VPN: The Pros and Cons

More than a decade after they first arrived on the network scene, VPNs (virtual private networks) are still a very popular technology. In fact, VPNs are staging a comeback, as more businesses come to the conclusion that the technology remains the best and safest way of linking together widely distributed users.

VPNs enable organizations to cost-effectively and securely use the Internet to connect remote offices and distant individuals to the main company network. The technology is used to create everything from virtual call centers to secure channels for traveling sales reps to interconnected branch offices.

A few years ago, some observers predicted that VPNs would gradually fade away, replaced by an array of flashier network-security technologies and less expensive WAN choices. These newer approaches, it was surmised, would eliminate the need for businesses to tunnel data channels through the Internet. But now, a growing number of companies are reassessing VPN service, intrigued by the technology's strong security, guaranteed reliability and low cost.

When deciding whether a VPN is right for your business, you should first assess the technology's benefits and drawbacks.

Benefit: VPNs provide reduced operational costs when compared to any traditional WAN, as well as lower connection costs for remote users. Additionally, a VPN's fixed communications costs help give businesses a better understanding of their operational expenses. A VPN can also provide low-cost global-networking opportunities.

Drawback: The reliability and performance of an Internet-based VPN is not under the business's direct control. The organization must instead depend on the ISP that's supplying the VPN to keep the service up and running. This factor makes it important to bargain an SLA (service-level agreement) with the ISP, creating a pact that guarantees various performance benchmarks.

Benefit: VPNs provide a high level of security, using advanced encryption and authentication protocols to safeguard data from snoops, data thieves and other unauthorized parties.

Drawback: A VPN isn't particularly easy for a business to create or deploy. The technology requires a high-level understanding of network and security issues, as well as careful planning and configuration. That's why it's a good idea to select an ISP that is willing to handle most of the nuts-and-bolts operational chores.

Benefit: Well-designed broadband VPNs are modular and scalable. The technology enables adopters to use an easy-to-provision Internet infrastructure that allows new users to be added to the network quickly and with little effort. This capability means that businesses are able to roll up large amounts of capacity and usage without adding much, if any, extra infrastructure.

Drawback: VPN products and solutions from different vendors aren't always interoperable, due to a reluctance or inability of many vendors to adhere to VPN technology standards. Therefore, mixing and matching equipment may cause technical challenges. Using equipment from a single supplier, on the other hand, may drive up costs.

Benefit: VPNs enable mobile employees, telecommuters, business partners and others to take advantage of locally available, high-speed broadband access — such as DSL, cable or even wifi — to gain access to the company's network. Additionally, high-speed broadband links offer a cost-effective method for connecting remote offices.

Drawback: VPNs can pose a security risk when used with wireless devices. Roaming between access points can be particularly problematic. Any solution that relies on higher-level encryption has the potential to break when users roam across access points. Fortunately, there are some third-party solutions that address this shortcoming.

The Bottom Line: When it comes to wide-area networking, VPNs continue to provide the best value for services rendered. Most businesses, however, will want to have a knowledgeable outside expert guide them through the rough parts of creating and using a VPN.