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What Is a VPN and Why You Need It?

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A VPN service is one of the most prolific ads you’ll see most days when browsing the internet. You’ll probably see one promoted by a popular YouTube channel or a Twitch streamer.

They will often mention internet security and access to region-locked content to entice their subscribers to join.

A two-minute sales pitch is not enough to answer what is a VPN service and why it’s recommended to use one. This guide will highlight the most critical aspects of this tool and other relevant topics.

What Is a VPN?

VPN is the abbreviation for “Virtual Private Network,” which is an isolated network that offers secure access via encryption.

How Does a VPN Work?

The short answer to “what is a VPN” is it provides users with an anonymous, secure Internet connection.

A VPN is designed to encrypt the information and send it via a secure tunnel. Then, a server receives the data and vice-versa.

A VPN service works like a pneumatic tube transport (PTT) primarily used by banks, hospitals, and department stores. If you’re not familiar with this system, it’s a classic-yet-effective method of sending money, documents, and other materials via incoming and outcoming tubes.

Compressed air pressure is utilized to forward these items from the sending point to the receiving end.

The PTT system eliminates human intervention and other elements from gaining access to the material, making it secure for both sender and receiver.

A virtual private network works similarly, but instead of air pressure and pneumatic tubes, it utilizes a specific protocol and secure tunnel to protect your data.

Whenever you’re accessing the internet via VPN, any digital information you have are essentially inaccessible and private. A service provider usually offers various server locations to its users’ benefit.

Once the VPN server you’re connected to communicates your information on a particular website, the latter will see the IP address of the former. Yours is completely hidden, making it almost impossible to track your information like browsing history, location, and other sensitive data.

If your VPN server becomes offline, your internet connection will get terminated. This feature is made possible because of the VPN kill switch. It protects you from sending unencrypted data, safeguarding you from interceptions and other security breaches.

types of vpn

Types of VPN

Here are the two types of VPN you need to learn about:

1. Remote-Access VPN

If you’re a corporate employee during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, you have most likely used a remote-access VPN to work. Companies use it to establish a private, secure connection for their remote workers.

A remote-access VPN allows access to resources that are usually exclusive within office premises.

As the name suggests, this type of VPN provides a connection regardless of location. For a long time, remote access VPN has been the industry standard.

Advantages such as protection from data breaches and malicious attacks are widely associated with it. Even if you’re accessing your company’s resources via a remote access VPN using a public WiFi, the encryption protects your data from hackers.

Companies have to establish these two components to allow user access remotely.

  • Client Software

A VPN client software is a program used to access or use specific information stored on a network.

  • Network Access Server (NAS)

This centralized storage device acts as the hard disk for a network where authorized users are allowed to access, retrieve, and store data.

These attributes about remote access VPN may give an impression that it’s only for remote workers. However, you’ll appreciate that you can also take advantage of its benefits for recreational purposes.

If you encountered an ad for a VPN while watching a video, it’s more likely a remote access VPN service. The feature where you can access region-locked content and restricted sites privately and securely are its primary appeal to casual internet users.

2. Site-to-Site VPN

A site-to-site VPN is tailored for companies with multiple offices in different geographic locations. The private, secured connection for the setup mentioned is significantly advantageous.

Businesses that use site-to-site VPN usually have a dedicated primary network and large operations across numerous locations.

This setup creates a single network where authorized users can securely exchange encrypted information and data despite geographical differences.

Site-to-site VPNs utilize gateways at every location, and all data passing through them are encrypted, which effectively protects any information from interceptions.

While it may have a couple of similarities to the remote access VPN setup, some differences are worth knowing.

One example is you don’t need client software to access the data. This means that there’s no need to install anything on your device. Instead, this VPN performs its encryption at a gateway.

Another is that site-to-site VPN combines two or more networks in different locations. For example, various government offices have a shared network for conducting their daily operations.

There are two sub-types associated with site-to-site VPN.

  • Intranet-based

Companies use an intranet-based VPN to create a wide area network (WAN). It connects multiple local-area networks (LAN) to combine information and resources securely across different offices.

