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Jim Markus | 15 Nov, 2023

What Is A VPN: Full Guide and Examples

In this article, we answer the question, what is a VPN? Whether you’re an aspiring network professional that’s curious about this networking technology or a security-conscious internet user that’s looking for more protection online, you’ve likely been asking yourself, what is a VPN?

In 2024, a Virtual Private Network, more commonly known as a VPN, has become a staple for many internet users worldwide, offering a simple and seamless way to gain data protection, geolocation privacy, and more. But what is a VPN? And why have they become so essential?

Let’s dive in to answer these questions!

The Basics: What is a VPN?

So, what is a VPN? The answer to this question depends on the context, and by that, we mean whether you’re an aspiring network professional that’s preparing for networking interview questions or an internet user that’s interested in greater security.

To keep things fair, let’s handle both scenarios, starting with internet users. In this context, a VPN, or Virtual Private Network, is a technology that allows you to establish a secure and encrypted connection over the internet. 

This means that rather than directly connecting to websites or services, your connection is routed through a remote server that your VPN provider operates. This process encrypts your data, masks your IP address, and enhances overall online security and privacy. 

One of the best analogies is to think of a VPN as a secure tunnel between your device and the digital world, safeguarding your sensitive information from potential threats.

Let’s now re-answer the question from the point of view of a network or cybersecurity professional.

A VPN is a technology that enables us to create a secure and encrypted connection between at least two devices or networks over an untrusted or public network, such as the Internet. 

This means that a VPN enables us to establish a virtualized communication channel to emulate the characteristics of a private network regardless of the physical separation and potential insecurity of the underlying medium. VPNs can also form part of a Zero Trust Architecture when implementing this modern security model.

And when we refer to VPNs in a computer networking setting, the use cases extend beyond browsing the internet, as VPNs can be used to establish secure remote connections to a company network or to secure VOIP communications. These are the types of details you need to know when handling technical interview questions.

So overall, two very similar answers, but with different levels of technical complexity. Let’s now take a look at how a VPN connection actually works.

How Does A VPN Connection Work?

How Does A VPN Work?

A VPN functions as a bridge between your device and the broader internet, providing multiple layers of security and anonymity. But how does this system operate in a detailed manner?

  • Initiating the Connection: When you decide to activate your VPN service, your device establishes a connection to the VPN server of your choice. This server can be anywhere in the world, depending on the locations your VPN service provides.
  • Secure Tunnel Creation: Once a connection is initiated, the VPN establishes a secure, encrypted "tunnel" between your device and the server. This tunnel ensures that data passing through remains confidential, almost like sending a message with a sealed envelope rather than on the front of a postcard.
  • Data Encryption: As your data travels through the tunnel, the VPN software encrypts it. Encryption converts your data into complex code. And even if someone grabs your data in transit, they won’t be able to decipher it without the encryption key. This is a fundamental cybersecurity practice.
  • IP Address Masking: Your IP address reveals your general location and can be used to track your online activities. The VPN server replaces your true IP address with its own, making it seem like your online activity is coming from the location of the VPN server rather than your actual location.
  • Internet Browsing: As you access websites and services, your encrypted requests are sent to the destination through the VPN server. This not only hides your IP but also ensures your online activities remain private.
  • Decryption of Incoming Data: The data you retrieve from the internet (like a webpage) is sent back to the VPN server, gets encrypted, and then relayed back to your device. Your VPN client then decrypts this data so you can view it in its original form.
  • Terminating the Connection: Once you're done with your online session, or if you disconnect from the VPN service, the secure tunnel is terminated. Your device then returns to its regular mode of connecting to the internet.

What Is Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol (SSTP)?

SSTP is like a secret handshake developed by Microsoft to help computers connect over the internet securely, even if there are digital "bouncers" trying to block them. Think of it as a private chat room for your computer where it can talk to other computers without anyone eavesdropping.

It's a favorite for many Windows users because it's built right into the system. Cool, right?

What Is Internet Protocol Security (IPSec)?

If SSTP is your secret handshake, IPSec is your digital bodyguard when your data travels on the internet. It was created to make sure that when two devices chat with each other, their conversation stays private, and no sneaky eavesdroppers can understand it.

Securing Your Device With a VPN

It's not just for computers; even phones and other gadgets use it for a secure connection. Basically, it's one of the good guys, making sure our online talks don't leak private information.

The beauty of a VPN lies in its simplicity for the end-user. While the underlying mechanisms involve intricate processes of encryption and routing, for users, it's often as simple as clicking a "connect" button.

Why Should You Use A VPN Service?

Here are a few of the benefits of using a VPN. Note that this goes well beyond privacy and security (though those factors are important too). If you're looking for a VPN app, we recommend NordVPN. We use this ourselves, and it remains a trusted option for users around the world.

Of course, some browsers also have VPNs built in. You may want to try Opera, for example. Brave also has a built-in VPN. These built-in features negate the need for a third-party service. Let me show you why people use a VPN.

