The Ultimate Guide To Virtual Private Networks
What is a VPN?
A Virtual Private Network (VPN), put simply, is a piece of software technology that sets up a secure connection on a network you are using, whether a public (the Internet) or private (owned by service provider) network. VPNs have long been used by big corporations, educational establishments and government institutions as a way to allow remote users secure connection to a private network.
A lesser known but nonetheless popular use of VPNs is to have them bridge (connect) many sites covering a large geographic distance, much like Wide Area Networks (WANs) do. VPNs can expand intranets all over the globe, allowing news and information to disseminate to a much larger user base. VPNs are used by educational establishments as a way to connect campuses that can then be distributed throughout a country and even internationally.
To put it very simply and concise - a VPN is a network within the Internet that is secure, private and encrypted.
How Does A VPN Work?
A VPN, or Virtual Private Network, is simply an extension of a private network across a public network, like the Internet. It enables your laptop, home pc, or other internet device to establish a connection to a private network, while benefitting from functionality, security, and management policies of the private network.
Example: Your computer is located in Manhattan, New York but you’d like to establish VPN connection to a network in the London, UK. Your computer will then attempt to establish a connection with the network in the UK. Once the network is established and you’ve been granted access, you will be able to surf the world wide web and the corresponding network as if you were in the same location as the VPN server (London, UK).
History of VPNs
"VPNs" as the majority of the world probably understands them today were actually very different back in their creation. Originally created as a way for big corporations to allow private connections to their intranets remotely across global offices; VPNs were never intended for the end-user. If you wanted to connect to your corporation's network securely and privately from your home or a different office located far from the physical intranet -- then a VPN was your "mode of transport" to do this. Obviously having this connection private and secure was paramount, since most users would be communicating sensitive company data.
This growing need not only for a virtual network to connect a user to their company intranet, but a private virtual network, was the reason that development and improvements for VPNs to satisfy this need grew so fast. Before you knew it, more and more powerful encryption standards were being implemented into VPNs, making them near-impossible to break into.
Development for the end-user
As you can imagine, it was not long until some forward-thinkers saw this company-focused virtualising of a private network and went to work on creating a solution that was flipped, focusing on the end-user primarily. Thus, independent VPN providers came into the market offering this highly advantageous service to end-users.
Serendipitously, as these early end-user-focused VPN providers slowly started emerging, the Internet culture itself was evolving in some unpopular ways, with certain website restrictions being implemented in workplaces and educational institutions (e.g. early social networks and entertainment sites that distracted employees and workers), so the need for user anonymity online became more and more in demand.
And so, the VPN providers of today are now supplying full service solutions for this ever-growing demand for end-user security, privacy and anonymity. The popularity of using a VPN service really exploded as a result of three huge global Internet developments:
- Global spying scandals as famously leaked by WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden.
- National Internet usage restrictions and censorship implemented by eastern countries like China, Russia and the Middle East.
- Popular online media streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Pandora implementing geo-restrictions on their content.
All three of these major international online developments can be combatted and/or bypassed by a user with the use of a VPN provider.
There are multiple protocols, so let's go through each of the most common and compare them against one another...
PPTP has been around since the days of Windows 95.
In short, PPTP tunnels a point-to-point connection over the GRE protocol.
L2TP/IPsec is a way of implementing two protocols together in order to gain the best features of each. In this case, the L2TP protocol is used to create a tunnel and IPsec provides a secure channel.
NAT Firewalls are now commonly offered as an add-on by VPN service providers. They offer a more robust form of firewall at the point where your VPN communicates with the internet.
Things You Can Do With A VPN
USE PUBLIC WIFI IN CONFIDENCE
Many people are not aware that public wifi (cafes, hotels, etc.) does not keep your data confidential at all. Most have any encryption or security. Use a VPN to insure your private info stays private in public.
DOWNLOAD AND UPLOAD P2P FILES IN PRIVACY
Cinema, music and TV associations put incredible amounts of money, time and effort into cracking down on P2P file sharing. Don't get caught in the act - use a VPN.
BREAK OUT OF RESTRICTIVE NETWORKS
It's common nowadays for offices and schools to place restrictions on their networks. VPNs tunnel through such restrictions, while simultaneously encrypting your data, so none of your online activity is trackable to network admins.
SAVE MONEY BY ACCESSING GEO-RESTRICTED CONTENT
Many streaming media providers allow users from outside certain countries to access their media at a price. Use a VPN and never have to worry about paying for such access.
USE SEARCH ENGINES WITHOUT HAVING SEARCHES LOGGED
Search engines log every single search you make and serve adverts based on your browsing. Although not super intrusive, having a VPN keep you anonymous will save you some potential public embarrassment.
