VPN Beginner’s Guide: What Is a VPN? Definition and Benefits

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A VPN, or virtual private network, is a service that protects your internet connection and privacy online. It encrypts your data and masks your IP addresses when you connect to web-based services and sites. A VPN can also be used to bypass geo-restrictions and censorship measures.

How virtual private networks work

A VPN hides an IP address from outside observers. By routing your internet connection through an encrypted tunnel, you can pretend to be in another country. For example, if you’re in the U.S. but connect to a VPN server in Canada, websites will think you’re logging on from there. It also makes it much harder for internet service providers (ISPs) to monitor what you do online, and you can get around geo-blocks that restrict content based on location.

A VPN uses encryption to scramble all traffic until it reaches the VPN server, where that data is unscrambled and sent to its destination. That means an ISP — or any other party — has no idea what’s going on inside the encrypted tunnel.

When used with HTTPS websites like banks, ecommerce, or other sensitive sites, this can help protect data like passwords or payment information as they go across public networks. VPNs are also useful when traveling abroad, allowing users to avoid connecting to unsecured Wi-Fi hotspots.

What are VPN protocols?

VPN protocols are rules governing how information is exchanged between two or more networks. The most common types of VPN protocols are OpenVPN, Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP), Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol (L2TP), Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol (SSTP), and Internet Key Exchange version 2 (IKEv2).

These protocols can create encrypted tunnels to connect remote computers as if they were on the same local network. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, so it’s essential to find one that suits your needs for security and usability.

  • PPTP has the lowest latency with the broadest compatibility, but it has some data encryption limitations.
  • L2TP/IPsec has better data encryption capabilities than PPTP but with higher latency.
  • SSTP provides the best data encryption available but may be limited by lack of support in some applications.
  • IKEv2 offers strong security while keeping the connection very stable, which makes it suitable for mobile devices.
  • OpenVPN was developed as an open-source alternative that functions well on both wireless and wired connections and supports multiple forms of authentication, including via a pre-shared key, certificate, or username/password combination method.

How does VPN encryption work?

VPN encryption is a process of transforming readable data into an unreadable format. This is done using algorithms, which make it impossible for anyone who does not have the key to decode the information. When you connect to a VPN, your computer sends a request to the VPN server to establish a connection.

Once the connection is made, your traffic is routed through the secure tunnel between your computer and the VPN server. This ensures your data is protected from eavesdroppers and anyone else who might try to snoop on your traffic. This process helps to protect sensitive information, like financial details or personal data, from being accessed by unauthorized individuals.

What is VPN tunneling?

In the physical world, a tunnel is an underground passage or an enclosed pathway that allows people (or, in the networking space, a VPN packet) to travel beneath an obstacle (i.e., malicious actors) to their destination. 

In VPNs, tunneling is the process of encapsulating and encrypting network traffic within a secure “tunnel” or VPN connection. The primary purpose of VPN tunneling is to ensure privacy, security, and anonymity while transmitting data over the internet.

6 benefits of VPNs 

The obvious upside to a VPN service is that it provides privacy by keeping user activity out of prying eyes. Some of the means and results of this process include secure data transfer, encryption, IP anonymity, device protection, streaming availability, and private browsing.

1. Secure data transfer

A VPN ensures no one can track you. Data shared while connected to public Wi-Fi networks like cafes, airports, and hotels are not encrypted. Using a VPN service with robust encryption protocols, you can securely browse public Wi-Fi without worrying about anyone intercepting your personal information. With a VPN, all data sent to and from the device is protected by military-grade 256-bit AES-GCM cipher encryption.

2. Encryption

Whether it’s email, instant messages, social media apps, banking apps, or browsing history — all sensitive content will be protected against interception when running over a secure VPN connection.

With a VPN, data is encrypted before it leaves the device. Once it reaches the server, it gets decrypted, which means anyone who intercepts the data will only see gibberish. In other words, your data stays safe and private because you’re the only person with access to it.

3. Hidden IP address and location

When using a VPN for private browsing, you’re assigned an anonymous IP address instead of a real one, allowing you to maintain online privacy and security. This extends to spoofing your physical location: If you’re connecting to a VPN server in another country, everything you do online will appear to come from the country where the VPN server is located.

4. Device protection

VPN connections allow you to take control of their digital privacy and safety, whether at home or traveling. Connecting to a VPN server stops people from snooping on your activities between other devices (PCs and laptops) and public Wi-Fi hotspots.

5. Allows you to stream from anywhere

Some movie and TV streaming services put geographical restrictions on what programs you can watch based on your IP address. To avoid this problem, some users connect to a VPN server outside of their country. 

However, streaming services often try to block VPNs due to licensing agreements. To bypass these limitations subscribe to a provider that offers dedicated IP addresses.

