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14. Virtual Private Network uses public lines to link PCs

By Mark Alberstat


I ran across an acronym in an e-mail the other day and would like to know what it stands for. The letters are VPN.

Thank you,

Paul Seguin

VPN is an acronym people are hearing more and more recently but not a lot of people understand what they are or if they are operating on one.

VPN, or Virtual Private Network, uses public lines to connect PCs to each other and other networked elements. VPNs are much like WANs, or Wide Area Networks, but the main difference is the use of public lines.

Because of this, encryption is a key to their use and efficiency. Saving money by using public lines could quickly be undermined by competitors or 12-year-old hackers being able to retrieve your information as it goes skipping around the Internet.

VPNs have become increasingly popular as more companies have employees working far from their main offices or on the road. Hooking into a VPN gives that staff member a secure link to his or her office system to check supply, pick up mail, view documents or do any other task that could be done if sitting in their office attached to the company's main LAN, or Local Area Network.

This is all done, of course, without the use of expensive leased lines or even long-distance charges if the remote worker uses a local exchange to get onto the Internet and then into their company's network.

VPNs can be built in several ways; the most popular and flexible one being based on IP, or Internet Protocol. The popularity of this type stems from the fact that most companies' internal networks are based on IP technology, as well as making the connection to and use of the internal network relatively easy and familiar to most users.

When establishing a VPN the company's IT group has to decide what type of architecture they will use. There are three choices: hardware-based systems, firewall-based systems and software-based systems.

The hardware systems were the first to find their way onto the marketplace and are a type of encrypted router, something most network administrators are familiar with. Firewall-based VPNs are the most secure type and rely on the firewall's existing security.

The most flexible type is the software-based VPN. These are more popular when both ends of the VPN are not owned by the same company, such as a customer dialing in to check on inventory.

A few of the companies creating VPN hardware include Cisco, 3Com, Nortel and Nokia.

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Originally published 3 August 2003


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