VPN: A Closer Look
VPN. If you hadn’t heard these three letters together before March 2020, you’ve surely heard them now. With businesses and their employees the world over exposed to work from home scenarios – many for the first time – any conversation about secure remote access involves the term. So what is a VPN? The very basic definition is – it’s a virtual private network. But that phrase is just begging for further explanation. So gather ‘round – virtually of course – as we unpack VPNs and why they’re so important for telework.
The virtual part of VPN means just that – it requires no physical connection. Instead, a virtual tunneling protocol establishes the connection. Gophers would be jealous of the number of these tunnels out there, but of course, they don’t damage any golf courses or yards. The tunneling is achieved by a process known as encapsulation. Basically, while your remote user’s data still does have to travel through the public internet to get to the other side (i.e. your network), the virtual tunnel covers it. That means, it’s private.
So the tunnel itself offers privacy to a degree, but to achieve the full security benefits of a VPN, it must be encrypted. The public internet can see that a tunnel exists, but encryption – either via SSL (secure sockets layer) or IPSec (internet protocol security) prevents anyone from seeing what’s inside. The user and the network the user connects to are the only ones who can decrypt it, with passwords (multifactor authentication recommended) and certificates.
Getting back to the types, while both SSL and IPSec provide the encryption needed to keep that virtual tunnel private, there are a couple key differences. SSL VPN allows secure remote access through a web browser – without requiring specialized client software – making it simple to deploy. Unlike SSL, IPSec VPN functions at the network layer, and it does typically require a separate hardware or software solution. We compared SonicWall’s VPN service offerings (one SSL and one IPSec) in a recent post, and in a handy chart that could offer some assistance as to which is best for your scenario.
Oh and one more note on privacy, when a user connects via VPN, it also obscures the device’s IP address. That means someone trying to track its location will only get the IP address of the network the user is connected to – a feature many non-business users find handy.
So in our quest to answer the question “what is a VPN?” we’ve explored the virtual and private aspects, now let’s examine the network component. Network in this case means a user’s remote device is connected to your organization’s network. Depending on the connection type, they may have access to all of it, or just specified apps, services, and files. Either way, the VPN connection allows users access to what they need to get work done – all while protected by your existing network security. A VPN in essence extends your network’s reach to wherever your employees need to access it. And in the age of the teleworker, this secure remote access is a must.
Is your VPN connection a little slow?
Check out our video for some tips on how to speed up your VPN connection: