A virtual private network (VPN) creates an encrypted connection between a device and a server. For businesses, VPNs allow employees to access internal company data easily and safely, regardless of their physical location. In the remote work era, VPNs have become an essential tool for many companies. Here's everything you should know about using a business VPN and how to choose the right one for you.
What is a business VPN?
In general, a VPN is an internet security service that establishes a secure connection between user devices and one or more servers. A VPN designed specifically for business allows team members to connect to the company server with their remote computers or smart devices, regardless of their location, without compromising the security of their web traffic.
"[Business] VPNs … are designed to give people working remotely a secure connection into the company network," said Stephen Arndt, president of Silver Linings Technology. "It creates a 'tunnel' from wherever the worker accesses it, directly into the company's database, usually via an internet connection."
The ultimate goal of a business VPN is to prevent a company's private or sensitive data from being exposed on the internet. Without a VPN, employees would need to connect to the company's internal network over the public internet, leaving their web traffic vulnerable to attack.
However, a business VPN's encrypted connection enables team members who are working remotely to access internal applications and data. It also allows businesses with multiple office locations to keep everyone and everything integrated on a single network. [Read related article: Don't Want a VPN? 4 Alternatives to Consider]
What are the benefits of using a VPN for business?
Using a VPN for your business can offer several advantages.
Since a VPN establishes secure connections between end users' devices and your connected network or resources, it increases security and protection for your company's data. For example, if your company uses cloud-based applications or data storage, a business VPN provides an extra layer of security. VPNs also give companies and employees online anonymity by masking their true IP addresses. This not only means that web data can't be traced back to the user device, but also makes it significantly harder for hackers to breach your business's systems.
Remote data access
Access to your company's data, regardless of your physical location, is a huge benefit of business VPNs. Businesses with multiple office locations can streamline their processes by allowing everyone to log in to a single server. Additionally, employees who are working from home or traveling can use their devices to access data from the company server safely.
Business VPNs are an affordable way to keep your company's users and data safe. Many commercially licensed VPN services cost less than $10 per user, per month.
A VPN eliminates many of the restrictions of the open web, particularly those of other countries. Whether your employees are traveling to countries that restrict web access or simply need access to content or programs that are only available in a certain area, a business VPN can mask their true location and maintain open access.
What features should a business VPN have?
While business VPNs can offer a variety of features, here are some of the most important.
While every VPN offers software for Windows PCs, not all services offer mobile functionality. If your employees use smartphones or tablets at work, you must find a business VPN that supports mobile platforms. Most VPNs have apps for Android and iOS/Apple at minimum, and some even offer services for platforms such as Linux and Windows phones.
Multiple server locations
A VPN uses encryption to hide a user's data, allowing them to take on the IP address of the web server rather than their device's true IP address. Therefore, it's critical to use a business VPN that offers multiple server locations. This not only increases your web traffic's anonymity and access to location-bound services, but also offers better performance due to users being spread out among various servers.
A kill switch
Even the best business VPN is not 100% secure and can be susceptible to IP leaks, which reveal a device's true IP address. This is more likely to happen when the VPN service is overloaded. To combat this, some VPN services integrate a kill switch, which shuts down data transfer in the event of a failed connection. Many kill switches are turned off by default, so you may need to go into your VPN's settings to turn it on.
Anonymous DNS servers
When you type an address into a web browser's address bar, it transforms into an IP address that the web uses to direct traffic. This process is called Domain Name System (DNS) resolution, and it's typically done by default through a user's internet service provider (ISP). Because the goal of a VPN is privacy, it should protect your company during the DNS translation process as well, keeping data away from the ISP. Therefore, it's best to look for a VPN provider that uses its own anonymous DNS.
What types of business VPNs are there?
Business VPNs fall into one of two categories: remote access VPNs and site-to-site VPNs.
Remote access VPNs
Remote access VPNs establish a connection between users and a remote network, typically a company's internal network. To access the remote network, a user must activate their VPN client, which is the VPN software installed on their device. This activation establishes an encrypted "tunnel" to the network access server (NAS), which is the dedicated server (or software application on a shared service) connected to the business's internal network.
Site-to-site VPNs establish a single network that is shared across multiple locations, each of which can have multiple individual users. Rather than being hosted on each user's device, the VPN client is hosted on each location's local network. In this model, access is limited to in-office operations.
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What are the drawbacks of using VPNs?
Although VPNs offer businesses several advantages, there are some potential drawbacks to keep in mind.
- Security risks: While VPNs make it significantly harder for hackers to access sensitive information, an attacker who makes it through can easily access all applications and data on the network.
- Cloud-based VPN complexities: If you use a cloud-based VPN, your NAS is in a different physical location from your company's internal network. This adds latency to every request between your employees and the network. Also, business apps that are hosted in the cloud (rather than an internal network) are incompatible with VPNs and often have their own internal security tools.
- Increasing costs for onsite VPNs: While an onsite NAS eliminates the latency of a cloud-based connection, it also loses the benefit of automatic updates. Therefore, your company would be responsible for replacing the NAS hardware as new cyberthreats emerge. You might also need to replace hardware as your employees' VPN use increases to prevent the server from overloading and crashing.
- Maintenance: From installing VPN clients on every remote employee's computer to ensuring that all software is up to date, VPNs require a lot of IT maintenance. This is especially true if you use multiple VPNs to give employees different levels of access.
Consumer vs. business VPNs: What's the difference?
While business VPNs and consumer VPNs serve a similar function, there are some key differences, mainly related to their primary goal and users.
"Both … can focus on remote access and security, but a business VPN will need to have more features," said Pablo Listingart, founder and owner of ComIT. "[It needs] the ability to support multiple remote users [and] the capacity to handle the security of business accounts beyond that of individual users."
While consumer VPNs are typically used for individual purposes, such as unblocking a certain service or website, business VPNs focus on business security and data protection. Since they need to protect the privacy of an entire business, they must offer additional protection against hacking and unwanted surveillance.
Business VPNs are also designed for multiple users and devices, typically under a single account, while consumer VPNs are designed for one user or device at a time. As a result, business VPNs provide a dedicated IP address and server, while consumer VPN IPs can change and even be shared with other users.
"The main focus for a business should center on the security of the platform and the viability of multi-user management," Listingart said. "With a business VPN, the information of the company will be accessed remotely by its employees, [so] security policies are of critical importance."