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Everything You Need To Know About Virtual Private Networks (Including The Top Options)

8 min read

By Gareth Howells

VPNs redirect Internet traffic via dedicated servers to funnel traffic through specific geographical locations or connect workstations and devices to private, commercial IT networks.

VPNs have grown from specialized business tools to a must-have for regular users who want to browse the Internet as if they were sitting in a different location or country entirely.

In recent years, VPN use has grown exponentially to counteract the growing practice of governments and private organizations placing access restrictions on websites and streaming services, in an effort to control the public and private flow of information and money across the globe.

The demand for fast, reliable VPN services is huge. In 2021, the market is projected to reach $31.1 billion (a $4.5 billion increase from 2020). In the U.S. alone, approximately 142 million people use VPN services, with around 38 million active at any one time.

Like all other tech products, the VPN market is constantly changing, with new products being regularly introduced and existing services updating to cater to amendments to access rights and security standards. We’re going to take a brief look at how VPNs work and where they came from, and then discuss five popular VPN products and how they compare to one another.


The Early Years

VPN technology can be traced back to the very start of what is now known as the Internet, and has remained an important tool for manipulating data traffic ever since. In 1993, a joint team of computer scientists from Columbia University and AT&T created a primitive form of VPN technology they called swIPe, short for ‘software encryption protocol’).

By 1996, two new forms of VPN were developed that came to form the basis of the technology used by VPN – Peer-to-Peer Tunneling Protocol (PPTP) and Internet Protocol Security (IPSec).

Early VPNs were almost exclusively used by companies seeking to protect their data and facilitate remote connections to their servers by employees from remote locations. Within a decade, spurred on by an increasing number of companies placing restrictions on online services based on what country the request originated from, the technology had branched out into the consumer sector.


How Do VPNs Work?

VPNs come in many different formats, from ‘site-to-site’ VPNs that link offices together in different regions on the same local network, to Secure Socket Layer (SSL) connections used by companies to connect remote workforces together across the globe.

Standard VPNs used by regular Internet users operate through a complex set of interactions between your computer or mobile device (the ‘client’), a VPN server and your Internet Service Provider (ISP). Your computer initiates a connection with the VPN server via the Internet. Once that connection has been established, instead of your ISP assigning you an IP address (a unique number that identifies your computer on the Internet), the VPN server allocates it instead and becomes the funnel through which data is transferred to your machine.


Modern VPN Features

1. Killswitches

A VPN killswitch is a security measures that disconnects your computer or mobile device from the Internet if your VPN connection drops, preventing your IP from being published in the event your VPN tunnel is no longer active.

2. Double encryption

Double encryption technology, as the name suggests, ensures that your data runs through two VPN servers and is encrypted twice – once when data reaches the first VPN server and again before it arrives at another VPN server, where it’s decrypted and processed.

3. Jurisdiction and location

The laws and regulations that VPN companies must adhere to is dictated by the country that the VPN service is registered in. This may not seem all that relevant for common users, but an application that resides in the U.S. will inevitably be subject to a more stringent set of laws than those that are registered in Central America or The Netherlands, for example.


4. Multiple device support

Early VPNs were only able to support workstations and servers. Nowadays, modern VPN applications are compatible with a broad range of operating systems across multiple devices – desktops, laptops, mobile phones and tablets.

5. WiFi security

You may not have thought about it before, but public wireless access points are notoriously unsecure. When your device uses a public hotspot to connect to the Internet, hackers or irresponsible companies can extract all kinds of information from the device you’re using, based on its IP address. Using a VPN provides you with anonymity and masks your identity when you’re browsing on the go.


Commercial vs. Consumer VPNs

The term ‘VPN’ is a catch-all definition for any private networking solution that masks an IP address, but there are important distinctions to be made.

If you’re a business owner looking to network offices together or provide employees with VPN access to your servers from their homes to facilitate remote working, the VPN software you use will largely be dictated by what kind of firewalls and routers you use, rather than independent software applications – e.g. if your company uses Watchguard firewalls, you’ll have to deploy Watchguard’s own VPN software from the firewall itself.

If, however, you’re a standard Internet user looking to mask their identity online for security purposes or to access a specific service, there are numerous bespoke VPN applications that will get the job done.