  • Extranet-based

An extranet-based VPN is utilized for industries that have partners to share data without compromising their internal networks and privacy. Once a partner connects to the company’s VPN, the former can only access information allowed by the latter.

VPN Protocols

A VPN protocol is a method used by a VPN application to establish a connection to the server.

It determines how you log in, how the selected server authenticates itself to the service, the type of encryption, and the processes used to transport data.

How Does It Work?

VPN protocols operate differently, but most revolve around encryption privacy services.

Authentication assures that your device interacts with a reliable server, while encryption renders the connection unreadable to hackers.

With the varying methods for these two functionalities, VPN users can experience different speeds and security levels depending on the protocol.

Some protocols can sacrifice encryption to achieve better speed and vice-versa for more security. Therefore, it’s essential to learn these protocols that emphasize different components of the data transmission process.

common types of vpn protocols

Common Types of VPN Protocols

Besides the VPN meaning and its features, it’s highly recommended to be aware of the protocols available. The protocol has a significant impact on your VPN experience.

1. L2TP/IPSec

Internet service providers and VPN apps use layer 2 Tunneling Protocol (L2TP) to establish a connection between a device and a server. This tunneling protocol does not perform any data encryption and authentication by itself.

The IPsec (Internet Protocol Security) is frequently paired with L2TP to provide these security features by encrypting the latter’s packets between every endpoint.

It offers a few valuable qualities, but a number of drawbacks keep it from surpassing other VPN protocols.

Compared to advanced protocols, L2TP is usually not capable of getting around firewalls. Some overly-cautious administrators can block it by using a firewall, which prevents users from using the features of the VPN.

Many VPN providers don’t support this protocol anymore because it is regarded as outdated. Still, given the multitude of encryption protocols it can handle and its compatibility across multiple systems, LT2P/IPsec is a viable choice for non-critical use.

2. OpenVPN

OpenVPN is widely regarded as the best secure VPN protocol available today. It is an open-source connection protocol that allows for creating a secure VPN tunnel on a network between two points.

It is possible to link the systems over a secure and encrypted connection even if the devices are far apart.

If utilized in a multi-client setup, OpenVPN enables the server to issue an authentication certificate to each user.

Since it has an open-source setup, anyone is free to use and alter the OpenVPN’s code. Programmers are welcome to test, update, or improve it, which means the protocol won’t become obsolete anytime soon.

Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) / Transport Layer Security (TLS) manages the connectivity, also used to safeguard HTTPS websites. You’re less likely to have issues with firewalls or VPN barriers because OpenVPN utilizes a technology common in most sites.

As a result, your activity can appear as ordinary internet traffic. This protocol can establish its tunnels by utilizing a Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) or User Datagram Protocol (UDP).

  • TPC

The Transmission Control Protocol is designed to maintain better control of data transfer. At the cost of speed, it delivers a more reliable and stable connection to the VPN server.

  • UDP

If you’re subscribed to a VPN service that uses this protocol, chances are your default connection is User Datagram Protocol. It’s designed to provide a faster internet connection, preferable for viewing or downloading large amounts of data.

These options are why OpenVPN is deemed superior to other protocols. Most reputable VPN service providers offer their users to choose between TPC and UDP for a more personalized, secure browsing experience.

3. SSTP

Microsoft owns Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol (SSTP), but it is also compatible with other devices that run a different operating system.

This protocol uses a Transmission Control Port (TCP) connection to establish the connection between a client’s system and a server.

SSL connects to the server through the 443 port. It is necessary to authenticate the user to verify the connection, which the client often controls.

For authentication, SSTP uses the SSL/TLS certificate, while encryption is performed via 256-bit SSL keys.

One significant advantage of SSTP over other protocols is its complete integration with Windows Vista Service Pack 1 and all subsequent versions. You can utilize it with security features like Winlogon for further protection.

Furthermore, numerous VPN service providers offer integrated Windows SSTP instructions to enhance functionality and overall compatibility.

Arguably its most distinct advantage is the high level of security while being firewall-friendly. However, because it is a proprietary protocol established by Microsoft, third-party programmers are not permitted to access or make any changes to its code.

Slower speeds are also expected because of the high level of encryption SSTP provides.

