What is a VPN (Virtual Private Network)

Over the past two years, the use of VPNs has increased significantly due to the COVID-19 pandemic . In fact, many workers have found themselves forced to work from home , with the need to access the network of their company to carry out the tasks assigned. As you can imagine, many companies have implemented access via Virtual Private Network (or indeed VPN), for security and privacy reasons .

Another factor that has contributed to the increase in the popularity of VPNs, again related to the Coronavirus and the consequent lockdowns , is a greater consumption of streaming content . In fact, thanks to the quarantine , many have started to use more popular on-demand video streaming services , such as Netflix , Prime Video and Disney Plus . One of the features of these services is the so-called regional block, which directs users in a given geographical area to a specific catalog, excluding content available in other areas. To give an example, the US Netflix catalog is not accessible to users who connect from Italy. The problem is that, often, the catalogs of other areas offer exclusive content not accessible from other territories , not to mention that some series and films arrive first in a given area, and then be distributed elsewhere.

A VPN also grants you access to geolocated content

One of the functions offered by VPNs is to “mask” your connection by passing data through a secure and anonymous tunnel . In short, a VPN activates a virtual network between different machines, and data passes through this tunnel which makes it “invisible” to external parties. The data is therefore hidden , including the identity of the users, so it is possible to make an external server believe that the connection comes from an area other than the one in which it actually takes place . For example, you can use a VPN to make Netflix’s US servers give you access to the US catalog, recognizing your IP address as an active one in the US.

So, the need for more secure connections and the ability to unblock geo-localized content are two of the most common selling points among users in the era of the COVID pandemic, but what is a VPN in fact? In this article we want to explain broadly what a Virtual Private Network is , but if you want to deepen the question, we refer you to our article ” VPN: what it is, how it works and what it is for ” in which we deepen some more technical aspects that we will leave out. here for reasons of brevity.

Before we begin, however, we want to suggest some of the VPN services that we believe are among the best around . Below you can see our top 3, but if you want to discover other really interesting services, we recommend you read our guide to the Best VPNs .

ExpressVPN, the best of all

ExpressVPN is the # 1 service. 1 for us at Tom’s Hardware ! We’ve tried several, but ExpressVPN is the one that convinced us the most as a whole. If you want the security and privacy that only a paid VPN can offer, the annual subscription costs less than 6 euros per month and is valid for 15 months,  plus it includes 1 year of unlimited backup on the Backblaze cloud  ! As if that weren’t enough, you can ask for  a full refund within the first 30 days, risk-free .


NordVPN, the best known in Italy

NordVPN is almost unbeatable for value for money . If you are looking for a functional, safe and performing service, it could be right for you. You can try NordVPN for free for 7 days.


Surfshark, ideal for beginners

Of all the VPNs we’ve tried, Surfshark is the one that caters best to novice users, thanks to user-friendly interfaces and quick settings. Plus, if you want to try it risk-free, a 30-day full money back guarantee is available , all for just over $ 2 a month if you sign up for a 24-month subscription .


VPN – Historical notes

Although VPNs have only achieved a fair amount of popularity in the last few years, Virtual Private Network technologies have been around for over twenty years now . 1996 saw the development and publication of the PPTP protocol (Peer to Peer Tunneling Protocol) , which we can consider as the basic form for transferring data securely. Protocols like this have evolved quickly, ensuring greater security and complexity , in order to ward off hacking attempts. 25 years later, the tunneling protocols available to users have multiplied, and the most popular are L2TP, IPSec and SSL,  acronyms well known to those who have used VPNs for some time now.

Returning to what was said at the beginning, VPNs are born mainly for business use , in fact the development of technology has been strongly pushed by companies that needed a more secure system to receive and transmit data, avoiding potentially devastating news leaks and theft of information. . But even before the pandemic, increasingly massive access to the Internet and the proliferation of malware, viruses and other malicious programs further accelerated the drive towards VPN adoption, resulting in the development of new technologies and the enhancement of those. existing.

China imposes severe restrictions on users who want to browse the Internet

Another aspect that has greatly stimulated the spread and adoption of VPN services is the awareness by a good portion of the public about the risks that are run by surfing the net: in fact, one is exposed to identity theft or other violations of privacy, especially in countries where individual freedoms are reduced and restricted by the authorities , just think of China and Russia, where online activities are strictly regulated. So, the idea of breaking down, bypassing and neutralizing censorship is another factor that has made VPNs even more popular around the world.

