A Beginners Guide to VPNs

There are many reasons to use a virtual private network (VPN), and they all center around the need for privacy. Without a VPN to help you protect your data, you are vulnerable to hackers or unwanted surveillance (such as in a country with limited freedoms). It’s not difficult to get started with a VPN, but first you need to understand some basic VPN concepts, such as those discussed in this article.

What is a VPN?

While technically VPN is a wide area network technology, it actually functions as if it were on a local, private network. Secure VPN transmits private data over a public infrastructure. VPN protects data in two ways. First, it creates secure data streams called VPN tunnels that are meant to keep unauthorized people from capturing the data. Second, VPN uses encryption to encode messages so that only the sender and receiver can read them. By comparison, a VPN proxy might hide your IP address, but it won’t encrypt your data the way a VPN does.

How does a VPN work?

VPNs uses certain network protocols, such as L2TP, IPSec, SSH, and PPTP, to control and shape the data. Protocols are rules that dictate how devices deal with data packets as they arrive. Those encapsulated packets remain shielded from prying eyes. A VPN protocol basically creates a private link between a client and host server.

Aside from tunneling and encryption, VPN provides an added benefit. It hides the user’s IP address from the outside world. This is especially helpful for those who might be trying to communicate freely despite restrictions placed on the citizens of a dictatorship.

Establishing a VPN connection is fairly easy. If you are connecting to your company’s intranet, first you just need to connect to the internet in your normal way. Then you will initiate VPN client software as directed by your company’s IT department. As soon as you start the VPN client software, your VPN connection is up and running. Those consumers or freelancers who use a VPN service will have a secure connection as soon as they start up the service.

What is a VPN used for?

You could divide VPN users into two categories:  corporate and consumer. Corporate employees use VPN to connect to the private portion of their company’s websites. In the old days, companies would set up leased lines so that they could have private connections between branch offices and headquarters. This was a very expensive service. But you can handle all that through VPN. And it’s especially useful for remote workers and those who travel a lot for business.

On the other hand, consumers and freelancers may have other uses for VPN. Sure, there is still the benefit of protecting confidential data between freelancer and client. With VPN,, individual users know that they can send and receive data without the detection of overly intrusive or oppressive governments. They can browse the web anonymously. They can protect their data from hackers. And they safely transmit data using a public wifi.

Some users may want to access their geographically-restricted Netflix or other streaming service while traveling. VPN for streaming is a way to hide your IP address and appear to the streaming server as if you are back in your home country.

What is a VPN app?

Traditionally, VPN client applications were the only way to set up your VPN connection on your Windows computer. But now it’s possible to configure your VPN connection within Windows 10 itself. There are still plenty of services, such as NordVPN, that offer Windows applications for you to download and install to start your VPN service. Every app will have its own particular parameters. You will need to study the instructions for the VPN software that you choose.

You might be able to configure a VPN connection on your mobile phone as well, but it’s probably easier just to use an app. There are quite a few VPN for mobile applications available on the market today. Any app that you choose to use will be subject to whatever benefits or limitations come with the VPN service. Features and performance will vary. Expect to pay for a reliable VPN app, but there are also free versions out there that are ad-supported.

VPN kill switches

In the world of virtual private networks, a dropped connection can be a real problem. The reason is that once the internet connection fails, so does the VPN connection. But then the internet connection may be automatically restored, leaving the user exposed without an active VPN connection. Basically at that point those who might be spying on the user’s activity may be able to see his IP address and reveal his identity.

To work around this problem, some VPN software includes a kill switch. Sometimes it’s called a VPN kill switch, but it’s really an internet kill switch — it turns off the entire internet connection. The kill switch blocks the internet until you reactivate the VPN. Not all VPN vendors have this, and it can be a real security issue for those trying to protect their identity.

VPN routers Explained

You may know what internet routers are in a general sense. Routers channel traffic throughout the internet, sometimes all the way around the world. A VPN router does much the same thing, but it focuses on VPN traffic. That means that a VPN router includes within its configuration end devices that send or receive VPN signals. Consider a VPN router that you might have on your local area network (LAN). With this router you can protect multiple devices on your LAN — such as computers or phones — without setting up VPN on each individual device.

If you’d like to get into more technical aspects of VPN, then you will probably want to learn more about the VPN protocols that underlie VPN technology. While OpenVPN is the latest and perhaps the most popular VPN, there are several protocols in use today in VPN software. Each protocol has its own strengths and weaknesses. They main thing is that VPN will help your establish and maintain secure data connections over the public internet. And that’s a very good thing.

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