Many VPN providers no longer offer support because other protocols can provide the same advantages without the negatives.

4. PPTP

One of the earliest VPN protocols created is the Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP). Similar to the SSTP, it was developed by Microsoft intended for dial-up connections.

PPTP was first implemented into Windows 95 and relied on the obsolete MS-CHAP v2 authentication suite. As such, it’s almost trivial for any skilled hackers to intercept the communications within the protocol’s tunnel.

It is largely compatible with previous operating systems, and its lack of functionalities allows you to browse at relatively high speeds.

Most VPN providers have eliminated it from their portfolio due to outdated security features and various vulnerabilities.

5. IKEv2

Internet Key Exchange version 2 is a modern VPN protocol designed to establish an SA attribute or security association between two networks and secure connections. Like L2TP, it needs IPsec for encryption and authentication, essential for internet privacy and security.

It excels in re-establishing the link after a temporary or sudden connection loss and switching connections between network types.

The integration of IKEv2 and IPSec technologies makes this VPN protocol significantly fast. IKEv2 is run in userspace, whereas IPSec performs as a kernel operation.

The setup allows optimal operations due to untethered access to the CPU, storage, and other hardware components.

As a result, faster data processing and transmission are possible. This VPN protocol has a strong reputation among techies because it uses reliable encryption technologies like the AES-256 ciphers.

AES means Advanced Encryption Standard, which is a symmetric key cipher. The AES 256 is considered virtually impenetrable even when using brute force methods.

It also utilizes the Diffie-Hellman Key Exchange algorithm to exchange keys safely over a public, unsecured channel.

IKEv2 is a licensed protocol compatible with Windows, Apple, Android, Linux, and other operating systems.

6. WireGuard

WireGuard is one of the recent additions to the growing list of VPN protocols, but it has already gained significant notoriety among professionals and IT security enthusiasts.

While other protocols like OpenVPN can have tens of thousands of code lines, it has a small codebase of approximately 4,000. Programmers will find WireGuard much easier to audit.

Its cryptographic algorithm support is more limited than others, restricting some potential features. However, this dramatically reduces the attack surface by offering excellent encryption to all sources of internet traffic.

This protocol is less prone to implementation issues that OpenVPN and IPsec usually encounter, which can be more complex and prone to misconfiguration.

The biggest benefit of using a WireGuard VPN protocol is the faster internet speed. Numerous users attest that speedier upload and download rates by up to 40% with lower latency than other protocols.

WireGuard lacks some of OpenVPN’s capabilities, but it still provides more than most users would ever need. The streamlined approach allows its users to experience optimal internet speeds for a VPN connection.

Furthermore, Wireguard is a superior choice for portable devices. This protocol uses an encryption algorithm compatible with smartphones, laptops, and tablets.

A device will consume less battery charge since WireGuard doesn’t require too much memory and data to perform its features. Overall, it delivers speed while using fewer resources.

advantages of using a vpn

Advantages of Using a VPN

After learning about the intermediate technical aspects of VPN, let’s discuss in detail what are the benefits of using it.

When casual internet users encounter anything related to a virtual private network service, they assume it’s only for professionals and techies. However, this is not necessarily accurate because learning how does a VPN work can benefit individual users and businesses alike.

As mentioned in previous sections, a VPN can safeguard data by concealing sensitive data via encryption. It’s also designed to hide the IP address, making it virtually impossible for online intruders to intercept or access any information transmitted on the VPN tunnel.

To elaborate on how these features benefit each type of user, we categorized the benefits based on purpose.

Professional

Most industries nowadays rely on the power of the internet to perform their daily operations. The IT department doesn’t need to ask what is a VPN because it’s one of the primary security measures used to protect sensitive company data. However, not all companies have dedicated support for computers and internet connectivity.

If you’re running a business and still on the fence about using a VPN service, this section could convince you to use one.

Security

Small and medium-sized companies are not always keen on investing in cyber security. This is why they are the usual targets of hackers and are more exposed to data breaches.

Subscribing to a virtual private network service is a low-cost solution to these potential security issues. You don’t need the assistance of an IT expert to utilize its features because service providers usually make their apps more intuitive and simple.

