Skip to content (Press Enter)

What is a VPN?

If your office is frequently sharing important documents online, do you know if a VPN is the best option for collaboration? And with so much riding on your Internet presence, just how safe is your team?

Learn why Dropbox is a VPN alternative
A person connecting to a VPN via their laptop

VPN meaning

‘VPN’ is a common term, especially when it comes to remote teams, but do you know what it means? VPN is an acronym for Virtual Private Network. As the name implies, a VPN creates a virtual space for you to operate in when you’re online. But what are the benefits – if any?

What does a VPN do?

VPNs claim to offer numerous advantages for home Internet users and busy workspaces, such as:

Permitting remote access

A VPN allows you to create a private remote network of select devices, which is ideal for remote workers. This enables your team to stay connected – safely – even when miles, or continents, apart.

Better security

If you log in to Wi-Fi hotspots to get online, such as on the train to work or in a coffee shop, a VPN can keep your data secure. Public Wi-Fi can be a great commodity, but it isn’t as safe as your home or work Internet connection. By creating a VPN tunnel – picture it like a protective casing around your data – even if your Wi-Fi connection is compromised, your data is fully encrypted using AES (Advanced Encryption Standard). Until your data reaches its intended destination, it cannot be deciphered, so you can browse, email or pay by credit card securely even on a public Wi-Fi network. This is known as PPTP, Point-to-Point Tunnelling Protocol.

Bypassing location blockers

Because a VPN hides your location and lets you choose a server in a certain region, you can view content from anywhere. If you were in China, for example, and wanted to access your social media accounts, you might find that many of these sites are blocked. However, by configuring your VPN to provide an IP based in the US, your Internet would reflect your connection as though you were in the United States.

Negate throttling

While this may not be true for all VPNs and all Internet Service Providers (ISPs), sometimes a VPN service can help bypass network traffic restrictions. For example, if your ISP starts throttling your data after a certain limit, a VPN can help mask some of your activity, making your data allowance last longer. That said, using a VPN in general can slow down your broadband connection as there is a whole extra step of rerouting your connection through a VPN server. However, this is typically an issue for home broadband rather than business scenarios.

So how does VPN work?

Essentially, a VPN masks your identity, location and activity online. When you connect to the Internet, your Internet service provider (ISP) uses its servers to get you online. Because a VPN makes this connection through a private server, any data that’s possibly transmitted from your computer comes from the VPN instead.

VPN providers use encryption and Internet Protocol Security (IPSec) to ‘package’ your data so it’s securely wrapped until it reaches your destination. This is known as L2TP (Layer Two Tunnelling Protocol). If you’re browsing online, your IP address (Internet Protocol address) isn’t displayed as the IP address your ISP assigns you, but as an IP address from the VPN server.

What is an IP address?

An Internet Protocol (IP) address, is a set of numbers used to identify your device when you connect to the Internet. An IP address serves as identification and helps pinpoint your location. In some cases, this can be beneficial, say if you’re a small business and need your website and location to be firmly logged for local customers. If your team opts for a VPN connection but you still need to keep your IP address, there are specific VPNs for this.

The main reason VPNs aim to hide IP addresses is because they can give away your location. If a hacker gets access to your IP address, for example, they can see your latest online activity and potentially hack into your accounts. It’s not just hackers, though. Have you ever wondered how the ads you see in your social media channels seem to know exactly what you’ve been searching for? It’s because your ISP sells information about your Internet activity. A VPN prevents this from happening as your IP address is hidden.

Why people choose VPNs

One of the most compelling reasons to use a VPN in a work environment is to safely connect a remote team. With greater security and accessibility, your team can work more efficiently.

  • Greater confidence online: A VPN means you can trust that your data is safe, even when file sharing.
  • Client confidence: Clients may expect you to have a VPN or equally secure service in place before they hand over any documents.
  • Remote network: A VPN allows your internal network to extend beyond the office.

Using a VPN

Consider the following when thinking about equipping your work PC or whole team with a VPN service:

  • VPN location: Will a VPN work in your chosen destination based on the provider location? For example, if you want to access a site that is blocked to your UK location, you’ll need a server that is based in the site’s preferred country. Check your VPN has servers there. Further, a VPN will abide by the rules of the country it operates in, not that of its customer, (more on that below).
  • VPN type: VPNs can be as simple as extension add-ons or as extensive as a whole corporate VPN network. If your office is looking to improve its collaborative tools, you’ll need to look at corporate options.
  • Cost: The more complex the VPN, the higher the cost. For corporate VPN services, you’re looking at a custom-built IT solution that is likely to be a substantial investment.
  • Operating systems: You’ll need to pick a VPN service that is compatible with your operating system. Linux computers, for example, may need a different VPN client from Microsoft Windows.
  • Device: If you plan to use a VPN on your mobile devices, like your phone or tablet, you may need a different VPN from the one you select for your laptop.

Are VPNs secure?

With so much emphasis on privacy and security, it’s tempting to think of a VPN as a virtual bullet-proof vest against Internet hackers. Unfortunately, this isn’t quite true. At its most secure, a VPN can give you a safe way to get online without worrying about security threats. However, VPNs aren’t impervious to hacking themselves. Plus, using a VPN to stop your ISP keeping tabs on you isn’t foolproof. Numerous cases have shown that some VPNs do log your activity even after saying they keep no logs at all.

The extent of this will depend on the location of the VPN provider themselves as they’ll need to conform to different rules. Within Europe, for example, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) prevents this from happening. Still, you shouldn’t assume your VPN is an infallible option to online security.

What are the downsides to a VPN?

There are many benefits to a VPN, though many of these perks can also be accessed through alternative means. Remote working, for example, can be successful using other software or services which don’t require as much set-up, maintenance or cost.

Consider the cons of a VPN before you go ahead:

  • Can be costly, especially for a corporate set-up
  • Requires maintenance for businesses
  • A remote network needs to be initially set up by an IT specialist – Dropbox requires only a simple sign-up
  • Isn’t always as secure as it may seem
  • Can significantly slow down your Internet speed
  • In some countries, VPNs are seen as a legal grey area or illegal

Some brands have made efforts to block users who are using VPNs – this could result in a black mark against a company account.

In the end, you should consider what you really want to achieve with a VPN. Can you collaborate just as efficiently using a tool like Dropbox? Can you surf the web as freely using an online proxy server? Can you keep security levels high with up-to-date anti-malware and firewall programs? If the answer is yes to any of these, a VPN may be an unnecessarily complex solution.

What are the VPN alternatives?

If your main reason for using a VPN is to make sure your team can stay connected remotely, there are better alternatives. VPNs definitely have their advantages in various areas, but when it comes to remote working, the cost and time needed to get a corporate VPN up and running can seem daunting. Even tech-savvy users can find the multi-step process of connecting to a file server via VPN irritating. Dropbox provides file security and enables remote access by just signing in, making it a simple and effective VPN alternative for these needs.

Should my business use a VPN?

There are many benefits to using a VPN, although the exact type you need to use can be the difference between a great tool or a needless expense. VPN protocol is hard to beat when it comes to protecting your data at a network level, but a good security framework consisting of suitable anti-malware software can offer strong protection for your devices. A corporate VPN will require time to be built and on-boarded. It also requires maintenance and a dedicated IT specialist to keep it going. For simple remote working and file sharing, Dropbox is a better option.

Discover a better way to work together.

Get started with Dropbox Business