Hello again readers. Before we dive into this blog post I thought I would mention my recent absence. I hurt my back recently and was not really feeling great besides being on some crazy pain killers that distracted me from writing. I am better now and ready to try to get this blog back on track. So if you are a new reader or a returning follower I promise I will try harder to make this more of a consistent weekly article posting.
With that out of the way I thought this week we could talk about something that recently seems to be gaining some popularity online. It seems like anytime I go into an app store at least two of the trending app downloads are some form of VPN company or app so I thought this would be a good chance to go over what a VPN is and why people might be turning to them for an added level of security when connecting with their devices.
Let’s start with the easy part: what does VPN stand for? Virtual Private Network. What does that mean? Well the idea of a VPN is that you can make a direct private connection to a computer or more likely a server over public networks but have it act like a direct connection.
This is used mostly for businesses to allow employees to connect to resources stored securely on the company’s intranet from outside on a public network but makes sure the information is secure and not accessible by others who might be on the same network. It can also be used to connect geographically separated offices onto one cohesive network by tunneling all the connections together.
A VPN tunnel is the basic technology that a VPN uses. The name implies how the technology works. It makes the computer coming in look like it is on the internal network by giving it one of the approved IP addresses and the authentication on a work station on the server. This changes how the computer looks to the outside world.
When we think of how the internet connects something that most people don’t think about comes into play in the actual physical wiring of it all. Let’s say that you are in New York but the company you are trying to access is in Montana. So how does that connection actually work? Well you would be connected to your service provider in New York and the company to their provider in Montana. It is not feasible for one company to have fully wired the entire country together. The way these companies work together is that they connect to each other and allow the traffic to flow over their wires even though you are not their customer.
These large companies that do the wiring are called Autonomous Systems. They allow their Wide Area Networks to connect with other AS networks and that is how the Internet connects together.
That is why if you were to run a trace route from your home computer to the Montana server IP address you will see several hops and company names listed as the packet travels across the connections. This is the packet being transferred and handed off to the companies that wire those connections. I refer you to our discussion on IP addresses for a larger discussion on what a trace route is and what it does.
When a corporation allows some one to access private or sensitive information they need to know that when that data travels over all those connections that there will not be a break in the line that allows someone to access that data or redirect it somewhere else. So they set up a VPN tunnel that acts like a direct connection across all those systems from the computer to the server to secure the connection and the data traveling over it.
The two security measures on a VPN are the VPN tunneling protocol, which establishes the direct connection, and the data encryption. That makes it so that even if the data was captured by a third party it would only show up as an encrypted file. A lot of VPN services use IP addressing with the tunneling protocol to set up the connection. This leads to the system being able to authenticate the user and allow access to the private, secure data.
The darker side of VPNs is that since you can make your connection look like it is coming from somewhere else it allows you to hide the connection if you are downloading illegal material. If there are geographical limitations on content you can VPN into a server in another country to fake the computer into thinking it is outside of the limitations. It also makes tracking a computer doing illegal things harder since their physical address and where the computer thinks it is can be completely different. That is how people downloading illegal movies and music can hide their identity and get away with copyright infringements.
So how do we troubleshoot VPNs? Mostly any VPN issues would be handled by the company providing the VPN. There could be a tunneling protocol issue or an IP issue. This is a much higher level of troubleshooting than this blog is intended for. However the issue that I see most is people who use their computers for work and home will have issues connecting to the home networks sometimes. This is because they have not turned off the VPN and connected the computer back to the private, home network. So if you are seeing slower speeds than normal or having issues with the connection on the work computer make sure the VPN has been disabled and the computer put back into normal DHCP configuration.
Any further troubleshooting of a VPN should be directed at the IT department of the company providing the VPN.
If you have a technology question you would like answered, please E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org and I will be happy to look into it for you.