These days, you see ads for VPNs everywhere. They're from a wide range of companies, they have widely varying prices, and they promise a number of functions. But if you look, those consumer VPNs aren't really aimed at business use. Instead, they're designed to keep your service provider from seeing what you're up to, and they may give you access to regional content or eCommerce sites that aren't available wherever you are.
That's not to suggest that there aren't business uses for those consumer VPNs, but for routine business operations, those are not what you need.
What's a VPN?
VPN is an acronym for virtual private network. It works by creating an encrypted tunnel within an existing network session. This encrypted session, or "pipe" as it's sometimes called, protects the data that's being carried within it from being viewed. Done properly, this encrypted tunnel provides a secure connection between two networks or between a device and a network. The encryption and decryption happen at the network gateways on each end, or between a client device, such as a laptop or a phone, and a network gateway.
The network gateway, which is the device that connects your internal network to the outside world, is likely contained within another device, such as a security appliance, a router, or a firewall. Depending on the specific device, it will have VPN software that allows it to connect to the gateway using a VPN.
The VPN and Your Network
VPNs are frequently used to connect a branch or remote office to a central office. The network gateway in those locations has a permanent encrypted tunnel to the central office, and all network traffic, except what's local, flows through that connection. The gateway, usually also serving as a security appliance, checks all network traffic for malware, intrusions, email payloads that contain spam or malware, and other types of data that need to be kept off the network.
Normally, the VPN is transparent to the network users. While a VPN may create some latency on the link between the two networks, it's usually not significant. Mobile users may have to launch their VPN software before links will work for instance, and that will usually direct all network traffic to the central office.
How to Choose
Because your network gateway, and thus your VPN, will be contained in another device, what you really need to choose is the security appliance or the firewall that includes the VPN capability you need. You should look for devices that include remote access software for the devices your company uses. It's important to note that not every VPN supports every mobile or remote device.
The first step will be to decide what devices will use the VPN. If you're using Windows computers, you need to determine whether they're all running Windows 10 or whether some have earlier versions of Windows, which may not be compatible. You also need to confirm whether your Apple and Android devices are supported by your potential VPN. You will probably find support for iOS devices and recent versions of Android from major vendors. Older versions of Macintosh software can sometimes be problematic.
Some small business and home routers include support for a VPN connection that may work with your network gateway, or with your router or security appliance. For example, the Netgear Nighthawk AX12, available from Dell, will give a remote or home user WiFi 6 connectivity as well as VPN support. Dell also features the SonicWall and Fortinet lines of security appliances.
Which of the security appliances you choose depends on your business activities and on the features you need. They range from WiFi access points and routers, to enterprise-grade firewalls. You can tell from the product description which supports a VPN connection (most do) and which can perform other functions to protect your network.
As an aside, organizations that have well-established networks may want to consider a software-defined WAN solution instead of a VPN approach. With SD-WAN, the corporate network extends directly to the user's location, providing robust security and reliability.
Those Other VPNs
Virtually every security software vendor sells a VPN (Dell currently resells VPN software from McAfee, Iolo and Avast), but there are also many standalone VPN makers. These products range in price from around $15 per month to free. Some companies find them useful for tasks such as booking travel, where the cost for tickets or accommodations may be different depending on the user's location. With gateways in dozens of countries, these products can make your remote requests seem local.
There are a few things to keep in mind, though. First, the encrypted pipe only goes as far as the gateway at the remote end. After that, your traffic isn't protected by the VPN. If you're also using an otherwise secure connection (look for HTTPS at the beginning of the URL) then it's still secured. This is important for any activity that involves sensitive data including credit card numbers.
Second, you need to know what data is collected by the VPN operator, including what information they keep in their logs. Be aware that some VPNs may use your data for advertising.
Third, remember that cheap or free VPNs have to get money from somewhere. If they're not getting money from you, then they're selling your information.
Finally, you need to know where the VPN operator is based. Your data will be subject to the laws of the country where the company is located, and the level of protection offered by some countries can be surprisingly low.
The critical priority is the safety of your company's data, and choosing the right VPN can help ensure that sensitive information isn't 'plucked out of the air' as it traverses the internet.