We are going to explain what a VPN connection is, what it is for and what advantages they have. VPN connections are by no means a new invention, but it is now that they are starting to gain traction among the general public. While traditionally its use was more common in the business environment, the great versatility of this type of connection and its multiple uses make it increasingly popular.
Precisely that versatility we were talking about is the same one that creates some confusion about what exactly these VPNs are, since more and more VPN connections are related to “evil” (with big quotes), as some of their applications include the jump of geoblocks, greater anonymity on the Net or even the blocking of advertising.
What is a VPN
Let’s start with the basics. VPN is the acronym for Virtual Private Network, or virtual private network that, unlike other more cryptic computer words such as DNS or HTTP, does give us quite precise clues about what they consist of.
The keyword here is virtual, since it is this property that generates the need for the VPN itself, as well as the one that allows VPN connections to offer you the multiple uses that we will see later.
To connect to the Internet, your mobile, PC, television and other devices generally communicate with the router or modem that connects your home with your Internet provider, either by cable or wirelessly. The components are different if you are using the data connection of your mobile (which includes its own modem and talks to the telephone antenna) but the essence is the same: your device connects to another, which connects you to the Internet.
The most normal thing is that you do not have one, but several devices connected to the same router: mobile phones, computers, consoles… In this case, each one will have a local IP address assigned, which is not visible from the Internet. This is a local network, a set of devices connected in such a way that they can share files and printers without having to go through the Internet.
A VPN connection allows you to create a local network without the need for its members to be physically connected to each other, but through the Internet. It is the “virtual” component that we talked about earlier. You get the advantages of the local network (and some extras), with greater flexibility, since the connection is through the Internet and can, for example, be from one end of the world to the other.
However, it is another peculiarity of VPN connections that is making them so fashionable today: data tunnels. Normally, while you are using the Internet, your device contacts your Internet provider, which is the one that connects with the different web services to offer you, for example, YouTube videos.
When you connect to a VPN connection, this changes. All your network traffic continues to go from your device to your Internet provider, but from there it goes directly to the VPN server, from where it will depart to the destination. Ideally the connection is encrypted, so your ISP doesn’t really know what you are accessing. For practical purposes, your IP address is that of the VPN server: in many ways it is as if you were physically there, connecting to the Internet.
What are VPN connections for?
Surely with the previous explanations you have already imagined a few situations in which VPN connections could be useful. It is an open secret that they are especially important in the corporate environment, but their uses do not end there. These are the main uses of VPN connections.
The most obvious use of a VPN connection is interconnectivity in networks that are not physically connected, such as workers who are currently out of the office or companies with branches in several cities that need to access a single private network.
From a security point of view, allowing indiscriminate access to a company’s own network from the Internet is nothing short of insane. Even if the access is password protected, it could be captured on a public WiFi hotspot or spotted by a malicious observer.
On the contrary, the risk decreases if the worker and the company connect through a VPN connection. Access is protected, the connection is predictably encrypted and the worker has the same access as if he were there in person.
2. Avoid censorship and geoblocks of content
With the heyday of the Internet and the picaresque of both content providers and users, other more playful uses of VPN connections have become popular, many of them related to a very simple concept: falsifying where you are.
When you connect with VPN, your device communicates with the VPN server, and it is this one that talks to the Internet. If you are in China and the VPN server is in the United States, generally the web servers will believe that you are browsing from this country, allowing you to access the content available only there, such as Netflix.
Similarly, this same logic can be used to access content that was censored or blocked in your country, but not where the VPN server is located. This is how millions of Chinese citizens manage to connect to Facebook and 3,000 other blocked websites in the country.
3. Extra layer of security
Although it is not strictly necessary, it is common for VPN connections to come accompanied by an encryption of the packets that are transmitted with them, so it is normal to hear the recommendation that, if you need to connect to a public Wi-Fi access point , at least you use you connect with a VPN.
Logging into your bank accounts while connected to a public Wi-Fi network you don’t trust is probably not the best idea in the world, as it is relatively easy for a thief to capture unencrypted packets and take over your user accounts. This is where the extra layer of security that you can get through a VPN connection comes in, since the packets would be sent encrypted, so that whoever is listening probably couldn’t do anything with them.
However, there is fine print in this, because while you are distrusting the public Wi-Fi network, you are putting all your faith in the VPN server, which can also capture all your traffic, keep logs of what you do or even sell your bandwidth to the highest bidder. A VPN is only as safe and useful as its provider. If you don’t trust your VPN, don’t use it, because instead of having an additional layer of security, you will have the enemy at home and watching absolutely everything you do on the Internet.
4. P2P downloads
Another common use of VPN connections is in P2P downloads, which in these times is generally synonymous with downloading from BitTorrent. Before you put an eye patch on me, a peg leg and force me to go through the keel, VPN connections also have uses in P2P downloading even if you download completely legal torrents.
Unfortunately, it is increasingly common for Internet providers to decide to put their noses in how we send and receive zeros and ones on the Internet, and although they love that we visit normal web pages, that we download they are not so funny: too much traffic, and also you are probably downloading something illegal.
Some providers completely block P2P downloads, while others simply boycott it to malfunction and give you up on your own. Just as you can use a VPN connection to avoid censorship in your country, you can also sometimes prevent your Internet provider from boycotting your P2P downloads.
