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What is a VPN and what is it used for?

What is a VPN and what is it used for?VPN means V irtuelles P rivates N etwork (from the English “Virtual Private Network”). A VPN connection offers the possibility of accessing an existing network from outside. This can be a corporate or a private network.

Why do you need VPN connections?

A VPN can be used in a variety of ways. It is used by business travelers, for communication between company locations, but also by private individuals (keyword: country blocks or geoblocking ). But why actually?

Take the example of the business traveler. He is regularly out and about and would like to quickly check his e-mails and edit a document at the airport on the way to the next appointment. To do this, he logs into the airport’s open WLAN, which is regularly unencrypted. Unencrypted means that it is relatively easy, even for laypeople, to read the data traffic that runs over the WLAN. A freely accessible software or mobile app is sufficient for this. This means that there is a risk that sensitive business data, as well as customer and employee data, will be tapped. In addition to the loss of data, there is a risk of image damage and fines from the supervisory authorities.

A suitable VPN application ensures that the data can no longer be read by unauthorized persons. In addition, it enables access to drives that are located on the company’s own server and should only be available within the company network. Centrally stored documents cannot be edited without a VPN.

What does a VPN do?

An installed VPN software essentially offers two functions:

Secure thanks to encryption

First of all, the data can be encrypted in advance by the VPN software during transmission. This function is part of the standard repertoire of VPN software. This makes it almost impossible for unauthorized third parties to read e-mails.

Incognito through the data tunnel

Mainly, however, the software “tunnels” the data traffic of the user. This means that the data is transmitted through the public WLAN to a predefined point on the Internet (in our example the company server) like through a tunnel. The computer thus becomes a virtual part of the respective company network.

In simplified terms, this can be illustrated as follows:

The business traveler dials into the airport WLAN. At this point in time, his communication can be read by potential attackers. If he now activates the installed VPN software, it assigns the computer to the company network. His computer receives an IP address from the company network. For the network and other communication partners, it now looks as if the computer is at the company’s location. An IP address can also be assigned to several external computers. For example, it is no longer possible to determine who has accessed which Internet pages.

How does it all work?

Inquiries from our business travelers (e.g. retrieving e-mails or corresponding Word files) are now first transferred to the VPN software. The VPN adapter contained therein puts the request visually in an envelope before it leaves the user’s computer. She addresses the envelope to the appropriate company server. This envelope is then put into an envelope itself, which is then addressed to the company network.

Only now does the request leave our business traveler’s computer and enter the open airport network. Theoretically – because of the second envelope – this only knows to which network connection (company network) the data packet is to be delivered. Once there, the outer envelope is removed and the request is passed on to the addressee (e.g. the company’s file server). For the company network, it looks as if the user’s computer is not logging in from outside but directly from the office. This gives him access to the network drives. Internet traffic is also initially routed via the company’s servers.

The airport network was only used as a kind of extension cable in order to stay in the picture. Since the original request for the transport was embedded in a so-called VPN protocol (second envelope), one speaks of a “tunneled connection”.

If the VPN connection is not established by the company’s own VPN server, but an external service provider is used, the process is similar. Instead of the company server, the server of the respective provider assigns the user an IP address and initially forwards the data via their network.

VPN and everything tutti?

Simply installing any VPN software is not enough on its own. For reasons of corporate security, companies should set up their own VPN servers. Where this is not possible or profitable, great attention should be paid to its reliability and trustworthiness when selecting the provider. Because, in contrast to potential attackers, the VPN provider sees all the data traffic that runs over his network. The same applies to corporate IT, if in-house VPN solutions are used.

In the past, there have also been repeated data protection breaches and deliberate evaluations of users’ surfing behavior.

We have already summarized what is important when selecting the provider . If you want to deal with the advantages and disadvantages of the individual providers in more detail, you will find an extremely extensive list here .

 

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