Get Started With a VPN: For Beginners, Power Users, and IT Pros

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Do you want to be secure--I mean really secure--when you're on the Internet? If so, then you want a virtual private network.

A VPN creates a secure "tunnel" across the Internet between you and your office, a VPN provider, or your home. Why would you want that? Easy-to-use programs such as Firesheep make it easy for snoops to see what you're writing in your e-mail messages, posting to your Facebook page, or buying online. But with a VPN, you can surf the Web through that virtual tunnel, away from prying eyes, and your Internet traffic is encrypted.

Whether you just want to access Wi-Fi networks on the road without potentially exposing your activities to nosy strangers, or whether you need to enable a team of remote employees to handle business securely on the Internet, you can find a VPN to fit your needs. This guide will walk you through VPN essentials for beginners, power users, and IT departments.

VPN for Beginners

The easiest and least costly way to get a VPN service is to obtain one from your company, school, or organization. Not on the road often? Check with your IT department to see if they offer a VPN to all users. If they do, life is good: Just install the corporate VPN software, set it up, and you're ready to go. The next time you turn on your PC, fire up the VPN application before you start surfing the Web.

What if your IT department doesn't have a VPN--or what if you don't have an IT department? You're not out of luck. Lately, numerous VPN providers, including Banana VPN, Black Logic, LogMeIn Hamachi, and StrongVPN, have started offering their services for a fee, generally from $15 to $20 a month. To learn more, take a look at a comparison of three personal VPN services.

How do you go about picking one? If a service has an online forum, check what their customers have posted. Call or e-mail to see if real people answer. Generally speaking, bigger is better. If they're a tiny company, that may be fine for you as an individual, but they probably can't give you the support a small company needs.

Is the privacy factor alone worth the effort? Yes, but VPNs offer other advantages as well. For example, if you're in Canada, ordinarily you can't watch a U.S. TV show on Hulu. But you can access the show if you use a VPN to obtain a U.S. IP (Internet Protocol) address.

Some VPN providers offer another benefit: anonymous Web browsing, which allows you to roam the Internet without being tracked. If your ISP blocks some applications, such as Skype or other VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) applications, you can use a VPN to get around the restrictions.

These VPN services may sound exactly like what you need. Beware, however: Not all services are created equal. If a service doesn't have enough VPN servers--technically, VPN concentrators--to support the number of customers, you may experience poor Internet speeds or be unable to make a connection at all.

So, before subscribing to a VPN service, look into what its customers say about it. Better still, if the company offers a free test period, take advantage of it before paying money for a service that may not meet your needs.

Next page: VPN fundamentals for power users

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