Advantages of VPN connections
Now that we know what a VPN connection is and what it is for, it is time to summarize a list of the advantages and disadvantages of using this technology. First, the positive part:
- It works in all applications, as it routes all Internet traffic, unlike proxy servers, which you can only use in the web browser and a handful of other applications that let you configure advanced connection options.
- It connects and disconnects easily. Once configured, you can activate and deactivate the connection at will.
- Additional security in WiFi access points, as long as the connection is encrypted, of course
- False of your location, as we have already seen in the previous section, a VPN connection is an effective way to avoid censorship or access content limited to a certain region.
- Your Internet provider cannot know what you do on the Internet. Don’t you want your Internet provider to know that you spend hours watching kitten videos on YouTube? With a VPN, they won’t know what you do, but beware, the company that manages the VPN will.
Things to keep in mind
So far all very nice, using VPN connections seems to be full of advantages: more security, improved privacy, bypassing geoblocks… Before you start buying a VPN service or signing up for a free one, there are a few sections that you should keep in mind:
- The price . Although there are free VPN services, obviously you cannot expect much from them, as they will often be very limited, very slow or not very reliable. There are some exceptions, however.
- Speed suffers. The difference between connecting to the Internet directly or having your data plotted a route across half the world can be overwhelming. If your VPN server is too far away, you will experience a lot of latency when browsing the web. In addition to latency, it is normal that the maximum download and upload speed are limited.
- Your security is not foolproof. We have already said this several times, but it never hurts to repeat it. Just because the connection icon has a lock does not mean that the connection is secure, especially if we are talking about VPN connections based on the PPTP protocol.
- They can’t always fake your location. Especially on mobile, there are more and more technologies by which you can triangulate and approximate your location beyond your IP address.
- They do not provide you anonymity. Using a VPN does not mean that your browsing is anonymous. The winning combination for greater anonymity, if we listen to Edward Snowden, is to use both a VPN connection and Tor.
Use third-party VPN… or create your own server
The normal and quickest way to start savoring the benefits of VPN connections is to register with one of the many companies that offer VPN services. You pay a monthly free that can range from a couple of euros to more than 10$ and you get the credentials to log into their service and often an official VPN client of your own that makes things much easier for you.
However, if you want total and absolute control of your connection or do not trust anyone, you can follow the philosophy of “if you want something well done, you must do it yourself.” The problem with this is that it is rare that you have access to a PC in another country with which you can enjoy some of the advantages that we mentioned before (avoid censorship, geo-blocks).
There are some exceptions, such as world joggers who travel frequently and by installing a VPN on their PC at home find they can continue to access their files wherever they are, also enjoying services that were only available in their country, such as Netflix. or Spotify.
If you want to create your own VPN server, whether it is on your Windows PC or on a remote server under your control, OpenVPN is probably your best option. You can download it from here, although you are warned in advance that installing a VPN server is not as simple as clicking Next – Next – Next.
How to connect to a VPN server and where to configure it
Today every operating system in its more or less current version allows you to connect to a VPN connection without installing anything additional. All you need is the login details of the VPN provider (or your company, if applicable), such as the server address, the type of VPN, and your user credentials.
In Windows it is possible to connect with a VPN network without installing anything additional from there by Windows XP, but the support for the different types of encryption is more basic the older your version of Windows is.
To connect to a VPN in Windows 7, follow these steps:
- Open the Network and Sharing Center
- Press Create a new connection.
- Choose Connect to a network
- Fill in the server information, VPN type and your user credentials
In Windows 10 you can also use the following mode with the Modern Interface:
- Open the PC options
- Go to Network and Internet
- Open the VPN section
- Press Add a VPN connection
- Fill in the server information, VPN type and user credentials
Support for VPN connections could not be absent on Mac OSX. To connect to a VPN connection on your Mac, follow these steps:
- Open System Preferences and click Network
- Press Add (+) at the bottom of the list of network services
- Select VPN from the Interface drop-down menu
- Fill in the rest of the settings such as connection type and authentication settings
To connect to a VPN server from Linux you will need to have the network-manager-vpnc package installed , which is not installed by default in Ubuntu, for example. To install it you can use the specific software manager of your distribution or the command line:
$ sudo apt-get install network-manager-vpnc
Then follow these steps:
- In Ubuntu, click on the network icon (the two arrows) in the top bar
- Choose VPN Connections – Configure VPN from the drop-down menu
- Hit add (or import, if you have a configuration file)
- Follow the instructions on the screen to fill in the rest of the information such as the type of encryption and your user credentials.
Android also has its own VPN client, although the way to access it may vary slightly depending on the version of Android you have installed and the menu modifications made by your manufacturer. Generally, you will find it here:
- Go to Settings
- Open the section of Wireless networks, Network connections or similar
- Generally, VPN connections are found in the Other or More Networks section.
- Tap on the VPN section and press the Plus (+) button to create the connection
- Fill in the name, VPN type, server address and encryption
On iOS, the process is somewhat easier. To connect to a VPN server from your iPhone or iPad, follow these steps:
- Open Settings
- Go to the General section
- Scroll until you reach the VPN section
- Tap Add VPN settings
- Choose the tab of the type of VPN of your server, and fill in the data of the server and username