CLOAK YOUR VOIP PHONE CALLS
Make a lot of calls over the internet (Skype, FaceTime, etc.) ? Use a VPN to have full piece of mind that no one is listening in or tracking your conversations.
BYPASS A COUNTRY'S WEB CENSORSHIP AND SURVEILLANCE
Just as offices and schools impose 'Acceptable Use' policies, some entire countries place these on their networks. Don't bow to such encroaches on your freedom.
VPN Service Reviews
Here is a list of the top five best VPNs currently available. Be sure to check our in-depth reviews!
VPNs In Mobile Enviroments
Mobile Virtual Private Networks (Mobile VPNs or mVPNs) allow users to access software applications and network resources on their own personal network, while connected to other networks (whether wired or wireless.)
The main usage for mobile VPNs is in circumstances where a user needs to keep application sessions open perpetually throughout their entire working day. In such instances, the user will be connecting to many different wireless networks, potentially encountering big gaps in network connectivity/coverage and also stopping/starting their mobile device to prolong battery life through the day. This specific environment is where standard (non-mobile) VPNs fall short, as they can't handle such gaps since this disrupts the network tunnel.
Although commonly used among hospital staff, home carers and public safety to name a few -- mVPNs are becoming more and popular with professional mobile-based workers.
VPNs on Routers
As VPN usage has grown, so has an increase in having VPN connectivity on routers for added encryption and thus security of data transmission.
The big advantage of having a VPN deployed on a router is that any device connecting to said router will automatically be allowed to use the VPN while enabled -- particularly useful when considering how much easier this makes it for non-native VPN devices (like gaming consoles, smart TVs, media players, etc) to get a VPN setup on. Additionally, having a VPN on the router will reduce costs and naturally help with network scalability.
However, be aware that most routers don't support every main VPN protocol (as listed earlier in this guide) because their flash memory and processors are not compatible with open source firmware. In addition to this, setting up a VPN on a router requires pretty deep technical chops and careful attention to detail - with even the slightest misconfiguration potentially resulting in unwanted network vulnerabilities.
So if you're considering getting a VPN on your router, we suggest opting for a router that comes with pre built-in VPN clients (such as what Cisco Linksys, Netgear and Asus offer, among others.)
Geo-blocking is arguably the biggest reason most people today are scrambling to get a VPN. Sure, protecting one's privacy in light of all the spying scandals that have been leaked in recent years is another huge catalyst for people wanting to surf anonymously -- but with such a huge number of us now using the world wide web as our source of media entertainment, especially for video and music streaming, it's no surprise that we turn to VPNs to give ourselves access to our favourite shows or artists that we otherwise would be geo-restricted from.
So what is geo-blocking? Why does it exist? And if we bypass it via a VPN, are we breaking the law or simply exercising our right to online privacy?
We want to give you the full picture of this constant on-going battle between online media streaming providers and ISPs/VPN services, so you know exactly what the deal is. For those of you who like the birds eye view, here are the broad strokes:
What is geo-blocking?
Put simply, geo-blocking is the act of restricting content based on a user's geographical location. So for example, if you are in France and you want to access Netflix - you can! However, because each piece of content on Netflix is subject to its own licensing and copyright agreements, your favourite show might be blocked from streaming specifically in France. Geo-blocking basically calculates a user's physical location via geolocation techniques and then compares the result against two lists of "location blocked" and "location allowed".
Why does is exist?
As mentioned above, geo-blocking basically exists because of licensing agreements. Most media is not owned by the actual media streaming provider, but is the legal property of "parent companies" (think TimeWarner, Disney, Sony, etc.) It is these parent companies that ultimately decide on which media streaming services they choose to license their show or movie or music rights to.
So it goes that these parent companies also decide where (geographically) the media can be viewed from -- as they may, for example, sell the broadcasting rights of the same show to multiple different countries. Thus, if Netflix was to let anyone from anywhere watch a show that the parent company only licensed them to show in specific countries, then  Netflix would be breaking the license agreement, and  the parent company would lose money.
Am I breaking the law when I use a VPN to access geo-blocked content?
We would love to give a simple "yes" or "no" answer to this question, but there is still (for better or worse) no internationally defined legal policy that can allow for such a concise answer. Instead, the answer to this varies geographically from country to country, and legally from case to case. In short -- the actual legal implications of watching your favourite show on Netflix from a location that you shouldn't be able to view it from are unclear.
Find The Best VPN For You
We've personally reviewed all the most popular VPNs so you don't have to spend time and money on figuring out which is the best choice for you.
VPNs We Recommend: