If there's one web technology I never looked that much into, it's VPNs (Virtual Private Networks). In these times when privacy is more valued than ever, the technology has become more relevant to many users and developers.
To understand the topic better, I am interviewing Olivia Scott from VPNpro.
My name is Olivia Scott, and I work for VPNpro. The world of cybersecurity is my passion - I am well-versed on the general topic of data safety and WordPress vulnerabilities in particular. I used to test privacy tools, including VPNs, so I am intimately familiar with the industry.
Explaining tech concepts to newbies can be difficult, but I find that the post office metaphor is helpful for understanding VPNs. Imagine you're forced to provide a return address whenever you're sending a letter to someone - the receiver would know your address, whereas the postal service would know both your address and the receiver.
Internet works this way, and you can't access anything on the web without "providing" your IP address (which can just be used to identify you). That means the website you're visiting knows your IP address, whereas your ISP knows what site you've visited.
Using a VPN is kind of like sending your letter to a nameless address, where someone would receive it, repackage it, and send it on to the real receiver (and repeat this action on the way back) - the receiver doesn't know who or where you are. The post office doesn't know who you're corresponding to either. Additionally, using a VPN means encrypting your messages, so no one can understand what you're up to even if they intercept your message.
At their core, VPNs are all about infrastructure - networks of servers that user data is siphoned through. These can be very small or massive, sometimes spanning hundreds of countries. How they work differs wildly from one service to another. Some offer lots of different apps and features (undertaking the additional work that implies), whereas others stick to the bare-bones servers only approach.
The contrast is between two options: custom apps and bare-bones solutions.
Most of the commercially-successful VPN services offer custom apps. That is to say, the user connects to the VPN server network via apps made by the VPN provider, rather than third-party apps (such as, for example, the open-source OpenVPN app).
Doing this has certain benefits: branding opportunities, freedom in terms of the type of features you include in the app, a custom interface, the ability to track individual user behaviors via the app for optimization, etc.
However, it's a lot more heavy on the service provider's resources: the apps (and features) need to be developed, patched continuously, and so on. The burden increases even further with every new device type you decide to target with an app.
Some VPNs have applications not merely for the big 4 (Windows, macOS, iOS, Android), but also Linux, browser extensions for Chrome/Firefox/Safari/Opera, Amazon Fire TV, Kodi - the list goes on.
Some providers have a network of VPN servers, and that makes up most of their offerings to customers. In this situation, you will use a third-party (e.g., OpenVPN) app to connect to the provider's VPN servers.
The second approach is a lot less resource-intensive, but by choosing it, the provider forfeits all the benefits as well.
Contrary to proxies (some of which can be used for privacy or to beat online censorship), VPNs cover your entire internet connection, not merely your browser or torrent client.
Unlike Tor, (good) VPNs are paid services, but they are also a lot more universal in terms of what you can use them for, and they offer much better performance. Smart DNS tools don't make your performance suffer when streaming Netflix, but they neither obscure your IP address nor encrypt your data either.
In short, a VPN may not be the best for each particular application, but it is the most comprehensive and universal tool.
Accurate and useful information about VPN services is scarce, whereas the importance of VPNs and the market as a whole keeps growing. It was already the case when VPNpro opened shop, and it's even more real today.
There's still plenty to do with VPNs. The industry is dynamic and booming. With that said, we have already started covering some of the other pieces of the cybersecurity puzzle - password managers, for example.
Their importance can only grow. Privacy on the internet is becoming ever rarer, and VPNs can counteract this trend to some extent. There are also dangers to be wary of - popular VPN services being owned by fewer and fewer companies, governments using VPNs to gather user data, and so forth.
For a web developer, it's interesting to understand where all the traffic is going and how. Understanding VPNs is one of the keys to this and I believe the usage of the services will go up as people become more privacy and security minded.