Enhanced Online Security:

  • Encryption: At its core, a VPN’s main goal is to encrypt your sensitive and personal data so that it’s unreadable to anyone else, including would-be hackers, government entities, or even your service provider (ISP).
  • Secure Public Wi-Fi Use: Public networks (think your local coffee shop, a hotel, or an airport), are often open and unsecure, making them prime targets for cybercriminals. A VPN service ensures your data is encrypted and secure, even on these risky networks.

Improved Online Privacy:

  • Concealed IP Address: A VPN connection masks your original IP address, making it difficult for websites, advertisers, or malicious actors to track your online movements. That's all thanks to a remote connection with different IP addresses. A VPN server doesn't show everything to your internet service provider.
  • Protects Private Data on Public Wi-Fi Networks: With these features, a VPN hides your browsing activity from the Wi-Fi provider.
  • Browsing History Confidentiality: ISPs typically have the capability to monitor and log your online activities. A VPN provider prevents your ISP from seeing and recording the websites you visit by using its own IP addresses instead of an uncloaked version.

Bypassing Geo-Restrictions:

  • Accessing International Content: Many services, like streaming platforms, offer different content based on geographical location. With a remote access VPN, you can connect to servers in other countries, accessing content typically restricted in your region.
  • Traveling Without Digital Borders: If you're traveling to a country where certain sites or services are blocked, a VPN allows you to continue accessing your favorite content as if you were at home.

Circumventing Censorship:

  • Some countries heavily censor their internet, restricting access to certain websites or platforms. A VPN provider can help individuals bypass these restrictions, ensuring freedom of information access.
  • A VPN encrypts your internet usage patterns, hiding what you're doing in the most basic way.

Reduced Online Tracking & Personalized Ads:

  • Advertisers and websites often use tracking cookies to create a profile based on your online behavior. By hiding your IP address and encrypting your online activities, a VPN connection makes it more challenging for advertisers to target you with personalized ads.

Better Deals and Discounts:

  • Prices for products and services, especially flight tickets and hotels, can vary based on your location. By switching your virtual location using a VPN, you might uncover better deals.

Secure Data Transmission for Remote Workers:

  • Many businesses use a VPN connection to ensure that remote employees can securely access company networks and transmit sensitive data safely.

Enhanced Online Gaming:

  • Some gamers use VPN connections to access games released earlier in different regions, protect themselves from DDoS attacks, or find multiplayer matches in specific locations.

Safe Peer-to-Peer Sharing:

  • While not all VPN providers support P2P sharing, those that do offer a secure environment for activities like torrenting, ensuring users remain anonymous and protected from potential legal repercussions.

Selecting The Ideal VPN For Your Needs

Ok, so you understand the VPN basics. You also know the benefits. So how do you choose a VPN app? If you're not sure where to begin, you might want to start by considering whether it's legal to use a VPN in your country.

Assuming you're good to go in the area, let’s take a look at the most important considerations, including remote access, cybersecurity, and what to look for with a free VPN.

Strong Security Protocols and Robust Encryption:

  • Why it Matters: The primary purpose of a VPN connection is to protect your online data. This protection is primarily achieved through security protocols and encryption methods.
  • Details: VPNs offer various security protocols like OpenVPN, L2TP/IPsec, and IKEv2/IPsec, with OpenVPN often lauded for its balance between speed and security. Encryption, on the other hand, refers to how your data is scrambled to keep it private. 256-bit AES encryption is the gold standard, making your data virtually impenetrable.

Strict No-Logs Policy:

  • Why it Matters: A VPN's commitment to not storing logs ensures that your online activities aren't documented. Even if the VPN provider is subpoenaed or hacked, there's no data to surrender.
  • Details: Some VPNs might store minimal connection logs temporarily, but it's crucial to verify that these logs don't include identifiable information or your online activity details.

Vast Server Network:

  • Why it Matters: A larger server network means more locations to choose from, often resulting in better speeds and the ability to bypass geo-restrictions effectively.
  • Details: Having VPN servers in diverse global locations allows users to access content from those regions and can ensure a smoother, faster connection as you can pick a server closer to your physical location or desired content source.

User-Friendly Interfaces and Efficient Customer Support:

  • Why it Matters: The best technology can become cumbersome if it's not user-friendly. If any issues arise, responsive customer support is invaluable.
  • Details: A straightforward interface ensures users, even those not tech-savvy, can easily connect to servers, change settings, and understand their VPN's features. Top-tier VPNs often provide 24/7 customer support through chat or email, ensuring timely assistance.

Fast Connection Speeds:

  • Why it Matters: While a VPN can slow down your connection slightly due to encryption processes, a good VPN minimizes this lag.
  • Details: Factors like server location, server load, and the VPN's infrastructure can influence speeds. It's beneficial to have multiple server options to ensure an optimal connection.

A Word Of Caution On Free VPNs

  • Why it Matters: As the saying goes, "If you're not paying for it, YOU are the product." Free VPNs may have limitations and could potentially compromise your privacy. You wouldn't use public Wi-Fi without protection, right? So think twice before trusting a free VPN with your online identity.
  • Details: Many free VPNs monetize by injecting ads into your browsing experience. Some have been known to log user data and sell it to third parties. Furthermore, free VPNs might offer fewer servers, resulting in slower speeds, or might not provide the same level of security protocols and encryption.

