What was formerly a technology mostly used by businesses to allow employees to access the company network remotely has turned into a multi-purpose technology. Now VPN means everything from enterprise VPN hardware to on-the-fly software solutions simple enough to be used by consumers who want to provide remote access to their home networks.
People use VPN to describe a whole range of products and services. They may be talking about setting up a VPN server so that employees can connect to the corporate network while out of the office. They may be talking about protecting their online activity when connecting to an Internet hotspot. And they may be talking about remotely accessing their computer in a different location, or securely sharing their computer with other users.
And it's not just the technology that has become more accessible – the price, too, is right for everyone, with several good free VPN clients now available. But what exactly do you need?
Traditional versus non-traditional VPN
VPN has traditionally been a locally deployed client/server solution. You would have a VPN server – another server, a router, or an appliance – to manage and negotiate the connections and install clients to the machines that needed remote access. This is still the way many businesses set up VPNs.
In this traditional setup, you need a VPN client on your computer to be able to connect to the VPN server. Cisco's VPN client software is one of the most widely used in business, but there are plenty of other options, and most modern operating systems also come with a built-in VPN client.
Of course, not everyone needs enterprise-level VPN. Some people just want to be able to connect to their work machine without a lot of hassle. This may apply even more to those who work in small companies with little or no IT support. Others may just want to set up a secure, encrypted tunnel between two or more computers in order to collaborate or host PC gaming sessions with friends. These VPN products are a bit different from remote control and access products like Team Viewer or GoToMy PC, which are designed more for accessing a single machine's files, or for desktop sharing. Two good examples are LogMeIn's Hamachi and Comodo Unite, which allow you to connect multiple computers securely.
If you are just looking for a way to secure your connection while browsing the Internet, you can use a simple VPN service (such as TorVPN). These services act as anonymisers, changing your IP address so no one can track your activity, but they also provide an encrypted tunnel for sensitive data. It's good additional security to have in place when connecting to the Internet at public hotspots.
Whatever free VPN product you may consider, bear in mind that there are a few caveats. While most free VPN software employs some sort of security for the data connection, you certainly aren't getting the security strength of paid and business VPN products. Don't use free VPN clients to share or transmit your most sensitive data – they'd be fine for Amazon shopping but not for healthcare records or anything that requires you to send your National Insurance number, for example. Also be aware that VPN solutions tend to slow down browsing. Often it's not a significant enough slowdown to notice, given a broadband connection, but when your connectivity is constrained, using a VPN might make a big (negative) difference.
If you’re looking for recommendations for free VPN clients, we suggest you check out the options below:
The easiest traditional VPN client around, Shrew Soft's VPN client makes setting up and connecting to an existing VPN client easy. No more clicking through the built-in client in the operating system. This is a great option if you have a large pool of users who need remote VPN access.
Hamachi is one of the more business focused non-traditional VPN products, and is free in its basic form. Install Hamachi on multiple computers and you’ll be able to connect securely between the two (but there are a few software quirks with the product).
Another non-traditional VPN product, Comodo Unite lets users create secure connections between computers, share desktops, work remotely, chat securely, and share files and applications.
Wippien isn’t as strong as the above three products, but it’s a decent option if all you need to do with a VPN connection is to share files with friends or connect your computers in order to play games together. Many gamers like Wippien because they can host games on one machine and connect securely from another. It also has a built-in chat client.