The topic of VPNs or Virtual Private Networks has become far more popular in recent years as concerns over Internet and network security have grown. Most people are only tangentially familiar with what a VPN is and what it does. For most, it is an item on the list of check boxes that describe good network security for the average business or casual web user. Beyond that, technical details and specifics are sometimes hard to come by.

If you are considering using a VPN to improve your safety and security online, and especially if you have plans to use a VPN to help secure your business, here are some things you should consider.

What is a Virtual Private Network?

By and large, all Internet traffic is routed through something at your end of the network called a “gateway.” This is either a router or a computer configured to accept connections from client machines like your computer, and send your requests out to other domains and addresses. When responses come back, they are collected by your gateway and delivered to your computer.

A Virtual Network replaces your gateway with a substitute machine provided by your VPN hosting company. The new gateway not only routes your requests, but encrypts the connection between your machine and your VPN gateway machine, which is sometimes called a “proxy.”

The other machines on the Internet and your ISP route traffic normally. Your ISP only sees a stream of encrypted data, however, because you are making a direct connection to your Virtual Network before connecting to other sites. The rest of the network operates like it always does, but all the other machines only know they are communicating with your VPN gateway. Your machine’s actual address is often concealed by the gateway.

Why is a VPN Useful?

The best example of how a VPN can improve security is if you use your computer at a wireless hotspot. Any connection you make to a public Internet hotspot is technically almost the same as the wired connection you make at home. The wireless access point is your connection, which routes to a gateway which routes to the rest of the Internet. Sounds simple enough, right?

The problem is any traffic sent from your machine to the hotspot is clear text. It can be intercepted and read by anyone who receives the radio signals being sent from your computer to the wireless hotspot. The same is true of your mobile phone. Both devices are sending and receiving data through radio signals which are like any other radio. They broadcast in all directions as far as they can. Some wi-fi signals can travel more than 100 yards and still be detectable. Look around the next time you visit a coffee shop and see who is within 100 yards.

If you are using a VPN on a host like, on the other hand, any network traffic to or from your computer is encrypted until it gets to your VPN gateway, or is returned from the gateway. That means all the radio signals sent from or received by your computer are scrambled. Even if they are intercepted, they are useless to the eavesdropper because without the encryption key they are digital jibberish.

How Should I Decide Which VPN to Use?

The two key features that matter most are network speed and client quality. VPN technology is well understood at this point, and is supported on every major retail operating system, so configuring your network should be as easy as connecting to a hotspot. After that, your network speed is what counts. Be sure to pick a host that has a server geographically close to you. It makes no sense to pay for a fast connection if all your packets have to be routed around the world twice.

If you travel a lot and connect to many different networks, a VPN is a very good choice, especially if you use sensitive sites like bank, business networking or e-mail. Choose a host with a quality client and good network speeds and you’ll be that much closer to a secure network.

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