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Virtual Private Network Definition
What is a virtual private network, how does it work, and what can it do for your business?

By: John Shepler

You know what a network is, but what is a virtual private network? Is it a real network or something that only exists virtually? Just how private is a virtual private network?

About Virtual Privacy
A virtual private network or VPN is a real network. It’s the privacy that is considered virtual. For instance, the Internet is a public network. There is nothing private about it, or intended to be. But there are techniques to add privacy to Internet communications. Those techniques make it virtually private.

The Importance of Access Control
Let’s look at what makes a good private network in the first place. One thing you need is complete control over access. Only those people and devices that you explicitly allow on the network should have any access to it. The wired network in your company is private because you’ve strung the wires and know where everything is connected. But if you rent space in a larger office building and use that building’s network, you can’t be sure that your data is completely secure. Someone might be tapped in and listening somewhere in the facility.

What About Wireless?
Another example of networks that people think are secure but really aren’t are wireless access points or wireless routers. If you use the wireless device as it comes out of the box without enabling security features, you run the risk of eavesdroppers being able to tap into your data.

Control of access through control of the physical network and access lists for wireless access is a good start for privacy. But what about the common carrier networks that link your facilities around the country? Those WAN or wide area networks can be either private or public. If you lease a point to point T1 line, the only connections are at the two ends. Such links become part of your private network.

MPLS Networks As Your VPN
The next step up is privately owned and operated networks where you are not the only user. MPLS networks fall into that category. They offer a degree of privacy because access to your nodes is controlled per your direction. But there is other traffic on the network cloud from other companies. That’s why MPLS networks are called virtually private by nature.

Can The Internet Be Trusted?
Now let’s consider the Internet. It’s public through and through. Does that mean you can’t use the Internet for private communications? Of course you can. It’s done every day by companies large and small and millions of individual users. How do they do this? By encrypting the data traveling from point to point over the Internet. When you log into a secure website, you use SSL or Secure Sockets Layer. That’s a protocol that encrypts your data so that only someone with the proper key can read it. Only you and the site you are communicating with have that particular key. Others might intercept your data stream, but it’s all gibberish to them.

Tunneling Through Public Networks
When data is encrypted at one end and decrypted at the other, it is said to travel through a tunnel inthe Internet. That’s what’s meant by tunneling. Various encryption techniques can be used to create these tunnels and give you a virtual private connection. Whensomeone is said to be using a VPN, they are generally talking about a broadband connection to their employer that is encrypted on their computer by a VPN software application. VPNs allow users located outside of a company’s secure facilities to securely access business data using DSL, Cable broadband, high speed satellite, or wireless Internet access.

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