VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) have been in the news recently thanks to Netflix's tougher stance on their use to access content supposedly locked down to other countries. This month we answer the question "What is a VPN?"
A VPN is a special type network connection that allows you to securely connect to another network in a location other than your current network. This means that rather than all your network traffic flowing through your personal (or company) network, instead, it (or at least some of it) is routed via a completely different connection that could be next door, or could be the other side of the world.
Why would you want a VPN?
A very common business use for a VPN is to allow remote workers to connect to the company network. Once the VPN is established, you can then use your machine as though you were sitting in the company office. This includes access to systems that may be locked down to general outside access. Because it appears to the company network that your machine is in the office, access to these systems is granted.
Neflix and VPNs
So why are some people using VPNs to access Netflix and similar services? Netflix have don't have the same licencing deals globally, which means that the shows that are available to watch vary from country to country. From an IT perspective, the content made available to you is dictated by your machine's IP address. Therefore, if someone in the UK accesses Netflix over a VPN whose endpoint is in the US, it will appear to Netflix as though you are in the US, and you'll have access to everything on the US version.
Other uses for a VPN
One could also use a VPN to mask their IP address more generally. As you browse around the internet, the IP address being presented to all the places you visit will be that of the VPN network rather than your own. There's plenty of innocent reasons for doing this although, as you can imagine, it's also a very good way to avoid detection for anyone doing things they shouldn't.