What is a VPN? Uses and Good VPNs
VPN is short for virtual private network. A VPN provides you with a private, secure network over the public internet. It encrypts all your traffic and connections, conceals your IP address, and gives you online anonymity.
Still unclear? Don’t worry. We have designed a multi-part article series which will cover all that you need to know and understand about VPNs.
This is the first instalment of the series, where we will share analogies to help you visualize how a VPN works, along with different VPN types, their benefits, and examples of some free and paid VPN software. So, let’s begin!
What (really) is a VPN?
The internet is very much like a public highway that connects the whole world. Information from different computers travel on it, across countries and continents. This information, which often contains sensitive data, can be intercepted and read by anyone with the right tools.
On this public highway runs a private tunnel, designed exclusively for your information to safely flow through across countries and continents. The data that flows through this tunnel is jumbled up so that the public cannot decipher it. This tunnel is what we call a VPN.
The concealed VPN tunnel also has a post office, which is responsible for safe transit of information. Senders dispatch their letters to the post office, the post office replaces the sender’s address with its own, translates the contents into a language that only the intended receiver can understand, and then sends the letters on their way.
In VPN terms, the post office is the VPN client, and letters are any-and-all online communication. By removing the sender’s address, the post office ensures the sender’s anonymity. Once the receiver responds, the information is translated back to plain language, and relayed to the sender.
Why do you need a VPN?
Here are a few reasons why you need a VPN:
To protect yourself on a public network
If you are connected to an unsecured, public network (e.g. restaurants, airports etc.), then cybercriminals can easily intercept your online traffic. This may include your login credentials for a social networking website, or your credit card information that you used to make a purchase.
A VPN lets you build a secure, encrypted channel over the public network, and keeps your sensitive data from being exposed.
To hide your online activities from your ISP
Even when you are on your home Wi-Fi, all your online activities are visible to your internet service provider (ISP). They can easily share or sell your personal data and behaviour with other companies.
If you use a VPN, a private tunnel conceals your identity and data from the ISP and/or any other intermediaries.
To access content in locations you aren’t
While at home, a VPN can make sites think you’re located in their region to access international content.
If you’re travelling, a VPN can help you access content back home, or websites that may be blocked in a foreign country (e.g. Facebook and YouTube are blocked in China).
To restrict access to sensitive resources
If you have a private network or just sensitive internal resources such as website admin panels or client databases, you want to restrict access to only trusted users. A VPN is the perfect solution to this.
The VPN acts as a secure doorway with it’s own bouncer between your private assets and the public internet. The only way to access these critical resources would be through this doorway, your secure VPN.
An authorised user would log in to the VPN with their credentials, then VPN assigns them a static IP address (the same one every time, as opposed to your public IP that changes daily).
This means that VPN admins can whitelist this IP and ban all others, meaning if the bouncer doesn’t see this one IP address, it denies entry.
How does a VPN work? (Behind the scenes)
Without a VPN, whenever you access something on the internet, a request gets sent to your ISP, which connects you to the intended website. Your public IP address (the IP of your router) helps the ISP and the website uniquely identify and track your online activity.
Your data may also be unencrypted, which means that the ISP can easily share or sell it to interested parties. Not to mention, it can also be intercepted by malicious actors.
With a VPN, it’s the VPN client that forwards your request to the ISP. The ISP can’t see your actual IP address or location. The VPN client also encrypts all traffic, making it completely indecipherable for the ISP.
The ISP further relays the request to the VPN server. The VPN server decrypts the request, and forwards it to the intended website.
A VPN also gives you a static IP address, so every time you’re connected to the VPN, you switch to that same IP.
The benefit of having the same IP address every time you’re connected to your VPN means you can whitelist (only allow) your IP and block all others. This makes restricting access to sensitive resources very secure.
VPN use-cases and benefits
A VPN has wide-ranging use-cases and benefits:
- Run your own VPN server: Deploy your own VPN server with a hosting provider like HOSTAFRICA, and use it to allow remote access to your internal network and resources.
- Restrict server access: Use a VPN solution to give only authorised users access to your servers and internal resources that are hosted with a hosting provider.
- Stream on the go: Travelling to a country where you can’t stream your favourite TV shows? No problem, just use a VPN to connect with a server in your country, and stream on the go!
- Access your home network on the go: A VPN can also allow you to remotely access your home network, even when using a public Wi-Fi.
- Shop safely: A VPN allows you to shop at your favourite online stores, without any worries. Your credit card information always stays encrypted and safe.
- Safe online banking: Even though banks implement rigorous levels of security to protect your assets, you can use a VPN to take things up another notch. Encrypted traffic means that you are safe from the most common identity theft threats.
- Remote work: VPNs make it possible for you to access your corporate network from anywhere. A secure channel ensures that you can safely log in to your company’s internal network, and freely perform your duties.
- Build a diverse workforce: If you have a reliable VPN solution, you have the luxury to hire a geographically distributed workforce. The luxury to work from anywhere will enable you to on-board the best talent.
- Remote data access: If you have a server hosted on a private network, you can use a VPN to allow remote access to it.
- Enhanced security: Instead of connecting everything to the public internet, build a secure, private intranet for all your assets, e.g. personal computers, mainframes, applications etc.
Are there any cons to VPNs?
Some VPN products may compromise speed for security. This is why it’s important to choose the right VPN software, that doesn’t let the overhead of tunnelling and encryption affect your browsing speed or bandwidth.
- Free VPN software providers are notorious for illegal activities like tracking and selling user data.
- Websites and companies are installing VPN blockers that can detect and drop VPN traffic.
- Some VPNs aren’t built to handle bandwidth-intensive operations like video conferencing, streaming, or online gaming.
Good VPNs: free and paid
A single Google search will give you thousands of free VPN options, but a majority of them are not reliable. They may significantly slow down your browsing speeds, and cause frequent disconnections.
With that said, there’s one free VPN solution that is recommended by us and security experts alike: WireGuard.
WireGuard is an open-source, well-maintained, and easy-to-use VPN solution. It uses modern cryptographic techniques to secure online connections, without compromising security.
WireGuard is an ideal fit for virtually all use-cases; from personal use to embedded devices and super computers. Even though it was originally released for Linux-based machines, it’s now cross-platform, and supports Windows, macOS, BSD, iOS, and Android.
When we talk about paid VPN software, the following are a few good options:
OpenVPN is a cloud-ready VPN solution that’s easy to deploy, manage, and scale. There is an open-source variant of OpenVPN, but it only supports TLS encrypted VPN tunnels and configurable encryption ciphers.
Many useful features like graphical web interface, pre-built virtual appliances, high-availability failover solution, LDAP and RADIUS support, are only included in the enterprise version. OpenVPN runs on Windows, macOS, Linux, Android, and iOS.
NordVPN is another easy-to-use VPN tool that comes with a diverse feature set. It supports multi-hop connections, which route your traffic from more than one VPN servers, without significantly compromising performance. Supported platforms include macOS, Windows, Android, Linux, and iOS.
ExpressVPN is a reliable VPN solution that’s ideal for small businesses and personal use. It uses state-of-the-art encryption algorithms to secure your traffic, and offer fast, unlimited bandwidth. It supports macOS, Windows, Android, Linux, and iOS.
This concludes the first part of our multi-part article series on VPNs. We talked about what VPNs are, their benefits, how they work, and a few trustworthy VPN providers.
In the next article, we will share a detailed guide to install WireGuard on different devices. Stay tuned!