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What is a VPN?



The initials VPN stand for the term Virtual Private Network. The aim and simple concept of a Virtual Private Network is that it provides users with the ability to access a private network (and therefore individual computers and servers on a private network) from a remote unsecured point outside of that network, without compromising the security of the private network itself.   In effect a VPN creates a tunnel through unsecured networks, which clients can use to access their private network without interference from the rest of the unsecured networks. As VPNs therefore have to transmit private information across unsecured networks such as the world wide web, they need to ensure that the data exchanged across these networks is kept secure by employing a combination of encryption on the data packets and authentication to allow access to only those users with permission. 

 Using these secure data packets VPN services can therefore be used to transmit any kind of data, including voice, media such as video and conventional data. They are also available from any kind of connection including 3G and DSL meaning that VPNs can be established from any device with a connection to the internet.   Consequently the technology is invaluable for people on the move who need to access and store information on a fixed location private network and is, as such, a vital business tool in companies where workers are required to operate away from a central office location. Staff can use VPNs to communicate with their colleagues as well as logging on to their own profiles on their work network to access private files, shared files on the private network, emails and business resources - as if they were physically sat in the office.   The tool has also grown in popularity with users in locations where there are certain restrictions on their freedom to access all content on the internet, such as China. VPNs can be used to establish a private connection to private networks in unrestricted locations so that a user can effectively browse the internet as if they were in that unrestricted location.

  For many VPN clients the preferred solution may be to open an account with a VPN provider rather than simply purchase or acquire of-the-shelf VPN software so that they benefit from the extra services that many VPN providers will supply their clients with. These can include technical support, advanced security protection, malware protection and monitoring software.   In terms of the mechanics of establishing a VPN, they can utilise technology such as Internet Protocol Security (IPSec), SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) and Transport Layer Security (TLS) to encrypt the data packets and establish the secure 'tunnel' through which they pass. SSL VPN (and TLS VPN) are particularly useful when IPSec has problems with IP Address translation. Each end of the tunnel must also be authenticated with the access points able to use either passwords or biometrics to identify the user. Once authenticated, connections can be maintained without the need for further authentication if digital certificates are stored.  

There are various technologies which are explained in more detail elsewhere that can be used in the actual routing of the VPNs such as Multi Label Protocol Switching (MPLS) to build Internet Protocol Virtual Private Networks (IPVPN), but the variety of the technologies means that there are numerous possible solutions for VPN clients whether they want a software based access point, restricted network access and/or mobile access etc.   Virtual Private Networks can therefore be a real necessity to any business, regardless of the scale on which they operate, particularly if they are likely to have staff working away from the office, whether they are on the move of simply working from home. A VPN Provider can ensure that staff are able to work with full benefits of a virtual office whatever their location.

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