The small business guide to virtual private networks

The small business guide to virtual private networks

Connecting people together over the Internet when you're dealing with sensitive business data means thinking about security. Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are one way to make this secure connection, but how do you set one up?

Business is now transacted on the move. Increasingly small businesses in particular are being formed as geographically remote groups that use the latest mobile communications technologies to stay in touch. Even if your business is office based, at some point remote workers will have to be supported.

As communications between remote workers will usually mean using a publicly accessible network such as the Internet, securely connecting these individuals together becomes a top priority. With what could be commercially sensitive information moving between the secure business and the insecure home worker, security suddenly become vital, which is where a VPN comes in very handy indeed.

If you are a very small company and only need to securely connect a small number of people to your network a VPN may not be appropriate. In these cases services such as GoToMyPC [] and LogMeIn [] are fast and simple to set-up and use. Both services have a security component, but you will need to assess for yourself how robust these protocols are, and whether they are robust enough to deliver the levels of security your business needs.

A well-constructed and maintained VPN can offer your business a number of benefits that include:

  1. Secure data connections between geographically dispersed workers.
  2. Flexibility with how your business organises its workforce.
  3. A good VPN can be scaled as your business grows and expands.
  4. Cost savings with reduced need for commuting or travel for physical meetings.
  5. Productivity and efficiency can be improved right across your business.

Once set up, a VPN can become the backbone of your business, as it can route data to any location efficiently and securely.

How does a VPN work?

A VPN allows any remote member of your business to connect to your office-based network just as if they were connected directly on a wired or wireless connection in the office. This type of VPN is often referred to as a Virtual Private Dial-up Network.

There are two parts to a VPN: The first is called a NAS or Network Access Server that makes the connection between your office computers or servers and the remote worker. The second component is software that allows the remote worker to enter their security credentials to make a connection. Most operating systems now have this software built in. However, if your business buys a third-party VPN it's likely the suppliers will have their own software that must be installed.

An alternative type of VPN is called a site-to-site VPN. If your business has several offices, you can connect them all together using this type of VPN. Your business in effect expands its network to cover all its office locations. Data can then flow between these offices securely using the VPN.

The security protocols that can be used with a VPN generally fall into two categories: Symmetric-key encryption that uses the same encryption for all computers. And public-key encryption that uses a pair of keys to authenticate the user and encrypt and decrypt the data sent.

Increasing your data security

The power of a VPN comes from its ability to secure the data that travels between each computer. There are basically two types of VPNs that are defined by the security protocols they use.

IPSec (Internet Protocol Security) VPNs secures the network with installed encryption systems on the router with a programme installed in the notebook PC or smartphone of every user that wants to connect to the network. This form of security is popular, as from the users point of view once they are logged on they can use your business' servers just as if they were sat at a desk in your office.

The second type of VPN security your business could consider is SSL (Secure Socket Layer). Your business may already be familiar with this type of security if it has an online store, as SSL is used to securely connect customers to your website when they make payments.