Once the VPN is fully integrated into the devices used in the business, data won’t be visible to the ISP, hackers, and even the VPN company. Tracking online activity will be significantly difficult, even for professional hackers.

For instance, let’s say you’re running a gym, and the information of members is saved on an online platform. Someone wants to obtain specific information such as name, membership status, locker number, and other info by hacking. A VPN will ensure they won’t gain access easily because your online activity is encrypted.

Most, if not all, hackers require an IP address to do their thing. Since a VPN hides your IP address, hijacking your device is essentially impossible.

Remote Access

Without a remote access VPN, office employees are limited to working within the company’s premises. Thanks to the global availability of the internet, it’s possible to do office work remotely from almost any place in the world.

Having a VPN allows you and other authorized users can safely access information from anywhere with an internet connection. They’ll have access to the resources they need to perform the tasks even if they use a residential connection or public WiFi.

It can potentially boost a company’s productivity by offering remote access without worrying about data security. Due to the recent Covid-19 pandemic, this benefit has become more relevant than ever.

If your employees are visiting or residing in countries with strict internet laws, you may encounter a situation where they cannot access corporate resources. Given your VPN subscription works in such places, your staff will be able to access the internet without restrictions.

Access Control

Determining and controlling who has access to your network and files is critical, regardless of the size of your business.

Employees can experience limited access, which can affect their productivity. Unauthorized users steal sensitive data.

A VPN service can provide your business access control by authenticating and authorizing users. Once configured to your system, the VPN will evaluate those attempting to connect to your network.

Implementing permissions and access levels makes it less likely to have security issues with remote workers.

Recreational

The benefits listed above are undoubtedly crucial for businesses. Yet, you may ask, “If I only use the internet for watching streaming services, gaming, and social media, why should I use VPN?

The previous sections have already mentioned a couple of benefits but here is slightly more defined and explained in detail.

Data Privacy

Most would answer data privacy when it comes to the inquiry of what is a virtual private network’s most essential benefit.

Do you know that your ISP can access and track all internet activity for anyone connected to it? This includes what websites you’re browsing, the times you access them, and how you interact with the pages.

While this fact may appear harmless at a glance, it could bring you inconveniences at the very least. In worse cases, your private data can be stolen.

To better understand how serious internet privacy can be, imagine someone can view your activities, even in real-time. All of it is saved somewhere, and you have no control over who has access.

Your browser’s incognito mode can only do so much to protect your privacy. At any point, your data, like browsing history, are accessible to third parties. They could target you with ads based on how you behave online, which can be cumbersome.

By using a VPN service, your IP address is well hidden from your ISP and pretty much everyone. Once it is up and running, they won’t have the capacity to record and collect your data.

This also works when using public WiFi, which is more vulnerable to security breaches than a residential internet connection.

ISPs having access to your IP address are not the only threat to data privacy. Your apps also pose a potential risk.

Every app that has location services can track your real-time whereabouts. Facebook and Google use your smartphone’s GPS to pinpoint your location. In the wrong hands, you can be in a world of trouble even if you’re not doing anything illegal.

Data Encryption

Companies and individuals can utilize their VPN services to encrypt private data. Once the hackers successfully intercept the communications coming to and from your device, you’re at their mercy. If they have your data, accessing your social media accounts, credit card information, and email inbox are possible.

You can experience high-level security via encryption with a reliable VPN service. Even when someone intercepts your data, all they would get is unusable text and characters.

Access To Region-locked Content

Are you aware that Netflix subscribers in the UK and Ireland can’t stream Shawshank Redemption? This is one example of how content restrictions limit the availability of shows you can view legally.

Unfortunately, the streaming giant can’t provide all its titles to subscribers worldwide due to licensing issues. Netflix is not the only mainstream platform that adheres to it, as YouTube also imposes geo-blocking on specific videos.

Once you’re using a VPN to access the internet, you’re able to spoof your location based on the available server it shows. Your apps will identify your selected area and display the content meant for that location. This means that you can essentially access any geo-locked videos or other media with the help of a VPN.

The location-spoofing feature is not limited to streaming. For instance, you can also utilize it for installing country-exclusive apps like Disney Plus and HBO Max. Another benefit is getting discounts on certain items or services only offered to specific areas.

