What a VPN Can Do for You

VPN Login Concept
DigitalVision Vectors / Getty Images

A virtual private network supplies network connectivity over a potentially long physical distance. In this respect, a VPN is a form of Wide Area Network. VPNs support file sharing, video conferencing and similar network services.

A VPN can work over both public networks like the Internet and private business networks. Using a method called tunneling, a VPN runs over the same hardware infrastructure as existing Internet or intranet links. VPN technologies include various security mechanisms to protect these virtual connections.

Virtual private networks generally don't provide any new functionality that isn't already offered through alternative mechanisms, but a VPN implements those services more efficiently and cheaply in most cases. Specifically, a VPN supports at least three different modes of use:

  • Internet remote access client connections
  • LAN-to-LAN inter-networking
  • Controlled access within an intranet

Internet VPNs for Remote Access

In recent years, many organizations have increased the mobility of their workers by allowing more employees to telecommute. Employees also continue to travel and face a growing need to stay connected to their company networks.

A VPN supports remote, protected access to the corporate home offices over the Internet. An Internet VPN solution uses a client/server design and works as follows:

  1. A remote host (client) intending to log into the company network first connects to any public Internet connection.

  2. Next, the client initiates a VPN connection to the company VPN server. This connection is made using a VPN application installed on the remote computer.

  3. After the connection has been established, the remote client can communicate with the internal company systems over the Internet just as if it were inside the local network.

Before VPNs, remote workers accessed company networks over private leased lines or through dialup remote access servers. While VPN clients and servers require the installation of hardware and software, an Internet VPN is a superior solution in many situations.

VPNs for Personal Online Security

Several vendors offer subscription service to virtual private networks. When you subscribe, you'll get access to their VPN service, which you can use on your laptop, PC or smartphone. The VPN's connection is encrypted, meaning people on the same Wi-Fi network (like at a coffee shop) cannot "sniff" your traffic and intercept information like your social media accounts or banking information.

VPNs for Internetworking

Besides using virtual private networks for remote access, a VPN can also bridge two networks together. In this mode of operation, an entire remote network (rather than just a single remote client) can join a different company network to form an extended intranet. This solution uses a VPN server-to-server connection.

Intranet Local Network VPNs

Internal networks may also use VPN technology to implement controlled access to individual subnets within a private network. In this mode of operation, VPN clients connect to a VPN server that acts as the network gateway.

This type of VPN use does not involve an Internet Service Provider or public network cabling. However, it allows the security benefits of a VPN to be deployed inside an organization. This approach has become especially popular as a way for businesses to protect their Wi-Fi local networks.