Virtual Private Networks

Every industry has its share of arcane technical terms. Accountants have their terms, jargon like WIP, LLC and LCM. In baseball, you can call a hit all sorts of things including a rope, a dinger or a Texas leaguer. In automation we certainly have our share of technical jargon. There’s one in particular that I’ve been meaning to write about for a while, because while everyone uses VPNs, I’m not entirely sure that everyone really understands what a Virtual Private Network really is.

A VPN is what its name implies, a private network that doesn’t exist within the walls of your facility. A VPN is a private network that uses a public network like the Internet to connect remote sites or users together. It exists in cyberspace, linking remote computers together as it they actually were within the walls of your building. And it does it securely, encrypting all your network traffic, so that your security isn’t compromised.

Historically, companies have connected remote offices and factories using leased line connections. Leased lines, unlike the Internet, are dedicated to your data and provide more secure connections, but you have to pay a premium for them. With the current security, reliability and performance of VPN connections, many companies are now switching from leased lines to VPN using very fast Ethernet connections.

VPNs use tunneling protocols to implement the secure connections. Data is encrypted at the sending end and decrypted at the receiving end and sent through a tunnel. No one can enter that tunnel without the proper authorization. For additional security, the originating and receiving network addresses are also encrypted. That also makes it possible to conceal your actual Internet identity if that’s important to you.

VPNs have a lot of benefits:

1. VPNs can extend intranets worldwide to connect remote facilities together, or they can be used to make your home network available when you’re out of the house.

2. VPNs employ sophisticated encryption to ensure the security of your data. One of the least used benefits of VPNs is to connect to the Internet through the VPN instead of directly through the local WIFI connection. With the VPN, your data is encrypted and a local snooper isn’t going to be able to monitor your traffic or use the IP address of your traffic to access your computer.

3. VPNs are essentially free. A VPN Client is included in Windows, though there are a lot of commercial offerings that provide even better security and functionality.

4. VPNs allow for flexibility. A VPN can be used wherever there is an Internet connection, improving productivity for remote employees

There are a couple of downsides to VPNs that most people aren’t aware of. One is that your performance is at the mercy of the Internet provider. There is no Quality of Service (QoS) management over the Internet, and you can have packet loss and performance issues.

Another is that there are no standards for VPNs. Hopefully, you have engaged a competent IT professional to deploy your VPN or are leasing your VPN from some reliable provider. But don’t assume that just because it’s a VPN it’s reliable, secure and high performance. There are VPN providers that are unreliable, unsecure and sometimes not able to provide you with the performance you need. If you rely on your VPN for transferring critical business information, you need to verify that it’s up to the job.

There are some other disadvantages, but none of them have prevented the widespread acceptance and deployment of VPN technology.