What Is Virtual Private Network?

By Jack Gerard

A virtual private network, also known as a VPN or simply as a virtual network, is a means by which an individual computer or network can connect to a network in a different location. VPN connections must be set up in advance and the connecting user has to have the rights to access one or more computers on the host network, making them a relatively safe and secure means of remote network access. Two types of virtual networks exist, allowing either a single user or a full network to access the host network through the VPN connection.


A virtual private network allows a remote user to connect to a network at another location, generally their home or office. The connection is functionally similar to a local area network (LAN) connection that would be created through the use of ethernet cables or a WiFi connection. As the connection occurs over the Internet, the speed of the connection may be slower than a local connection would be.


Virtual private networks can allow individuals to be more productive by letting them access files from their home or work computer. When two networks are connected through a virtual network connection, collaboration between two groups can be improved since each networked team will have access to the network resources of the other team as well. VPNs can also be useful for business travellers, allowing them to file reports or access new materials directly while still travelling.


There are two types of virtual private networks: user-to-network connections and network-to-network connections. In a user-to-network connection, a single user accesses a remote network. They gain access to the distant network while users of the network are only able to access the network resources of the single user. In a network-to-network connection, one or more networked computers will connect via VPN to computers that are networked in another location. These networked computers (and any other computers that share a network with them and use them as an access point to the virtual network) will be able to access the available network resources of the distant host network, while their full network resources will be made available as well.


The usefulness of a virtual private network can depend on a few factors. The speed at which files and other resources can be transferred through a virtual network connection depends on the internet connection speed of both parties, and can be significantly slower than an in-network transfer when computers are physically connected together. A VPN also depends on needed files and resources being open to sharing; if a VPN is connected to a host network that does not allow file sharing, the remote user will be unable to access the network resources that they are attempting to use. The name of the virtual private network and IP address of the host computer or server will be needed to access the network, so they must be written down or stored as an Internet shortcut if the virtual network connection is going to be used.


While a virtual private network is generally considered to be a secure network connection, it is important to remember that it is still a means of providing direct network access over the Internet. Make sure that no unwanted computers are able to connect to the user computer or network that is accessing the VPN in order to prevent unauthorized access. Likewise, access data such as the virtual network name and IP address should never be shared, and the connection should be closed completely after each session has been completed.