When it comes to what does a VPN do for average users, this benefit is probably the most appealing.

Avoid Data Throttling

Are you experiencing incredibly slow internet speed just before the month ends regularly? No, it’s not because your ISP is doing some issues with its operations or due to routine maintenance tasks. More often than not, it’s because of data throttling your provider has set.

Data throttling happens once you exceed your data cap, and your ISP limits your internet experience by slowing down its service. This situation can be an ordeal, especially if you’re using a lot of data regularly.

Watching high-resolution videos regularly or downloading large files can take a toll on your data allowance. Most smartphones are equipped with data usage monitoring, but most of us are not enthusiastic about checking it often.

According to Highspeedinternet.com, most internet service providers don’t impose a data cap for DSL and Fiber connections. On the other hand, ISPs usually set a mobile data cap for their subscribers.

If you’re using a VPN, you may be able to bypass the data cap of your plan because your ISP cannot monitor the data you’re consuming. This can be extremely useful if you’re under a data plan and use apps that require lots of data consistently.

drawbacks of using a vpn

Drawbacks of Using a VPN

VPNs are primarily developed for the security and privacy of online data. The previous section has enumerated the perks you can enjoy once you’re subscribed to a service. That said, VPNs don’t come without disadvantages.

Slower Internet Speed

Since a VPN is a connection that operates within a physical network, latency is almost guaranteed. Processes like encryption and establishing a secure tunnel will consume some bandwidth, which will affect your internet speed.

In simpler terms, the internet resources required by VPNs to function can compromise your connection speed.

However, average internet users might not even notice a difference. The decrease could be noticeable if your activity requires a lot of bandwidth or necessitates a speedier connection.

Playing MMO is the most common example, as these games rely on fast internet speeds.

Complex Installation

Connecting to the internet can be as straightforward as selecting WiFi or plugging a LAN cable into your desktop. Installing and using a VPN is a bit more complicated than that.

Protocols, encryption, and tunnels can be overwhelming for the average internet user because it’s not necessarily intuitive. If your VPN is not configured properly, your device is prone to IP and DNS breaches, making your connection susceptible to hackers and other cybersecurity issues.

In some cases, an improperly-configured VPN is even riskier than not having one. It can attract the attention of intruders because the leak can indicate that you’re using a VPN, which implies that you’re attempting to hide data.

Still, this potential danger and installation concerns are mostly attributed to desktop users. Most VPN mobile apps are designed to be user-friendly, so applying the wrong settings is less likely.

VPN-Blocking Software

For several reasons, governments, companies, and organizations want to discourage the use of VPNs. Since VPNs can bypass censorship and licensing mandates implemented by such entities, it’s a given that they are not fans of this technology.

A good example is schools restricting access to social media and streaming sites for devices connected to their network to lessen the distractions. To ensure that it is properly implemented, their network admins use a VPN-blocking software if the students are subscribed to a VPN service.

Not all VPNs are undetectable to this program, which implies that there are no guarantees that you can use it everywhere.

Stability Issues

Losing connectivity is always possible, regardless of the VPN provider and protocol used. That’s why it’s common for many VPN users to switch servers during their sessions to ensure that the most stable connection is implemented.

Once your VPN is inactive, you might face a more serious issue than loss of internet access. Your IP address and online activity will be available to your network administrator and ISP. They can monitor what websites you are browsing once your VPN connection drops.

The Rise of the VPN Industry

Before the 2000s, very few would ask “What is a virtual private network?” because it’s not as relevant as it is today.

VPNs have been in existence since 1996 when Microsoft employees developed the PPTP. Back then, virtual private networks were relevant only for companies that used the internet to store, send, and receive data.

However, when the general public viewed the internet as necessary, VPNs soon found their way into the general consumer market.

Nowadays, more and more internet users have become aware of the importance of internet security and online freedom. As a result, the demand for VPN services is on an upward trend and will probably stay that way for years to come.

Graph created by Statista in March 2022.
Graph created by Statista in March 2022.

The VPN global market in 2019 has a value of about $25 billion. By 2027, various websites expect that it will reach more than $75 billion.

