Until now there has always been a clear division between public and private networks. A public network, like the public telephone system and the Internet, is a large collection of unrelated peers that exchange information more or less freely with each other. The people with access to the public network may or may not have anything in common, and any given person on that network may only communicate with a small fraction of his potential users.
A private network is composed of computers owned by a single organization that share information specifically with each other. They’re assured that they are going to be the only ones using the network, and that information sent between them will (at worst) only be seen by others in the group. The typical corporate Local Area Network (LAN) or Wide Area Network (WAN) is an example of a private network. The line between a private and public network has always been drawn at the gateway router, where a company will erect a firewall to keep intruders from the public network out of their private network, or to keep their own internal users from perusing the public network.
There also was a time, not too long ago, when companies could allow their LANs to operate as separate, isolated islands. Each branch office might have its own LAN, with its own naming scheme, email system, and even its own favorite network protocol—none of which might be compatible with other offices’ setups. As more company resources moved to computers, however, there came a need for these offices to interconnect. This was traditionally done using leased phone lines of varying speeds. By using leased lines, a company can be assured that the connection is always available, and private. Leased phone lines, however, can be expensive. They’re typically billed based upon a flat monthly fee, plus mileage expenses. If a company has offices across the country, this cost can be prohibitive.
Private networks also have trouble handling roving users, such as traveling salespeople. If the salesperson doesn’t happen to be near one of the corporate computers, he or she has to dial into a corporation’s modem long-distance, which is an extremely expensive proposition.
This book is about the virtual private network (VPN), a concept that blurs the line between a public and private network. VPNs allow you to create a secure, private network over a public network such as the Internet. They can be created using software, hardware, or a combination of the two that creates a secure link between peers over a public network. This is done through encryption, authentication, packet tunneling, and firewalls. In this chapter we’ll go over exactly what is meant by each of these and what roles they play in a VPN; we’ll touch upon them again and again throughout the book. Because they skirt leased line costs by using the Internet as a WAN, VPNs are more cost-effective for large companies, and well within the reach of smaller ones.
A virtual private network is a way to simulate a private network over a public network, such as the Internet. It is called “virtual” because it depends on the use of virtual connections—that is, temporary connections that have no real physical presence, but consist of packets routed over various machines on the Internet on an ad hoc basis. Secure virtual connections are created between two machines, a machine and a network, or two networks.
Using the Internet for remote access saves a lot of money. You’ll be able to dial in wherever your Internet service provider (ISP) has a point-of-presence (POP). If you choose an ISP with nationwide POPs, there’s a good chance your LAN will be a local phone call away. Some ISPs have expanded internationally as well, or have alliances with ISPs overseas. Even many of the smaller ISPs have toll-free numbers for their roaming users. At the time of this writing, unlimited access dial-up PPP accounts, suitable for business use, are around $25 per month per user. At any rate, well-chosen ISP accounts should be cheaper than setting up a modem pool for remote users and paying the long-distance bill for roaming users. Even toll-free access from an ISP is typically cheaper than having your own toll-free number, because ISPs purchase hours in bulk from the long-distance companies.
In many cases, long-haul connections of networks are done with a leased line, a connection to a frame relay network, or ISDN. We’ve already mentioned the costs of leasing a “high cap” leased line such as a T1. Frame relay lines can also give you high speeds without the mileage charges. You purchase a connection to a frame cloud, which connects you through switches to your destination. Unlike a leased line, the amount you pay is based more on the bandwidth that’s committed to your circuit than distance. Frame connections are still somewhat expensive, however. ISDN, like the plain old telephone system, incurs long-distance charges. In many locations, the local telephone company charges per minute even for local calls, which again runs expenses up. For situations where corporate office networks are in separate cities, having each office get a T1, frame relay, or ISDN line to an ISP’s local POP would be much cheaper than connecting the two offices using these technologies. A VPN could then be instituted between the routers at the two offices, over the Internet. In addition, a VPN will allow you to consolidate your Internet and WAN connections into a single router and single line, saving you money on equipment and telecommunications infrastructure.
By now you’ve probably heard of Intranets and the stir they’ve caused at many businesses. Companies are running TCP/IP networks, posting information to their internal web sites, and using web browsers as a common collaborative tool. An example of an Intranet application is a customer database accessible via the Web. Salespeople could use this database to contact current customers about new product offerings and send them quotes. The database could have a HyperText Mark- Up Language (HTML) front end, so that it would be accessible from any web browser.
The rise of Intranets was spurred on by the growth of the Internet and its popular information services, commonly known as the World Wide Web. It was as if the corporate sector had finally caught on to what the Internet community had been doing for years: using simple, platform-independent protocols to communicate more effectively. No matter how much marketing hype you hear, an Intranet is simply Internet technology put to use on a private network.
Virtual private networks can be used to expand the reach of an Intranet. Since Intranets are typically used to communicate proprietary information, you don’t want them accessible from the Internet. There may be cases, however, where you’ll want far-flung offices to share data or remote users to connect to your Intranet, and these users may be using the Internet as their means of connection. A VPN will allow them to connect to the Intranet securely, so there are no fears of sensitive information leaving the network unprotected. You might see this type of connection also referred to as an “Extranet.”
Using our previous example of the customer database, it’s easy to see how a VPN could expand the Intranet application’s functionality. Suppose most of your salespeople are on the road, or work from home. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t be able to use the Internet to access the web server that houses the customer database application. You don’t want just anyone to be able to access the information, however, and you’re also worried about the information itself flowing unencrypted over the Internet. A VPN can provide a secure link between the salesperson’s laptop and the Intranet web server running the database, and encrypt the data going between them. VPNs give you flexibility, and allow practically any corporate network service to be used securely across the Internet.