Note that a free VPN may initially seem appealing, but the security considerations may outweigh the initial cost benefits. Plus, some of the best features can be found elsewhere. A remote access VPN doesn't need to expose you to additional ads, and many have low annual fees.

Spotlight Virtual Private Network Review: NordVPN

We figured if you're asking, how does a VPN work, you might want to try one out for yourself. Several of the team members behind Hackr.io use NordVPN as our preferred service. As a bonus, we're also affiliated with them. If you sign up for this VPN (even with their discount), we get a bonus at no extra cost to you.

Alright, ready to get your own? Here's what makes NordVPN one of our top choices for VPN providers:

  • Uses the impenetrable Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) with 256-bit keys
  • Offers a variety of protocols like OpenVPN, IKEv2/IPsec, and their adaptation of WireGuard, NordLynx
  • Boasts over 5000 VPN servers across 60 global locations
  • Committed to users' privacy with a thrice-audited no-logs policy
  • 24/7 customer support
  • Has a VPN app for your mobile device
  • Can protect your online identity with a new IP address or by masking your internet connection

Advanced Features of NordVPN:

  • Specialty Servers: Dedicated IP, Onion over VPN, Double VPN, Obfuscated servers, and P2P.
  • Threat Protection: An added layer ensuring safer browsing by blocking malicious websites, ads, and trackers.
  • Meshnet: This VPN feature allows users to connect to other devices from anywhere, acting as encrypted private tunnels for better privacy online.

This VPN service and app have easy online access. You can even find it on Google Play.

With the ever-evolving digital landscape, it's vital to ensure your online activities remain private and secure. A VPN, particularly one as robust as NordVPN, offers a digital fortress to protect and keep your data secure in an unpredictable digital world.

Does A VPN Slow Down Internet Access?

When we access data online, we want a fast internet connection. So it's common to wonder whether a VPN works as quickly as a "direct" connection. So. . . does it?

Well, yeah, sometimes it can.

Think of it like this:

  • Where's the Server?: If the VPN server's nearby, it's like taking a quick trip to the store. But if it's far away, it's like a road trip. The further the server, the slower things might get.
  • Busy Server: If a bunch of folks have a VPN running on the same server, it's like everyone trying to get their coffee at the same time. Things can get a bit sluggish.
  • Encryption Stuff: VPNs work by putting your data in a sort of "secret code." This takes some effort, kinda like translating a message. The fancier the code, the longer the translation.
  • Sneaky ISPs: Sometimes, your internet provider might slow certain things down on purpose. A VPN can be like a disguise, letting you sneak past. So, in some cases, a VPN might actually make things zippier!
  • VPN Lingo: VPNs can speak different "languages" or protocols. Some are faster; some are safer. It's a trade-off.
  • Good vs. Meh VPNs: Think of some VPNs as fancy sports cars and others as clunkers. You often get what you pay for. Both help you stay private or avoid government censorship, but they might take different amounts of time to get where you're going.
  • Old Tech: If you're using an older gadget, it might struggle a bit with the whole VPN thing.

So, while you might notice things being a tad slower with a VPN, for most stuff, it's not a big deal. But if you're trying to watch a show in HD or play a fast-paced game, that's when you might feel it. If it's super slow, maybe try a different server or check out another VPN.

In short, consider the value of secure connections. A VPN might work to protect your real IP address, but it could affect heavy data usage.

Final Thoughts: Decoding The VPN Enigma

In today's interconnected era, understanding digital tools that safeguard our online presence is imperative. So, when faced with the question, "What is a VPN?" we can now answer with confidence: it's our shield in the digital realm.

Suffice to say a VPN, or Virtual Private Network, is not just a tech jargon or a luxury for the tech-savvy. It's a digital lifeline that encrypts our online interactions, protects our personal data, and offers us the freedom to explore the web without boundaries.

Embracing a VPN is a stride towards a more secure, private, and unrestricted internet experience for everyone. This article explained the basics, benefits, and recommendations. We hope you found it helpful!

Are you new to networks but keen to pursue a career in networking? Check Out:

Google’s Networking Course: The Bits and Bytes of Computer Networking

Frequently Asked Questions about VPNs

1. What Is A VPN, And Why Do I Need It?

A virtual private network (VPN) helps you hide your browsing activity, avoid geographical restrictions, and access blocked websites. It does this by cloaking your IP address with a remote server.

2. Do I Really Need A VPN?

Whether or not you need a VPN depends on your tolerance for risk. Smartphone users often rely on a VPN to protect their data when using public Wi-Fi, and companies often protect sensitive information behind a private VPN.

3. Do I Already Have A VPN?

You may already have a VPN service available. Some operating systems recommend them, and some internet browsers include them. You can access a free VPN with the Brave browser, for example.

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By Jim Markus

Jim Markus manages Hackr.io and a portfolio of sites at VentureKite. He hosted Frugal Living, a popular finance podcast, and co-created The Ink & Blood Dueling Society, a theatrical writing event that appeared at conventions across the United States. He is also an award-winning game designer.

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