VPNs offer privacy over a public backbone

From a systems standpoint, security always seems to make its way to the top of any task list. Hackers, disgruntled ex-employees, unscrupulous competitors—there’s always someone somewhere who enjoys (or even makes a living at) sabotaging networks and thus crippling business.

Many companies have been turning their attention to virtual private networks (VPNs) to help ensure that their networks remain their own and that only those who are allowed access to it actually get in. VPNs are a stark contrast to the traditional way in which remote users dialed into a network, thus racking up long-distance and Internet-provider charges.

VPNs seem to be the latest, greatest craze in the IT world. In fact, International Data Corp. published a forecast that places the value of the VPN network to reach upward of $8 billion by 2004. That figure definitely helps explain why the subject keeps receiving so much attention. VPNs are more popular in larger businesses that need to support a variety of remote users, but both small and medium-sized companies are quickly jumping on the VPN bandwagon simply for the security features that they inherently include. Adding a VPN is relatively inexpensive.

The basic premise behind this technology is that companies can establish their own network (which is private) by using public access, generally the Internet. Operating a network in this capacity allows authorized users the ability to tap into the main network from essentially any location (remote or not) and access all available files, applications and programs. VPNs are easily scalable, which makes adding new and additional users much more simple than doing so without a VPN. So, a VPN is a network that allows access to another network.

Setting up shop

To set up a VPN there are few requirements. First, you need to have a VPN router to funnel the main application and you need to have a software package that supports the system. This software that needs to be installed on every computer that will link into the network. Prices for both software and routers have come down over the years, which is why VPNs are become more and more commonplace in all size businesses.

The software allows access to the main network via the VPN. To gain entry, the user must enter a user name and password, though some more sophisticated versions use such things as hardware authentication keys to verify that both the user and computer are authorized to link into the network.

Additionally, you need to have a tunneling protocol in place that allows for the remote computer to communicate with the host network in a manner that is understood by all.

Security

There are two security aspects of VPNs that set them apart. The first is PPTP (point-to-point tunneling protocol) and the second is L2TP (layer 2 tunneling protocol). There are others, and more will probably enter into the equation in the near future. The choice is sometimes simply dependent upon which company you like best.

These tunneling protocols are required to help ensure the privacy of the network since the VPN does use a public domain as the virtual backbone of the system. In addition to this tunneling technology, encryption is the other required element to ensure the security of the network and most tunneling packages include this.

Because of these enhanced security features, many have found that VPNs are much more secure than simply allowing access via other, older methods. In addition, by using the Internet as the communications method, companies save money due to no long distance charges whereas in the past if someone needed to dial in to the network they would have to do so regardless of their location and the calling charges associated with such remote dialing.

Contractors who deal with tele/data communications have probably already come across a situation (or two) where a client wants to understand how they can protect their network in ways that go beyond firewalls and backups. This is the perfect place to start educating them on the benefits associated with VPNs and how you as the contractor can help make it a reality. Once again, VPNs are something that should at best be in a contractor’s suite of offerings, and at the least be in their repertoire of understanding. Helping your customers will always be a key to success. EC

STONG-MICHAS, a freelance writer, lives in central Pennsylvania. She can be reached at JenLeahS@msn.com.