Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.
A VPN or Virtual Private Network is a way to security connect with machines elsewhere or to securely connect to the internet from an unsecure location.
What is a VPN? How can I establish a VPN network? How can I get connected to it?
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network.
A VPN is a network of computers connected to each other virtually - using another network, like the internet, to carry the data. A VPN is private because even though the data might be carried over a public network, only those machines which are allowed to connect to the VPN can see the other machines on the VPN.
That's already getting complicated. I'll try and diagram it out a little.
In most network setups for home and business, your computers are connected through a router to the internet. That router handles the sharing of that single internet connection among your computer, but it also protects your computers from being "seen" by other computers on the internet.
By that, I mean that, while your computers can connect to each other and can connect out to resources that might be out on the internet, computers that are on the internet cannot connect directly to your computers behind the router. That's why we typically refer to a router as a firewall, and a pretty good one at that.
Unfortunately, that can be a problem when you're traveling.
In this case, your laptop may be able to access the internet just fine, but it can't access any of the computers or other resources back home or at the office - the router prevents it.
A VPN is a solution.
When a Virtual Private Network is created, it connects your remote laptop to your home network through the internet. The virtual network allows your remote computer to connect to any of the resources on your home network as if it were right there behind the router with them.
I'll say that again, because it's the key point of this type of VPN: when connected to this VPN, it's as if your remote laptop were behind the router with the rest of your computers at home or work.
Depending on the configuration of the VPN and your computer, you may be able to access only the resources on the virtual network, or both of those resources and the rest of the internet either directly as usual or by routing first through the VPN back home.
Another advantage of this VPN is that the information that travels on it is usually encrypted; that means that all of the information flowing between your computer and the machines back home or at the office can't be seen by computers that are not themselves part of the same VPN.
That encryption actually becomes the basis for a different kind of VPN, which I'll call the "coffee shop" VPN.
In this case, the VPN is established not between your work or home and your laptop, but rather between your laptop and a VPN service. All of your internet traffic is then routed through this service.
Your data is sent from your computer to the service over the internet, but that leg of the journey is encrypted by the VPN that you have established with the service. Then, your data travels on from that service to its intended destination elsewhere on the internet. The return traffic takes the reverse path - first to the service, and then on to you though the encrypted VPN.
Why bother? Well, as I've written about before, open WiFi hotspots can be dangerous places; anyone with a laptop and the right kind of software can snoop in on any unencrypted traffic. A VPN encrypts all of the traffic between you and the service, making your connection impervious to snooping.
I will say this: setting up your own VPN - perhaps grabbing open source VPN software and having a go at it - is not for the faint of heart. I've considered it, and set it aside as too difficult to set up and too easy to get wrong.
So ... good luck with that.
Instead, focus on one of these alternatives instead.
Hamachi - LogMeIn Hamachi is a free-for-personal use VPN. You run the Hamachi client on any number of computers and those computer are then connected to each other via the Hamachi VPN. It's perhaps the easiest solution for folks who simply want to connect back to their home network. It's what I use when I'm traveling exactly for that purpose.
VPN Routers - This is on my list to investigate. Routers can now be purchased that include various forms of VPN technology built in. Rather than buying a software solution, such as Hamachi, using a VPN-supporting router should allow you to simply use the VPN client options already built in to Windows to connect.
VPN Services - There are a number of VPN services, both free and paid, that handle the coffee-shop scenario which I've described above. Most suffer from some amount of performance degradation as the data has to go through an additional server layer, and the free services may simply not have the resources to keep up. I have heard good things about WiTopia and HotSpotVPN, but I have not used either, or any of the free services that are out there.
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