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Get started with a VPN

Steven Vaughan-Nichols, PC World | March 25, 2011
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.

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.


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