If you ever read about online security or you were interested in the topic, one of the first terms that immediately appear is the VPN (or Virtual Private Network). However, if you are not a technical person with basic knowledge on online security and networks, the term may be confusing and misleading. To help you out, we created a comprehensive guide that will explain what exactly a VPN server is and how it works. Even more, we’ll also share a few tips on how to select the best VPN service and why VPN servers are so popular when it comes to online security.
But first, let’s start with the basics. A VPN service is exactly as the name says, a virtual network created by connecting a bunch of servers scattered all over the world. Its main purpose is to create a secure network that you can use for browsing the internet and other online activities. If you’re already confused, don’t worry, we’ll explain in more detail below.
What is a server
As you may already have noticed, we mentioned that the VPN contains a bunch of servers. But what exactly is a server? Well, explained in general, a server is a computer program that services more client computers. It is the central unit of a system and, in this case, is a program that allows you to connect to different IPs even when you’re not leaving the country. The server program receives your computer’s request, processes it, and returns a result which may be an action or a message (according to what was asked).
The server program is running on a powerful computer and, in the case of a VPN server, the computer must be secured and very fast. Each server must also be located considering a wide range of factors, but the main advantages that it has to offer are speed, security, and anonymity for the user.
What is a VPN
We already started the discussion above, but to be more specific, a VPN creates a secure online environment allowing the user to access the Internet in complete anonymity and security (in an ideal world). Why is anonymity so important? Well, your traffic data are of extreme value to many entities lurking the internet. Here are some of the most popular ones:
- Annoying ads and online traffic statistics used by companies like Google and Facebook;
- Governmental agencies looking for malicious online activities;
- Spammers and malware looking to steal data from your computer;
- Hackers and identity thieves looking to steal your financial information.
Besides the obvious ones mentioned above, large companies use VPNs to protect their business information when communicating with subsidiaries all over the world or customers. But today we will discuss VPN from an individual’s point of view.
As a regular person, browsing the internet may seem a pretty mundane activity. However, there are certain risks and limitations when you use this public network (the Internet) without protection. Even more, the risks increase exponentially when you use a public access point like the WiFi network in a coffee shop. This is the perfect spot for cybercriminals so you should never access such a network without the protection of a VPN.
VPN explained point by point
When you use a VPN solution, your devices (computer, phone, tablet, game console, and others) don’t connect to the Internet directly. Instead, the device goes through a tunnel and connects with one of the available VPN servers, taking a new IP address. This way, all your traffic is secured and no one (not even your ISP) will be able to identify your traffic.
So, in not so many words, when you use a VPN to browse the Internet, your computer connects to sites using an encrypted connection. The VPN forwards your requests to the site you want to access and sends the response back to your computer. That’s why, another use for VPN servers is to access geographically restricted online resources like the popular online streaming sites available only for US or UK.
Other VPN benefits
If you’re still not convinced, here are some other benefits to consider:
- Access to your business or finances while traveling – as a businessman, you understand the importance of privacy when it comes to delicate matters. As a regular traveler, you’ll soon learn that banks tend to block you when you try to access your online account from another country. A VPN software solves both these issues and allows you to enjoy a great trip.
- Access your home network from another country – let’s say you’re going on a trip to Japan but you don’t want to miss out on your favorite shows or online games. With a VPN, you can safely access your home network and enjoy both situations.
- Hide your browsing activity – if you have a bit of knowledge on how networks work, you will be able to tap into a public network and check the sites everyone is visiting. It’s simple and entertaining for the viewer, but invading for the rest of the users. To avoid being spied on (even if it is out of boredom) use a VPN solution and your traffic will be hidden from prying eyes.
- Bypass online censorship – many countries practice online censorship and, if you have the misfortune of being in one, you’ll only get frustrated. Using a VPN, you can change your IP address and bypass the unfair censorship.
- P2P connections – many of us still use BitTorrent to download files and using a VPN could actually increase the speed.
P2P Networks and VPN Servers
P2P networks are still popular but many governmental institutions are hell bent on shutting them down. For this, they go after users when they can’t find the owners. To avoid getting caught on the wrong side of the Internet, a good VPN software will ensure your anonymity.
Another threat that comes from P2P networks is security. Considering the fact that there is a direct connection between your computer and other computers in such networks, you shouldn’t even consider leaving your data exposed. A VPN offers a secure tunnel and doesn’t allow any prying eyes to snoop in on your connection.
And finally, a VPN services allows you to select a different server when your download speed is extremely low. This way you can look for a faster server that will provide faster download speed than your regular connection.
The connection between routers and VPN
With the increase interest people show in VPN service, router companies created special devices that allow users to install one VPN client and protect their entire home. However, you need a specific router, specially designed to support VPN server installation.
In this case you have two options:
- Buying a router with a pre-installed VPN client
- Making this a DIY project and flashing your own router
The second option is a bit risky as you might end up ruining your router forever. However, if you know what you’re doing, you should know that the best firmware for VPN installation are DD-WRT and Tomato. So, if your router supports them, you should flash it (wipe the old firmware and install a new one). If the operation is successful, you’ll be able to install any VPN you want and your entire household will be protected.
How to evaluate the best VPN server
With so many providers out there, the best way to choose a VPN service is to consider your needs. So, before jumping in with the first provider, ask yourself one question: why do I need this? The answer will let you understand the type of solution you want.
Here is how your answer could prove useful:
- You want to make sure your casual browsing is secure – in this case you need a regular VPN connection that offers medium levels of security and fast speed. Since you won’t be passing confidential information, a light solution will be of great help.
- You want to stream content from other countries – just like above, you don’t need extra security and you shouldn’t even care about anonymity as much. A VPN solution that also implements a proxy server will do the trick in this case.
- You use the VPN to connect to your bank or business while traveling – well, in this case, you will need the best VPN that offers both security and anonymity. The solution should implement security protocols like OpenVPN or higher and must be concerned with its users’ data safety.
Hoping that we manage to shed some light for beginners and non-technical people, we close here our step-by-step guide in the world of VPN solutions. The basic idea is that a VPN is the perfect way to make sure you are not being spied on while online. It is also the safest way to browse the Internet when using a public WiFi network or when traveling. The benefits are overwhelming and, while there may be a few drawbacks, an extra layer of protection didn’t hurt anyone.