VPN services started life as consumer products, and that’s still the sweet spot. They have, however, become a core PC security technology—so your business shouldn’t simply ignore them. Here’s what to look for.
By Wayne Rash
Though I recently ruminated on virtual private network (VPN) services and how they fell short for certain businesses needs, let’s be clear: VPNs are bedrock security technology, which means they’re certainly applicable in certain business scenarios. The question is, how do you find the right VPN for your business?
The answer, as it is with many things, depends on what you need the VPN to do. But while we’re at it, we also need to decide what you don’t need the VPN to do. Extra features that you’ll never need will add cost and complexity at the very least. All we want is effective security targeted directly at what we need and in such as way as to not overly disrupt how we do business.
Types of Business VPN Services
In general, there are three types of VPNs that most businesses will consider, and in many cases, they might choose more than one of these. The first is the fixed VPN that’s usually provided by a network provider or perhaps an internet service provider (ISP). You’d use these to connect a branch office to your main office so that the branch office would be part of your corporate network. Fixed VPNs can be very useful and a lot of companies have them, but they’re not particularly flexible.
The second type of VPN requires that you use a specialized server or a router with a VPN server feature built in. These are managed by your IT department and many large companies use this approach, connecting to their network with a VPN client.
Then there’s the third option: the VPN service. VPN services are cloud-based; they provide a secure tunnel through the internet between your device and their server; they effectively replace your ISP. This type of VPN has the advantage of being cheap, easy to use, and effective but is not always designed for business use. While some are starting to emerge with a business focus, most are consumer-oriented, which means they might lack features you need. So what should you be looking for?
VPN Services: What to Look For
Amir Malik is the head of Business VPN, a service that’s set to launch in the coming months and designed to provide VPN services to small to midsize businesses (SMBs). Business VPN is a sister company to Private Internet Access VPN, which won an Editors’ Choice award in our recent VPN Services review roundup. Both companies are part of London Trust Media Holdings. Malik said that the primary focus on VPNs for business should be that they support the business, not individual users.
This means that using a VPN to overcome geo-blocking is probably not a critical issue for many companies. They’re not trying to provide access to TV shows, movies, or European soccer games. Instead, a business VPN needs to provide secure access to company resources and cloud services by its employees and business partners. They also need to protect sensitive information while out of the office and protect against data collection by ISPs or even foreign governments.
In addition, a business VPN needs to provide account management, central billing, and malware protection, among other services. “A lot of companies are providing a VPN for their employees,” Malik explained, “but they don’t offer centralized management such as key management.”
Malik said that, in addition, “they want to be able to set up filters for content such as streaming or social media, whether for time management or security.”
VPN Service Features to Consider
Malik offered five things to consider when selecting a VPN for your business:
- Logging. Some businesses require that VPN logging take place and that it can be audited. Others want to avoid logging because it might be too easy for e-discovery processes or for some governments to intrude on your operations.
- Central Management. This includes key management, in a way that fits your business. It may be that you want the VPN provider to manage your encryption keys, but maybe you want to manage them instead, perhaps for compliance reasons or simply because you feel safer handling it that way.
- Activity Management. Do you want to control where your employees go so that they can’t use the VPN for social media or porn websites? Do you want to be alerted if employees try to reach sketchy websites or websites containing malware? Activity management can control the web activities of employees using your VPN much like parental controls, though with upgraded alerting and reporting.
- Support. Support for the hours your company needs, that is. If you need tech support, then you don’t want to wait until tomorrow to reach your critical data. But if you don’t want weekend support, then maybe you don’t have to pay for it.
Servers and VPN Services
Malik said that it’s also important to get an idea of how stable the company is, how long they’ve been in business, and who some of their other business clients are. It’s also important to get an idea about whether or not the company has servers in the vicinity of your main office or your data center. You’re going to need a secure connection between the VPN provider’s server and your gateway or servers. Or if you’re simply using personal VPN software clients that utilize the provider’s servers as a gateway then you’re going to want to make sure that gateway is a feasible distance not just from where your company’s data is being stored, but from where key services are being hosted, too.
A short distance helps minimize latency and helps lower the chances of network problems. But having a lot of servers all over the world isn’t a measurement that’s likely to be important to you, as long as there’s a server in your part of the world. Unless of course, you’ve got a significant roving workforce and a lot of apps being served up over the web.
If you’re storing data at your site but want your employees to not only travel but also access business tools that are served up via the cloud, like Google G Suite Business or Salesforce Sales Cloud, then you’ll need to do some performance testing from different locations. You’ll also need to educate your users on how logging into different servers from the same provider can have a profound impact on their app performance.
“VPN is becoming almost a household word,” Malik said. “It’s a lot more than geo-blocking; it’s a necessity for a business these days. Businesses need to start looking at the threats. The threat landscape is changing so quickly that there aren’t a lot of solutions for small businesses.”
Read more: “You’re Not Using a VPN? Bad Idea”
Originally published at www.pcmag.com.