Is a VPN worth it? In this guide to Virtual Private Networking (VPN), you will be introduced to what VPN really is and how it works.

VPNs help to make your connection on the web secure and private. You can access geo-restricted content that was originally not meant for your location. VPN security works through various tunneling protocols like OpenVPN, IPSec, SSTP, IKEv2 and so on. These protocols can be combined to give extra security. At first, VPNs were used by businesses to secure their data but now VPN services have extended into personal use.

Once you’ve read through the guide, you will be able to answer the question, are VPNs worth it?

What is a VPN?

A VPN is a private network extended over a public network. Users can connect to it from anywhere and appear as part of the private network. A VPN effectively encodes and hides your internet connection by encrypting your traffic and changing your IP address.

The VPN hides the user both from their online destination and their ISP. So how do VPNs work?

How Does a VPN Work?

A VPN is a set of servers to which you connect in order to safely surf the net. Once you have established a connection with your chosen VPN server, it acts as your virtual home on the internet. It will seem as if you’re located somewhere other than your real location. As you use the web in this way, all of the data you send and receive is encrypted. Do VPNs really work? We shall ascertain that as we explore further.

VPN Client

In order to enjoy the benefits, you will either have to manually configure a VPN on your device (which can be almost any device that connects to the net) or download a program that will take care of the technical part. This program is called a VPN client.

A VPN client is a device or piece of software looking to make a connection to a VPN network and use its data services. It is part of the infrastructure and is the end receiver of VPN services.

A VPN client can be built as a standalone device or a standard networking program installed on a device. Basically, a VPN client first creates a connection to a server, which mimics the user to the destination server, showing it a different IP address.

VPN protocols (how secure is a VPN?)

VPN protocols define how data transmission is being handled and encrypted over a VPN connection. VPNs use a number of different security protocols. The popular ones are Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol (SSTP), Point-to-Point Tunneling (PPTP), Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol (L2TP), IKEV2, and OpenVPN.

These different types of protocols create a protected “tunnel” for your packet data exchange allowing you the ability to go on the internet via public WiFi but with the safety net of a private connection. These protocols function in different ways and have unique attributes.

SSTP and PPTP

Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol (SSTP) is a protocol built by Microsoft. Its connection is established using Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) and Transport Layer Security (TLS), which is a standard mode of encryption.

SSL and TLS security strength is built on a setup in which only the two parties involved in the transfer can decode the data within this type of encryption can also be referred to as symmetric-key cryptography. Overall, SSTP is a very secure solution.

Point-To-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP) is one of the oldest protocols in use, originally designed by Microsoft. The good thing about this protocol is that it can work on old computers and it is part of the Windows operating system. PPTP is very easy to configure if you are going DIY.

However, the downside with this protocol is that by today’s standards, the security is not up to par.

L2TP/IPsec

Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol and Internet Protocol Security (L2TP/IPsec). The concept of L2TP is great as it uses keys to establish a secure connection on each end of your data tunnel but not very secure (no encryption), hence the addition of the IPsec protocol. There are some reports of NSA’s alleged ability to crack this protocol. This is why it is increasingly being avoided.

IKEv2 and OpenVPN

Internet Key Exchange, Version 2 (IKEv2) was jointly developed by Cisco and Microsoft. It is a request-and-response security protocol that automatically initiates as well as handles data exchange attributes in an authentication suite, usually IPSec, to ensure a more secure connection. IKEv2 is very easy to configure and highly secure. It is also one of the fastest VPN protocols.

OpenVPN is one of the best protocols you can ever use. It’s based on SSL/TLS and it can also use the HMAC packet authentication attribute to add a layer of security to the connection. The protocol is open-source, so it is regularly improved by a lot of developers.

A connection is secured by making use of keys that can be decoded only by the two parties on both ends of the exchange. OpenVPN uses different methods to validate peers with each other. Some of which are pre-shared keys, username/password-based and certificate-based authentication.

How to Choose a VPN Provider

When you decide to start using a VPN service, please note that not all services are great. Here is a list of attributes to watch out for before you make your decision:

  1. Security: make sure the VPN uses the latest security protocols like OpenVPN.
  2. Privacy: some VPNs keep logs of their users’ activities, check the privacy policy.
  3. Speed: using a VPN service will ultimately reduce your speed, do check how much impact a service would have on your connection.
  4. Number of countries and servers: the greater the number used by the VPN service, the better your chances are for having high speed and accessibility. You should explore the server list shown on the website for the VPN.
  5. Kill switch: this option stops your internet connection when it discovers that your VPN connection has stopped. Select a VPN that has an integrated kill switch option.

Finally, check different reviews to see what others have to say about the service.

VPN versus proxy

An alternative to what VPN provides is using a proxy. Your computer first connects to the proxy, and then to the web, so your internet connection appears to come from the proxy. However, proxies only function at the application level.

Using a proxy is cheap as there are many free proxy sites on the web, which is good if you are just simply cloaking your IP address to visit a site. However, if security is very important to you, just stick with using a VPN.

Uses of VPNs

Using VPN is totally legal in all countries except countries that expressly state otherwise. The only reason VPNs seem shady is the activity that many users use it for. So as a business or individual, you can use a VPN and still be on the right side of the law.

So what are the benefits of using a VPN?

  1. Improved security: the major reason for using a VPN is the extra security it offers. You have no fear of being hacked as your data is secure.
  2. Bypassing restrictions: some contents are restricted to a particular region, this can be seen on Netflix and some other streaming platforms. Using a VPN may give you access to this content even if you are not in the right country.
  3. Buying cheap products: big e-commerce businesses like Amazon have different prices for different countries. When shopping, use a VPN and connect with different servers to check the price difference of a particular product, then shop using the location with the lowest price.

How to use a VPN

After getting a brief introduction to what VPN is all about, follow the steps below to start using a VPN. The steps outlined are generally broad because different VPN providers have specific methods but most VPN platforms will take you through the whole installation process:

Step 1: decide whether you want to use a paid or free VPN. Free VPN services are usually either not very private or severely limited.

Step 2: after choosing a service, visit the website and register, you will be directed to where you will download a VPN client.

Step 3: after installing the client, fill in your login credentials, which will be given to you when you register with the service.

Step 4: turn on the kill switch (if there is one) in the Settings tab.

Step 5: Pick a protocol, preferably, OpenVPN, then pick a server and click connect. You can now surf the net safely.

Bottom Line

Using a VPN service is totally worth it, as you are able to maintain security and privacy as well as the ability to bypass geo-restricted content originally not meant for your location. At first, only big corporations used VPNs to encode their data but now VPNs are widely used by individuals.