Want to protect your small or midsize business from a breach? Set up a VPN

As work becomes more mobile, secure network access is essential; here’s what you need to know

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As prices come down, vir­tu­al pri­vate net­works (VPNs) are becom­ing a must-have tool for many small-l and medi­um-size busi­ness own­ers. The grow­ing pop­u­lar­i­ty is a reflec­tion of the chaot­ic times in enter­prise com­put­ing, marked by mal­ware and ran­somware tar­get­ing vul­ner­a­ble sys­tems and a decen­tral­ized work force of glo­be­trot­ting employ­ees jug­gling sev­er­al gad­gets at once.

More SMB data is now stored in the cloud, too, often leav­ing com­pa­ny exec­u­tives at the mer­cy of the servers they don’t control.

Relat­ed sto­ry: As work­ers move out of the office, busi­ness secu­ri­ty risks multiply

SMB own­ers “need VPNs because the dig­i­tal era is under­way,” says Ruby Gon­za­lez, head of com­mu­ni­ca­tions at VPN provider Nord­VPN. “Peo­ple are work­ing remote­ly. The work envi­ron­ment is much more flex­i­ble. Indi­vid­u­als are being tar­get­ed all the time with scams.”

What is a VPN?

A VPN is a group of com­put­ers and servers in a secured pri­vate net­work that allows users on the pub­lic net­work, i.e., the inter­net, to enter only after using a ver­i­fied logon. The con­nec­tion is encrypt­ed, enabling autho­rized users to com­mu­ni­cate secure­ly and freely. It’s most­ly asso­ci­at­ed with the pri­vate net­works man­aged by com­pa­nies for its employ­ees work­ing remote­ly. A com­pa­ny VPN runs on top of the pri­vate net­work used in the office.

Relat­ed sto­ry: How VPNs can pre­serve your privacy

Oth­ers can access com­mer­cial­ly avail­able VPNs—whose servers often are in far-flung places—to hide their loca­tion through encrypt­ed logons or get around geo­graph­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions, such as brows­ing Face­book in Chi­na, where the social net­work is not allowed.

How does it work?

The user access­ing the VPN from a remote loca­tion must install a VPN client appli­ca­tion to com­mu­ni­cate with the network’s gate­way. The com­mu­ni­ca­tion includes log­ging in with a pass­word, which the VPN gate­way appli­ca­tion autho­rizes for access. VPNs also encrypt data that is fly­ing across the network.

A SMB own­er can set up a VPN with a suite of net­work pro­tec­tion soft­ware and servers. But pop­u­lar off-the-shelf appli­ca­tions, such as Win­dows Serv­er and some fire­wall soft­ware, also come with do-it-your­self solu­tions. SMB own­ers also can pay a month­ly fee to sub­scribe to com­mer­cial VPNs.

How do VPN types differ?

For those look­ing to set up in-house VPNs, know­ing there are a vari­ety of VPN pro­to­cols could help in the process. They include Open­VPN, the IPsec-based VPN and Point-to-Point Tunneling.

Open­VPN is an open-source soft­ware appli­ca­tion for cre­at­ing VPNs. For encryp­tion, it uses the SSL pro­to­col, which pro­vides data and com­mu­ni­ca­tions secu­ri­ty in the network.

The IPsec-based VPN is one of the most pop­u­lar pro­to­cols cur­rent­ly in the mar­ket. It’s built into the hard­ware made by some of the largest com­pa­nies, such as Cis­co Sys­tems. It’s often used with anoth­er pro­to­col, called the Lay­er 2 Tun­nel­ing Pro­to­col, that is built into some Win­dows Serv­er soft­ware. They’re fair­ly easy to install, and many enter­pris­es con­tin­ue to use the com­bi­na­tion as a default option.

The Point-to-Point Tun­nel­ing Pro­to­col (PPTP) was once pop­u­lar since it came with Win­dows soft­ware. Its client appli­ca­tions are built into many com­put­ers. But many enter­pris­es no longer use or sup­port it because data is not encrypted.

Why is usage grow­ing among SMBs?

Scary head­lines of hack­ers scam­ming busi­ness own­ers is cer­tain­ly moti­vat­ing VPN pur­chas­es. But prices of com­mer­cial VPNs also have plum­met­ed in recent years. Some are free or charge less than $10 per user per month. And many of these com­mer­cial options are cheaper—not to men­tion easier—than cre­at­ing your own VPN at the office.

Nord­VPN, for exam­ple, offers busi­ness accounts for less than $5 per employ­ee per month, Gon­za­lez says. Its busi­ness accounts come with a ded­i­cat­ed account man­ag­er. “It used to be a very tech-focused ser­vice. But it’s now get­ting eas­i­er, pret­ti­er and user-friend­lier,” she says.

What’s impor­tant when shop­ping for a VPN?

If pos­si­ble, try to find out your prospec­tive VPN ven­dors’ cus­tomer ser­vice. Gen­er­al­ly, more finan­cial­ly secure ven­dors pro­vide bet­ter cus­tomer expe­ri­ence. They have more servers, updat­ed tech­nol­o­gy and more staffers. Larg­er VPN ven­dors also have servers in more coun­tries, giv­ing you a big bas­ket of vir­tu­al logon options. “It’s also pos­si­ble to get (your own) ded­i­cat­ed VPN serv­er or a ded­i­cat­ed IP address,” Gon­za­lez says. “We have 1,000 servers in 58 coun­tries. Our servers are every­where except Antarctica.”

Free ser­vices are fine for many indi­vid­ual cus­tomers, but may not be appro­pri­ate for busi­ness own­ers. They’re often loaded with ads. And data traf­fic, while encrypt­ed, may be tracked for cus­tomized ads.

More sto­ries relat­ed to VPNs and SMB net­work security:
Busi­ness­es must remem­ber shared cloud secu­ri­ty requires shared responsibility
SMBs can DCEPT attack­ers with free net­work mon­i­tor­ing tools
SMBs must under­stand and counter new dig­i­tal risks

Posted in Featured Story, Small and midsize businesses