Since the Covid-19 Virus hit the world and companies sent their employees home to work, many people heard a new term for the first time, VPN.
Why do I need a VPN to access my company files?
There’s a lot to this question so, hold on, here we go… It will be fun!
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. In simple terms, you are creating an extension of your company’s network when you are physically in a different location like your home or at a hotel while traveling. In theory, you could be connected while on a sandy beach somewhere doing your work. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? However, we don’t recommend this because gritty beach sand gets into EVERYTHING!
When you are in a VPN “session”, your computer can behave the same way as if it was sitting in your company office connected to the company network. For example, you can read emails and do anything you would normally do if you were sitting at your office desk. You can even access files and print to a printer at the corporate office.
However, someone else will have to pick the paper up off the printer of course because you are not there. Unfortunately, the VPN technology cannot help you pick up the print job! Maybe version 2.0 can do that?
Newer technologies can use the VPN session to seamlessly communicate with co-workers via video telephones on your computer. You can have water cooler chat sessions in applications like Teams, WebEx, Zoom, or Lync, conduct virtual meetings, and even work with applications that may need to run on a server in the corporate office. It all might sound like science fiction, except it is not fiction, it’s real!
How does a VPN work?
The technical details can be complex, but the concept is simple. You want to securely communicate via the Internet with your company network. You don’t want the bad guys hijacking your data, knowing your passwords, or seeing sensitive information. For example, that bad employee review you gave Bob, even though he totally deserved it.
In order to do that, your IT department will create a VPN “tunnel” that burrows through the various devices and networks that make up the “internet”. This is an encrypted “tunnel”. That means any information that is moving over the “tunnel” cannot be intercepted by a bad guy. Any data they may capture is useless because they don’t have the key to unlock your data.
Most of the work to create this “tunnel” is done by a piece of software called a VPN client. There are many different clients to choose from. Often, the manufacturer of the network appliance will also create a VPN client that is installed on the user’s PC. Mac OS X, Windows, Linux, etc. all have VPN clients that can be used.
The settings can be difficult to set up, but usually, the IT department will prepare a file to guide you or pre-set the VPN client settings for you. You can also call your friendly neighborhood Advanced Imaging Solutions Help Desk Technician to help you out!
How to Use a VPN Client
To get started, the only thing a user must do is click on the VPN client icon and launch the application. The user must have an Internet connection. Once opened, entered the username and password. The rest will happen “automagically”.
How to Ensure a Strong Connection
VPN tunnels require a physical line. The tunnel won’t work very well with wireless technologies like Cell Hot Spots, Cell Phone Tethering (i.e. connecting a computer to a cell phone wirelessly to get to the Internet) or other wireless technologies. A Wi-Fi connection between your laptop and the ISP modem is ok but not the best situation. The speed will be a little slower and the reliability will not be as good as a physical wired connection, but it will work.
Satellite Internet Service Providers will not work either. The time it takes for the data stream to go into outer space, bounce off the satellite (that your crazy neighbor could swear is an alien spacecraft) and back down to the dish is too slow.
A good example of this situation is a TV news reporter reporting from a report location. They are using a satellite signal to feed back to the studio. The conversation usually has a noticeable delay. A VPN tunnel cannot tolerate that delay. The tunnel will “collapse” and disconnect you. Fortunately, when a VPN tunnel collapses, the VPN client will attempt to reconnect you automatically. So, often the disruption is a short time. Also, no miners are ever harmed in the collapsing of the tunnel.
The version of Windows you use can impact your use of a VPN. It is always best to use Windows 10 Pro or Enterprise edition. The version for Home is not designed to work on a business network. It may cause problems with the VPN connection. Just be aware!
VPN tunnels are used in other areas of your company network you, as a user, never see but always benefit from. The IT department in some companies that have a main office and multiple branch offices will create VPN tunnels to connect networks together using the Internet. This practice saves a lot of money by avoiding a dedicated line between the locations.
A branch network will connect with a main office network in the same way that a user would connect via a VPN client. In this situation, the VPN tunnel is created and kept up and running all the time (unless Bob spills his Coke on the network equipment…AGAIN! That guy). This is a Point-to-Point VPN.
The next time you meet up with an IT person, tell them you know what a Point-to-Point VPN is and why it exists. You will impress them!
Now you know what a VPN is and why it’s necessary for remote business operation. If you need help setting up a VPN for your organization contact one of our IT specialists. We’re here to help!