofing. A proxy will make it look as if you are connecting to the internet from a different country, but that is all it will do. It provides no protection or encryption.
To protect and encrypt yourself while online, you need to be using a VPN. A VPN will assign you a new IP address in a region of your choosing, all while applying sophisticated encryption and security protocols to ensure you’re as protected as possible.