Explainer: What is a virtual private network (VPN)?

Jun 17, 2013 by Mark A. Gregory
The ways in which we use VPNs have changed. Credit: Stephan Geyer

Have you ever wanted to exist in more than one place at the same time? The laws of physics suggest wormholes through space and time are hypothetical; but wormholes do exist in cyberspace and wonders can be found on the other side.

We call these cyberspace wormholes (VPN) connections.

Point-to-point

A VPN is a point-to-point connection between a VPN client and server, or a site-to-site connection between two VPN servers. In the diagram below the connection between the branch office and headquarters could be a permanent site to site .

Home and mobile users are able to create client on-demand VPN connections to the VPN server at the branch office or the headquarters.

All internet-connected devices have a local public or private internet protocol (IP) address (eg. 192.168.1.20). When connected using a VPN the device gains access to the network at the other end of the VPN and is provided with an IP address on the remote network, even though it is not physically there.

Most devices that connect to the internet today include VPN client software that can be used to create a VPN tunnel from the client computer to the VPN server. Site-to-site VPNs are usually created between firewalls or routers that include VPN server functionality.

The most important thing to know about VPNs is that they provide security and privacy through a combination of the point-to-point tunnelling protocol used and encryption of the information sent over the point-to-point tunnel using, for example, Internet Protocol Security (IPSec), datagram transport layer security or Secure Socket Tunnelling Protocol (SSTP).

Credit: Mark Gregory

Reasons to use

As the internet has evolved so have the ways in which we use VPNs.

A VPN might be used by as a to their office. Students can use VPNs to connect to their school or university.

We can use a VPN to connect to our home network when we're away from home to transfer photos, documents or other items to our home computer or network storage device.

But to understand what makes a VPN special we need to consider how the internet is being used today by business, government and other organisations such as law enforcement or national security agencies.

Multinationals use geo-blocking to segment the world into markets and control access to products and pricing. The Australian government commenced an inquiry into IT pricing in May 2012, and a submission by the Australian consumer advocate Choice in July 2012 highlighted that Australian consumers are paying substantially more for IT hardware, software and digital media such as music and movies.

Business is learning how to identify, gather and track information about us online, and every time we use the internet we leave a trail of data that business collects, analyses and uses for targeted advertising.

Governments and their agencies are also trying – to varying degrees – to identify, track and limit what what we're doing on the internet.

Unblocking geo-blocking

The first problem that a VPN can help solve is how to get around geo-blocking.

If you want to watch a television show that is being broadcast over the internet but is only accessible by viewers in one country you can use a VPN to gain access.

Credit: Mark Gregory

If you want to buy products from a company and find those products cheaper on, say, the company's UK online store you can use a VPN to gain access to the online store.

The diagram below provides a description of how VPNs can be used to connect home and to VPN servers in other countries and be provided with public IP addresses in those countries.

Using a VPN makes it difficult for anyone to identify and track what you do on the internet.

Your traffic is encrypted until it reaches the VPN server at the other end of the VPN tunnel. If the VPN server is in another country it's not possible for your ISP to determine what is passing over the VPN tunnel.

In practice, when you connect to a VPN server in another country your home computer or mobile device will be allocated an IP address in that country, and when you disconnect the IP address would be allocated to the next VPN connection.

VPN servers being used to provide inter-country VPN connections often have large pools of IP addresses that are allocated randomly to VPN connections as they occur.

Many people, possibly thousands, share a pool of IP addresses and only the VPN service provider would know who is connected to each IP address. That said, VPN that offer inter-country VPN services generally do not keep any records of which IP address was allocated to customer VPNs.

For anyone that captures traffic going to and from VPN IP addresses it would appear as a jumble of information that could be attributed to many thousands of people from countries all around the world.

Blocking VPNs

Earlier this month, Iranian authorities blocked the use of VPNs out of Iran. Iranians had been using them to bypass the government's internet filter, which prevents Iranians from accessing websites the government has deemed offensive or criminal – including Facebook, Google Mail and Yahoo.

VPN system developers including Microsoft have been working to develop VPN tunnels that pass through firewalls and internet filters by utilising typically open internet web IP network sockets that use port 80 (HTTP) and port 443 (HTTPS) protocols.

VPN service providers

There are a large number of VPN service providers available today. When choosing one you should consider:

  • whether the service includes VPN end points in one or more countries
  • what protocols are provided
  • the level of security
  • the size of the IP address pool used for VPN connections
  • whether your connection details are logged or deleted immediately after you terminate a VPN
  • whether the VPN system includes anti-malware and anti-spyware protection
  • support for mobile devices
  • reliability and bandwidth
  • price

There are a number of "free" VPN service providers that provide limited services and gain revenue by serving you with advertisements while you're connected to the VPN.

Another option is to set up VPNs to the homes of relatives or friends that live overseas.

The most important benefits of using a VPN are security, privacy and anonymity.

Why don't you use a VPN today?

Explore further: Twitter takes note of other apps on smartphones

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Explainer: What is geoblocking?

Apr 19, 2013

So you sit down in front of your computer to catch the latest episode of Doctor Who directly from BBC's iPlayer, and you are greeted by an error message informing you that the program will play only in the ...

Internet in 'coma' as Iran election looms

May 19, 2013

Iran is tightening control of the Internet ahead of next month's presidential election, mindful of violent street protests that social networkers inspired last time around over claims of fraud, users and ...

Great Firewall 'upgrade' hits China Internet users

Dec 21, 2012

Chinese authorities who have long sought to limit access to information have reinforced the so-called Great Firewall of China, Internet firms say, frustrating businesses and raising activist concerns.

Public Wi-Fi convenient, but risky

Nov 10, 2011

It seems you can surf the Internet and check your email from virtually anywhere these days - in coffee shops, hotel lobbies, airport terminals and airplane cabins.

Iran blocks access to Gmail

Sep 24, 2012

Iran blocked access to Google's popular and relatively secure Gmail service Monday amid first steps by the Islamic republic to establish a walled-off national intranet separate from the worldwide Internet.

Recommended for you

UN moves to strengthen digital privacy (Update)

Nov 25, 2014

The United Nations on Tuesday adopted a resolution on protecting digital privacy that for the first time urged governments to offer redress to citizens targeted by mass surveillance.

Spotify turns up volume as losses fall

Nov 25, 2014

The world's biggest music streaming service, Spotify, announced Tuesday its revenue grew by 74 percent in 2013 while net losses shrank by one third, in a year of spectacular expansion.

Virtual money and user's identity

Nov 25, 2014

Bitcoin is the new money: minted and exchanged on the Internet. Faster and cheaper than a bank, the service is attracting attention from all over the world. But a big question remains: are the transactions ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

johnnash
1 / 5 (1) Jun 17, 2013
Cyber crime increasing day by day, VPN becomes every internet user need. I have been using VPN for almost 6 months now. If you are looking forward a good VPN service then I would suggest that you visit a review webstie like bestvpnservice.com.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.