In the last 10 years, high-speed Internet access has gained wide adoption throughout the United States and much of the world. Individuals who were previously connecting to the Internet at speeds of 40 or 50 Kbps are now getting dedicated lines through their phone and cable providers with speeds equal to, or faster, than a T-1. Because of this push to provide high-speed Internet to as many customers as possible, businesses nationwide also have access to these new high-speed data connections. Thanks to a technology known as virtual private networking (VPN), businesses can use these high-speed data connections in place of the old fiber-optic or telephone-based connections. Here we take a look at this technology and what it means in the corporate realm. (Learn more about how networking evolved in the History of the Internet Tutorial.)
Networking 101There are two main types of networks: local area networks (LANs) and wide-area networks (WANs). LANs are confined to a single building or site, and use technologies such as Ethernet and Wi-Fi. Although these networks were once very complicated, today the common consumer can buy a simple router and have an LAN up and running in their home in a matter of minutes.
WANs connect sites across multiple cities, states and even countries. These networks traditionally used fiber-optic cables and phone circuits like T1 and T3 lines. These networks had the advantage of being very reliable, but also allowed businesses to dedicate part of the connection for phone traffic and part of the connection for data traffic. While WANs can be a very good choice, these networks can be extremely expensive based on the location of the connection and the speed required. For example, a T1 connection, considered a good size for many offices, is actually equivalent to 23 conventional telephone lines. When you consider the cost and work required to have 23 always-on, dedicated phone lines to one office, the expense is obvious.
Enter the VPNThere are a few key differences between traditional dedicated circuits and the high-speed Internet connections used by a VPN. One difference is that traditional dedicated circuits generally rated their speeds bidirectionally, meaning that if you had a 1 Mbps circuit, you could transmit and receive at the same speed. Most high-speed connections through cable and telephone companies have a much higher download speed than upload. This is done because the users of these connections are spending most of their time receiving data such as email and video, while sending very little data. Businesses generally do an even mix of sending and receiving data. As such, they would need to order a specially classified business connection, where both transmit and receive speeds are rated equally.
The second key difference is that these connections are to the Internet, as opposed to direct, point-to-point connections. Because of this, businesses that want to use these connections for their WANs would need to use something to secure their traffic and direct the traffic between business locations.
This where a virtual private network comes in. VPNs can be implemented by turning on a feature included on a business's application server or by using a network appliance. While previously costly, the second choice is the far better option in terms of reliability and simplicity. VPN appliances are available from most major network equipment providers as well as specialized vendors. They plug directly into the Internet connections at each of the business's locations and encrypt and route the traffic so that workstations, servers and users on each side of the connection have no idea that they are even connected to the Internet.