But what is a VPN?

As we have seen above, VPN stands for Virtual Private Network, which we can translate as “virtual private network”. So imagine several machines located even in very distant territories that communicate within a network that is not made up of physical cabling, and yet behaves just as if it were . Of course, to access the network you need credentials , i.e. username and password or other identification methods, protected by encryption, so that no attacker can get their hands on them. Furthermore, the most serious companies guarantee a so- called “no-log” policy , that is the commitment not to store information and data on users, such as browsing history, user-IP address mapping and, most importantly, the credentials chosen by users.

As we said, one of the main goals of a VPN is to ensure the privacy and anonymity of its users, but how does it do that? In short, a technique known as tunneling is employed , whereby data is transmitted through a secure tunnel , in which the data is hidden through encryption . We can imagine tunnels as intermediaries between client and server , which by hiding the data transmitted from one destination to another, make them inaccessible and illegible by other subjects.

Photo by Kevin Paster from Pexels

On the Internet, the information transmitted from one machine to another (client-server, for example) is divided into packets , from which it is possible to easily trace who transmitted the data and who will receive it. Today the HTTPS protocol is very widespread and guarantees a certain degree of security, however some data attributable to the origin and destination of the data remain accessible, consequently it is not possible to guarantee the anonymity of those who surf the Internet without protection systems in place.

Through the virtual network and the tunnels, therefore, VPNs also obfuscate data relating to the identity and location of users, guaranteeing not only anonymity but also the possibility of changing the apparent geographic location from which you connect to the network. All this is made possible by the so-called encryption protocols. The encrypted data becomes absolutely illegible by those who do not have the relative decryption key, and today the available cryptographic technologies are different and with varying degrees of “armor”. Usually, VPNs use protocols such as OpenVPN, IPsec, SSTP, and PPTP , in some cases, in addition to these are proprietary protocols developed by service providers.

VPN: which one to choose?

At this point, once you have a general idea of ​​how a VPN works, many of you may be wondering what are the criteria for choosing a VPN. As we said above, a good place to start is to take a look at the best VPNs that we think are worth considering. In general, however, there are a few factors that should be taken into consideration when choosing the best VPN for your needs:

  • Price: the starting point is to know the budget at your disposal , which can vary based on several factors, not least the ultimate purpose for which you are going to subscribe to a VPN plan. In any case, for those unwilling to invest, there are good free VPNs that could, at the very least, help you get a better idea of ​​the service before committing financially.
  • Privacy and data collection: carefully evaluate the no-log policies declared by the provider, read the terms of service and try to be clear in mind which types of information, if applicable, will end up in the company’s archives. This is especially important if you are in areas subject to government censorship or where individual freedoms are restricted.
  • Encryption, location, and number of servers– these elements help you understand how secure a VPN is and how much leeway it offers you. The locations of the servers and their number are essential to understand if and how many geolocated services you can unblock (if there are no servers in the US, forget the US Netflix catalog, for example) and the connection speed (to do it a lot but very simple, the greater the number of servers, the better in terms of performance. However, consider that a drop in speed compared to that guaranteed by your ISP is physiological when using a VPN).
  • Compatible systems and devices, number of simultaneous connections: obviously you will have to choose a VPN service that offers apps and protocols compatible with your systems. If you are using a Mac, for example, you will need to make sure that the relevant app is present. Furthermore, if you have multiple machines or devices to connect (for example a laptop, a smartphone and a tablet) or if you want to share the service with the rest of your family, you will also have to evaluate how many connections are offered . Some companies only allow one, others 2 to 10, still others offer unlimited connections.

Privacy is one of the most important levers when choosing a VPN

There is no single answer, there is no VPN that is the absolute best. We have drawn up a ranking for you, based on general characteristics and also following the criteria just outlined, however, there will be excellent services but more or less indicated according to your requirements. For this reason, it is important to think carefully about the purpose and resources available to you before adopting a VPN.

We have dedicated various articles, guides and reviews to this topic, and we will continue to explore this interesting sector for you, so keep following Tom’s Hardware to learn more about the world of VPNs.

by Abdullah Sam
I’m a teacher, researcher and writer. I write about study subjects to improve the learning of college and university students. I write top Quality study notes Mostly, Tech, Games, Education, And Solutions/Tips and Tricks. I am a person who helps students to acquire knowledge, competence or virtue.

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