Virtual Private Networks VPN How Do They Work?



 You may have heard of something called a VPN… You may know that this stands for Virtual Private Network VPN. You may even have used one to access the US version of Netflix (which has an insanely larger library of titles than most other countries) or websites blocked in your country. While these are indeed examples of virtual private networks VPN, they do not tell the whole story. In this article we explore virtual private networks, their inception, how they work, and how they are used.

LANs and intranets

First, a little background on networks. You may recall that LAN stands for local area network, and it is a type of computer network where connected devices are in the same physical location. Controlling information over a LAN is easy because you can restrict access to it, whether by a physical cabled connection or through authentication for wireless connection. If a LAN is restricted to a specific entity or organization, it is called an intranet.

LAN Local Area Network structure

What does this have to do with VPNs?

Businesses and governments have intranets to allow communication over closed networks. This is important for the security of transmitted information, as interception could have dire consequences. The problem is, they also often need to securely communicate with personnel or other sites that are geographically remote from the LAN. Sending the information over the regular internet would be an invitation for competitors, enemies, and hackers to acquire it. One way to remedy this was to extend a cable to that remote site, ensuring that nobody would have access to the information transmitted within. The problem with that – as you can imagine – was the astronomical cost required to extend cables over long distances, the risks of cable breakage and failure, and the fact that it can only be extended to one location… what happens if the person is on the move, accessing from several different locations? A solution was needed to be able to securely transmit information to and from the organization’s intranet, without being visible to the public internet. This was what fuelled the creation of virtual private networks VPN.

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How it works

VPNs basically create a secure tunnel over the internet for information to travel along, which can only be accessed by the sender and recipient. 

 Information on the internet is sent in the form of packets, bits of data that have a sender’s address and a recipient’s address, showing where they’re coming from and where they’re going. What a VPN does is hide the packets of data inside other packets, so that the information in the inner packet (the payload) is invisible to the public. This process is called encapsulation, and it can also hide the sender and recipient addresses so that no information about the payload can be obtained. The external packet will actually have different addresses, which masks the location of the sender, and can make it appear as if they are somewhere else.

Types of virtual private networks VPN

Depending on what is being connected, VPNs come in one of the following types: 

Types of VPN

  • Remote-Access VPN (User-to-LAN): This allows a single user to securely connect to a remote LAN. This can be used when an employee wants to connect to his company’s intranet from another location.
  • Site-to-Site VPN (LAN-to-LAN): This allows an entire LAN to be securely connected to another LAN at a remote location, it can occur in two formats:
    • Intranet: Where both LANs are part of the same intranet, such as 2 branches of the same organization, both having access to its intranet.
    • Extranet: Where each LAN may have its own intranet, but they still want to connect securely and remotely, such as a vendor organization allowing secure access to employees in a client organization to components of its network. Each organization still has its own intranet, which is inaccessible to the other organization.

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Components of the VPN

In order to create the tunnel, the VPN requires a server to handle the transmission of information, called a network access server (NAS) or remote access server (RAS), and a VPN client at the remote location to encapsulate the information and send it to the server. VPN clients can be standalone proprietary software purchased from 3rd parties, or they can be part of the operating system on devices, which can be set up by IT professionals. In the case of a remote-access VPN, the client is on the user’s computer. In the case of site-to-site VPN, the client can be on a server that handles connections from all users at the remote site.

Other components can include:

  • AAA servers, which carry out three functions: Authentication (making sure the senders and recipients are who they’re supposed to be), Authorization (making sure anybody who accesses the network has clearance to do so), and Accounting (logging the activity of users on the network).
  • Firewalls that govern what information that can enter the LAN from the internet and over which channels.

More sophisticated virtual private networks VPN can have dedicated devices that carry out the roles mentioned above and others.


VPN Masking users

 So far, we’ve been highlighting the original, official, and business uses of virtual private networks VPN, but it didn’t take long for the technology to spread into the general commercial realm as well. People wanted to be able to hide their identity, information, and location from any prying eyes, browsing the internet anonymously, which VPNs can help them achieve. Another reason for public demand for VPNs was that many countries imposed restrictions on what their citizens could access via the internet. Through a VPN a user could basically “tunnel out of their country” and make it seem like they’re browsing the restricted website from another location.

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While people might have thought of virtual private networks VPN as dodgy, they do – as we’ve illustrated – have important real-world uses. Businesses and governments rely on VPNs to allow private connections to remote personnel and sites. The general public also use them to browse anonymously and access geographically restricted content. There will – however – always be ethical and security issues regarding the use of VPNs. Should users bypass the restrictions of their countries? Can countries ban the use of VPNs? Do VPNs keep track of and store users’ browsing activity? Should they relinquish that data when asked? With the ongoing advancement of new technology, you should constantly be learning about the capabilities and implications of emerging tech in order to safeguard yourself against malice. Browse responsibly.  


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