Let’s take a look at five popular consumer VPN services.


Top VPN Applications

1. NordVPN

Best overall

NordVPN has risen from humble roots in 2012 to become the most popular consumer VPN brand available in what has been a consistently crowded marketplace. NordVPN benefits from higher-than-average speeds across 6 simultaneous connections, with very little intermittency. The company did suffer a minor security scare in 2018, when one of its Finland servers was accessed without authorisation, but since then the company has remained a popular choice for VPN subscribers all over the world.


Server information:

  • Huge investment in security since the breach
  • Cheap pricing with longer subscription packages
  • ‘Double encryption’ technology
  • Front-end design could be improved

2. ExpressVPN

Runner up overall

Founded in 2009 by two Pennsylvania tech entrepreneurs, ExpressVPN seems to be in a perpetual battle with NordVPN for top spot in the consumer VPN rankings year-over-year. ExpressVPN arguably had the upper hand last year when it won several Editor’s Choice awards across several tech media platforms, but there’s very little difference between the two in terms of functionality, speed and security.


Server information:

  • Supports Bitcoin payments
  • A consistent track record in cybersecurity
  • Huge number of VPN locations available
  • Marginally slower than NordVPN
  • 2021 performance noticeably worse than 2019

3. Surfshark

Best value

Surfshark began in 2017 as a VPN service for iOS devices, but has since branched out to all major operating systems and device platforms. Surfshark’s two main selling points are its usability and price – it’s GUI is far and away the easiest to use of all the products mentioned here and its yearly subscription options make it the cheapest big-name VPN platform available, outside of free subscription models. The platform is also noted for minimal speed losses and year-on-year improvements in general connectivity.


Server information:

  • Cheap two-year subscription plan
  • Noticeably faster than most other platforms
  • Huge number of global server options
  • Lacks the high-end functionality of specialized services such as ProtonVPN
  • No 12-month subscription plan

4. ProtonVPN

Best for security and transparency

ProtonVPN was developed in Switzerland, by Proton Technologies AG – a team of computer scientists from the CERN research facility in Geneva. The company owns and operates all of its own VPN servers and is cross-compatible with all major OS platforms including Windows, MacOS, Android, and iOS. The software is renowned for its watertight security standards, high levels of transparency and open-source platform.


Server information:

  • Free subscription available
  • Unrivalled security and transparency
  • Wholly owned and operated by one company
  • Limited support features
  • No annual subscription
  • Limited functionality on lower subscription plans

5. IPVanish

Best to support U.S. company

IPVanish started out in 2012 as a subsidiary of the Orlando-based Highwinds Group. The company distinguishes itself by owning most of its own access points (approximately 90%) and communications infrastructure, allowing it to exercise significant control over its network with an unlimited number of simultaneous connections allowed. The platform was accused of handing over subscriber data to authorities in 2016, but has since undergone a managerial change who have pledged to upholding user anonymity.


Server information:

  • Provides support for certain kinds of open source media software
  • Simple and intuitive user interface that’s perfect for beginners
  • Relatively few plans
  • No month long trial (7-day only)

Choose a Provider

As with all other consumer technology platforms, how you choose a VPN provider should be dictated by what you need it for. If you’re someone who is just looking to browse Netflix from a different geographical region, then the likelihood is that you simply need a cheap, verifiable application that can get the job done, without the need for expensive security features or complex front-end functionality.

If, however, you’re in the VPN market for commercial reasons, or you require a greater amount of privacy and transparency than the standard offering, then you’ll need to use this information to conduct some further research into the technical specifications of each platform and the company’s track record.

Whatever your reason, VPNs are there to make the Internet more accessible and easier to use.

About the Author

Subject Matter Expert

Gareth Howells is a freelance tech copywriter and researcher who specializes in SaaS, IaaS, telecommunications and consumer technology content. Gareth worked for 15 years as a Microsoft-certified MSP/SaaS professional and Service Delivery Manager, providing unified IT services to a broad range of industries within the public and private sectors. In his spare time, he can be found at a hockey rink supporting the Cardiff Devils or cheering on his beloved Pittsburgh Steelers in the NFL with his dog, Audrey.

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