A study estimated that in the US, about 85% are aware of what is a VPN compared to 72% the previous year. This suggests that the VPN industry is going to experience steady growth in the foreseeable future.

VPN to Protect Your Sensitive Data

Browsing the web or sending sensitive information over an unencrypted network makes you vulnerable to data breaches and hackers. Using a VPN is the most practical and economical solution to address these potential issues.

A reliable VPN service often comes at a fee, but it’s an afterthought if you consider how much you can lose if your sensitive data is stolen.

VPN FAQs

1. How many internet users are using VPNs?

According to several accounts, approximately 31% of internet users worldwide use VPNs. Hence, the market for VPNs is not in danger of saturation anytime soon because there is still a world of potential in terms of growth.

2. Do VPNs protect you from hacking completely?

Using a VPN is still the most efficient method to safeguard online data. The encryption algorithm makes it significantly challenging or impossible for attackers to steal or intercept communications.

Still, regardless of how effectively the VPN is developed or managed, it is vulnerable to hackers in the same way any other digital service is. Even if a VPN uses the strongest level of encryption, a highly-skilled cybercriminal can still access your data via other means.

If your device has spyware or malware running in the background, there is nothing a VPN can do to protect your data from getting stolen. Also, it won’t prevent you from being a victim of phishing.

3. What is the difference between a VPN and a proxy?

VPNs and proxies provide online privacy that allows you to browse the internet anonymously by masking your IP address. A proxy server can hide IP and location spoofing, which some users utilize for accessing geo-restricted material.

On the hand, a VPN client builds a secure connection within a private server. Unlike proxy servers that do little to secure your data, VPN connections utilize encryption to protect your sensitive online information.

3. Are free VPNs worth it?

Most free VPNs have limitations, like unstable connections or throttled network speeds. They may have unreliable security protocols that can put your data at risk. Most of them establish the connection via PPTP, which isn’t very secure.

Stability, speed, and security are the features you will compromise if you opt for free VPNs.

4. Is it legal to use a VPN?

There are no legal ramifications about using a VPN in North America and most Western countries. However, VPNs are associated with illegal activities because criminals and radical individuals use them to hide their identities.

In less democratic nations like China and Cuba, there are reports that people got in trouble with authorities because they used a VPN.

5. What does a VPN do for gaming?

Using a VPN while gaming may benefit you in a variety of ways, including allowing access to multiple servers, reduced lag, and even protection from DDoS attacks.

However, if you prioritize speed over these advantages, you might be better off if your VPN service is inactive.

6. How to choose the best VPN server location?

There’s no single answer when choosing the best server because it is dependent on what you prioritize.

Privacy

Any reputable VPN service will usually provide you with more than enough privacy. If you want to be slightly more particular about anonymity, pick a server that utilizes a secure and up-to-date protocol like IKEv2/IPSec or OpenVPN.

Speed

Choosing the VPN server location could be the difference between losing just 2-5 Mbps or 20-50 Mbps internet speed.

If speed is your primary concern, consider connecting to a VPN server closer to your real location. For example, if you’re located in Canada, connecting to a US server is advisable than a UK one.

Region-locked Content

This is self-explanatory because it depends on where the content is available. For example, connecting to US or Puerto Rico servers is recommended if you want to install and stream Hulu.

7. How much is the average cost of a VPN?

The average monthly charge of VPNs is about $10-$13. Most VPN service providers offer discounts for new customers, especially if you opt to subscribe longer.

Some companies offer a monthly fee of $3 per month if you avail of their multi-year plan.

8. What are the most popular VPN service providers?

There are a plethora of VPN companies to choose from. Choosing the best one can be challenging since multiple reputable review sites have different parameters for evaluating their features.

Still, SurfShark, ExpressVPN, and NordVPN continue to be among the most recommended VPN providers for some time. Check out their websites to learn about their features, plans, and support before choosing.

Here is a table to help you compare the features of these three popular VPN service providers:

Price as of April 2022 (image by HPD)

Uday Tank is a serial entrepreneur and content marketing leader. He has a wide variety of interests and enjoys writing, including marketing, productivity, business, health, diversity, and management.