What is a VPN server?

Laptop in a dark room
(Image credit: Unsplash / Markus Spiske)

Normally when you open your web browser to use the internet, your device will connect via your ISP. Your ISP will usually supply the details of the DNS server you use to look up the specific IP address of the sites you want to visit. They may also keep a record of all the sites you visit, depending on the law in your jurisdiction. 

Even if your ISP doesn’t do this, anyone monitoring your connection will be able to see which programs you’re using and any websites you access. They can even use your unique IP address to work out which country you’re in. 

If you want more online privacy, this is where a VPN server can come in very useful.

Serving up a server 

A VPN server is quite simply a server that has been designed to offer a VPN (Virtual Private Network Service). It works using both hardware and software to allow clients to connect to its network. This means that in many ways a VPN server is similar to an ordinary server like those your ISP uses. 

What makes it special is the software encryption protocols - or VPN protocols - it uses to run a virtual private network.  

How do VPN servers work? 

So, usually, your device connects to your ISP’s servers, who in turn provide access to the internet. This makes it easy for your ISP or anyone else examining your connection data to see what you’re doing.

The VPN server can take this unencrypted connection from your ISP and use its special protocols to encrypt it. The server manages traffic both from your ISP and sites you want to visit.

The first step in this process is for the VPN ‘client’ to make a connection to the server. This is done through setting up a VPN connection manually or using software from your VPN provider. 

The VPN client will “talk” to the VPN server, determine which protocols it’s using and establish a special tunnel connection using this. This tunnel is encrypted, meaning neither your ISP nor anyone monitoring your connection what data is passing along it.

The VPN server will then decrypt the data your client sends, forwarding any requests such as websites you want to visit. This information is then encrypted and sent back to your client via the secure tunnel.

Anyone trying to trace your location will discover only the IP address of the VPN server, not your own device’s IP address

Superior servers 

Connecting to the internet via a VPN server is clearly a win for privacy lovers. As your connection’s encrypted your ISP can’t tell which apps you’re using, nor which sites you visit. Some ISPs also throttle your bandwidth based on the type of web content you access such as streaming videos. As the data between the VPN client and server is encrypted, they can’t do this if you use a VPN.

Using an encrypted connection is especially important if you regularly connect to the internet via unsecured public WiFi. Even other devices connected to the same network will find it much more difficult to monitor your connection if you access the internet via a VPN server.

Many VPN services also run multiple servers in different locations. As any web services you access will only see the server’s IP, you can select a VPN server in a different country to bypass regional restrictions.

Server setbacks 

Not all VPN servers will help you stay safe in the same way. There are some free VPN providers whose servers may record your internet activity. Even honest providers may use weak and/or outdated encryption protocols that can affect the speed or security of your connection. 

Some online services such as Netflix block connections from some VPN servers to prevent fraud and stop users from bypassing geographic restrictions. Before subscribing to any VPN service, make sure to check it’s supported by every app and website you want to use.

Remember that although the connection between your device and the VPN server is encrypted, anyone monitoring your connection will still be able to see that you’re using a VPN service.

Routing all your traffic through a VPN server instead of connecting to the internet directly via your ISP may slow down your connection. The best way to check this is to do a speed test after connecting to your VPN server.  

A digression on DNS 

However you use the internet, your device will first need to connect to a DNS server. This acts as a virtual phonebook, translating web addresses into the unique IP address which allows your device to find them online. 

When you establish a connection to a VPN server, although the ‘tunnel’ data is encrypted, DNS requests may still be forwarded to the same server as before. In plain English this means that even if you’re using a VPN, your ISP or anyone with access to your internet records will still be able to see which websites you’re visiting. This is known as “DNS Leak”.

Fortunately there are good VPN providers who forward all connection requests, including DNS through the VPN server. Just make sure you know how to check that your VPN server is correctly set up to avoid a DNS leak.  

VPN servers in summary 

The bottom line is that connecting to the internet via a reputable and up to date VPN server is a much safer and more private way of going online. 

The only drawbacks are a potentially slower connection and being unable to use some web services that block VPN servers. If you’re considering using a VPN provider make sure they use up to date encryption protocols and their own DNS servers for maximum privacy.

Nate Drake is a tech journalist specializing in cybersecurity and retro tech. He broke out from his cubicle at Apple 6 years ago and now spends his days sipping Earl Grey tea & writing elegant copy.