How does a VPN work?

You’ve probably heard of a VPN, but you probably don’t know how a VPN actually works. A VPN is an essential security facility for businesses that have employees working outside of the office, so you need to know how it works.

How does a VPN work? A VPN (Virtual Private Network) extends a private network across a public network. This allows users to send and receive data across a public network as though their devices are connected directly to the private network.

A VPN routes your device’s internet connection through the VPN provider’s private server. This means that, when your data is transmitted to the internet, it’s sent from the VPN rather than your actual computer. There are several reasons you may use a VPN (which I’ll explain soon), but let’s first have a better look at how VPNs work.

How do VPNs work?

There are two distinct types of VPN. This blog post will focus primarily on corporate VPNs, which are also known as remote access VPNs. However, here’s a quick breakdown of the two categories that most VPNs fall into.

  • Consumer VPN: Using a consumer VPN, you are connected to the private network via a VPN tunnel. Consumer VPNs are used to keep the user’s activities anonymous and secure. For example, if you’re using free Wi-Fi on the train, you’ll need to use a VPN if you’re wanting to access your online banking or something where you have to use login details. Consumer VPNs can be used at router-level or device-level.
  • Corporate VPN: Corporate VPNs are often used so that employees can remotely access the company’s private network. So for example, remote workers who still need to have access to the business’s network. Remote access VPNs allow employees to do this no matter where they are. Once the remote worker is authenticated, they are connected to the business network via an encrypted tunnel. This enables remote workers to still collaborate with their colleagues effectively and securely.

Whichever VPN you’re using, consumer or corporate, it’s all about being able to exchange data over a public network without sacrificing security.

VPNs prevent disclosure of your private information by using tunneling protocols and a variety of encryption techniques. Here are some of the main protocols used:

  • IPsec: IPsec encrypts data by encasing data packets within a IPsec packet. This means that if network traffic is sniffed at packet-level, a sniffer would only reveal encrypted data. Therefore there would be nothing confidential revealed to the attacker.
  • SSL/TLS: Several VPN providers provide remote access capabilities through Secure Sockets Layer/Transport Layer Security. Transport Layer Security can tunnel an entire network’s data traffic or one connection depending upon the level the VPN is used at.
  • DTLS: TLS has well-known issues tunnelling over TCP (find out more about TCP in my guide here). DTLS was created to solve the issues that SSL/TSL have with tunnelling over TCP.

Authentication is often used at endpoints to prevent unauthorised parties accessing and using the VPN via either of the endpoints. Data packets are encrypted during the transmission and then decrypted once they reach the endpoint. Your data is essentially converted into gibberish, which can only be deciphered using a complicated ‘key’. Only your computer and the VPN server know this key, so a sniffer won’t reveal any of your data if a malicious individual is attempting to intercept your transmission.

Once a connection between two endpoints is achieved, here’s a step by step overview of what happens with your data:

  • The VPN software on your device or network encrypts your traffic and then sends it to the VPN server
  • The data is decrypted by the VPN server and sent onto its destination. Once a ‘reply’ is received, the data is encrypted again by the VPN server and transmitted to you
  • The software on your device or network will decrypt the data so that your device can understand it

That just about covers all that you need to know about how a VPN actually works. Before we look at the advantages of using a VPN, let’s have a look at why and when VPNs are usually used.

Why are VPNs typically used?

VPNs are widely used by businesses to enable employees to remotely access their intranet regardless of where they are working. For example, let’s consider a distribution company with salespeople and transport personnel completing deliveries.

In this example, there’s a distribution company that have salespeople out on the road attempting to close deals. They need to have access to your company’s intranet for documents like contracts. This enables your team to access the intranet and close deals while they’re actually with the lead, rather than having to mess around getting documents sent over and so on.

Furthermore, consider the transport personnel that are completing deliveries. They’ll also need access to their emails and intranet for a variety of purposes. They’ll need access to an updated calendar should deliveries be rearranged and so on.

These are just a few examples of why VPNs are used, because these salespeople and couriers need to securely access the company network. I could give countless examples of why VPNs are typically used and I’m sure you can think of ways your business could make use of VPNs. If you have anyone working outside of the office at any time, a VPN must be used to keep your network and data secure.

Next, let’s have a look at the benefits of using a VPN.

Benefits of using a VPN

There are several noted benefits of using a VPN:

  • Ability to share confidential, sensitive data no matter where you are
  • Remotely access your systems without worrying about security
  • Use public networks confidently knowing that your online activities are secure

There’s also one big disadvantage to consider.

  • Slower internet

Firstly, let’s have a look at the benefits of using a VPN.

Ability to share confidential, sensitive data no matter where you are

One of the big advantages of using a VPN is that it gives you the ability to share confidential, sensitive data no matter where you are. A VPN gives you a secure connection to your office network no matter where you are and the network that you are using. In theory, you could be working in Starbucks whilst still connected to your business intranet using a VPN.

The ability to work securely no matter where you are really is a big deal. According to Flexjobs, 4.3 million of the American workforce work remotely. Consequently, enabling people to work remotely while ensuring the security of your network is crucial.

Remotely access your systems without worrying about security

The advantages of remotely accessing your systems and working anywhere in the world are evident. But it’s important to make sure that you take security seriously if you’re going to remotely access your systems. With a VPN, you can create a secure ‘tunnel’ between your business network and your device. Ultimately, this means you can remotely access your systems without worrying about security.

Even when you’re on your home network, you should use a VPN to access your work network. Home networks can be insecure for a variety of reasons, so it’s important you ensure the network you’re using is as secure as possible. Of course, this isn’t something you’ll have to worry about if you’re using a VPN.

Use public networks confidently knowing that your online activities are secure

With a VPN, you can confidently use public networks knowing that your online activities are secure and private. You can work no matter where you are without having to worry about whether or not your data could be stolen!

Disadvantages of using a VPN

There’s one key disadvantage of using a VPN: slower internet speeds.

It’s well known that using a VPN is going to increase your latency while also slowing down your download and upload speed. This is definitely something to consider depending on the type of work that you are doing.

Security does come before speed of course, so I would still consider it essential to use a VPN.

Jack Mitchell

Jack Mitchell has been the Operations manager at telecoms and MSP Optionbox for more than 4 years. He has played a crucial role in the company, from marketing to helpdesk, and ensures that the IT requirements of over 300 clients are continuously met. With his innate passion for technology and troubleshooting and a particular interest in Apple products, Jack now delivers the most comprehensive tech guides to make your life easier. You can connect with Jack on LinkedIn.

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