6. Hides your web activities and avoids censorship

VPNs provide an extra layer of protection by keeping your web activities anonymous and helping you maintain internet freedom. They help protect your data, identity, and location. If you’re using a VPN to protect your data, you don’t have to worry about your ISP tracking your activity. Importantly, they also enable citizens of repressive countries to evade government surveillance and geo-blocking.

Types of VPN

There are various types of VPNs. The four main types include personal VPNs, mobile VPNs, remote access VPNs, and site-to-site VPNs.

  • Personal VPN services: This type is designed for the average internet user. It allows you to stream movies unavailable in your location, evade web censorship, hide IP addresses, and prevent outsiders from snooping on your activities online.
  • Mobile VPNs: These allow users to access corporate data and other applications from anywhere, preserving the security and privacy of the data. This type of VPN is ideal for remote employees due to its ability to persist during sessions across physical connectivity changes like lost connectivity or network switches.
  • Remote access VPNs: Sometimes called client-based VPNs or client-to-server VPNs, these are usually used by telecommuters, mobile workers, and remote employees who need to access internal resources securely in order to connect remotely to a work network.
  • Site-to-site VPNs: These are commonly used by organizations to connect multiple remote sites to a single, secure network. A site-to-site VPN is ideal for companies with different branches, allowing each site to access shared resources from any of the other connected sites.

Who needs a VPN?

Nothing is guaranteed in the world of cybersecurity, but you want an unrestricted internet experience with dependable safety and security, a VPN service is one of your best bets.

A VPN is ideal for you if you need to do any of the following:

  • Encrypt your internet connection
  • Perform secure data transfer
  • Protect your identity online
  • Bypass geo-restrictions
  • Unblock websites

A VPN helps you stay safe online by encrypting your data, browsing history, passwords, and more. All of this information is encrypted and sent to the server you choose. Your IP address will also be masked, so it cannot be traced back to you.

A VPN provides security and privacy and has many uses, such as staying anonymous while surfing the web or downloading files, hiding from firewalls, getting around content restrictions, protecting yourself from cybercrime, and more.

Note that a VPN does not protect you from any malware or viruses contained in any downloaded files or executable websites. You’ll need a dependable antivirus tool for that.

4 VPN alternatives for businesses

Although a VPN is a solid network security solution, it may not offer enough security for your enterprise network. Here are other noteworthy alternatives to VPNs for secure remote access and data protection, including virtual desktops, zero trust, software-defined perimeters, and cloud access security brokers (CASBs).

In some cases, you’ll want to choose the best of these solutions for your network — but for the utmost protection, you may want to implement several on your network concurrently.

Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI)

A VDI is a type of remote desktop virtualization that enables users to securely connect to a fully virtual workspace hosted on a centralized server. This lets you and your employees access enterprise applications on any device, including desktop PC, mobile device, or thin client.

VDI use cases include third-party access, regulatory compliance, call centers, and remote work.

Zero Trust Network Access (ZTNA)

The concept of ZTNA is simple: no one person or application should be trusted until they verify their identity to prove their legitimacy. This security framework focuses on verifying the identity and trustworthiness of users and devices before granting access to enterprise resources.

Instead of granting broad access like a traditional VPN, ZTNA provides more granular and context-aware access controls. ZTNA solutions typically use strong authentication, microsegmentation, and encrypted tunnels to protect data.

Software-Defined Perimeter (SDP)

SDP is another security model offering a more fine-grained access control approach. It creates a “black cloud” around each application, making them invisible and inaccessible to unauthorized users. Users and devices must be authenticated and authorized before accessing specific applications or resources.

Cloud Access Security Brokers (CASBs)

CASBs act as intermediaries between users and cloud services, providing additional security and control. They offer data encryption, access control, threat protection, and data loss prevention features. CASBs can help protect data when accessing cloud-based applications and services without relying solely on a VPN.

Bottom line: VPN benefits in the enterprise

VPN is one of the best ways to secure your network from cyberthreats. While VPNs have proven to be a reliable security measure, they aren’t a foolproof network protection strategy. It’s best to use one in tandem with other security solutions, such as CASBs, data loss prevention tools, and zero trust network access, among others.

When it comes to protecting your network from malicious actors, you can’t afford to take any chances. Investing in comprehensive security solutions is the best way to ensure your organization remains secure.

There are tons of VPNs on the market today. Here’s our guide to the best VPN services to secure your enterprise network.

Aminu Abdullahi
Aminu Abdullahi
Aminu Abdullahi is an experienced B2B technology and finance writer and award-winning public speaker. He is the co-author of the e-book, The Ultimate Creativity Playbook, and has written for various publications, including eWEEK, Enterprise Networking Planet, Tech Republic, eSecurity Planet, CIO Insight, Enterprise Storage Forum, IT Business Edge, Webopedia, Software Pundit, and Geekflare.

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