When we think about VPNs it’s easy to imagine two use cases. One is the road warrior, remote worker type, employed by a large company and using an IT-managed VPN to securely access corporate data and applications on a laptop or smartphone. The other is a regular consumer, using one of the many VPNs on the market today that enable private web browsing or streaming Netflix content from anywhere in the world.

But what about the middle ground? The small- and medium-sized businesses whose employees need to access SaaS applications and data, but maybe don’t have an unlimited IT headcount for support? Would they benefit from a VPN?

Businesses of every size

The simple answer is, yes. Companies of all sizes can absolutely benefit from a VPN, no matter whether their goal is to give remote employees access to the corporate infrastructure, whether it’s encrypting data for added security, or whether it’s just to protect data from prying eyes on public networks.

In addition to the security benefits, choosing the right VPN can even improve the user experience. Some offer unique features such as data compression – which is particularly useful over spotty Wi-Fi or cellular networks – that can ensure application stability even when switching between networks or while on the move.

Here’s an example. Anyone who has ever participated in a choppy Zoom or Teams call knows exactly how frustrating it can be. Sound and video quality can be poor. There can be an annoying lag that causes people to talk over one another. And the user may have to re-authenticate or sign in multiple times if the connection drops for any reason.

A VPN that’s designed for the needs of a modern, mobile workforce can be very effective at smoothing out something like a video conferencing session, coping remarkably well with the packet loss that commonly plagues congested networks.

Trickle down

VPNs haven’t always been within reach of SMBs. They were developed more than two decades ago to keep corporate data secure, and required expensive hardware, meaning that only large companies could afford to deploy them. But as the world has shifted to a combination of cloud services on the public internet (such as Office 365, Salesforce, Webex Teams, Concur and Dropbox) and applications hosted on private cloud services (AWS, Azure, GCP, etc.), some VPNs have moved with the times. Extra competition and technology advancements have made VPNs much more affordable, and given organizations the option to use highly scalable cloud-enabled VPNs as an alternative to their more traditional hardware-based relatives.

Enterprise VPN vs Consumer VPN

What about consumer VPNs? ExpressVPN and NordVPN are just two examples of well-known consumer VPNs on the market, but there are literally hundreds more that run the gamut on cost and quality. Some are compatible with only one operating system, like Android, while others have intuitive, robust feature sets that make management easy. It’s vital to keep in mind, however, that ‘free’ consumer VPNs do come with a cost. In lieu of charging users up front, they generate profit by tracking, collecting and selling users’ data to various advertisers and other (sometimes nefarious) groups. Many ‘free’ and very popular VPNs have been found to contain tracking capabilities embedded in their source code that feeds user data to third parties. This is definitely something that smaller businesses should be aware of if data integrity is paramount. In other words, cutting corners for a few dollars isn’t necessarily a good idea.

Regardless of the brand name, there are other key differences between consumer VPNs and genuine enterprise VPNs. For starters, enterprise VPNs are designed to protect the privacy of the whole business, adding supplementary protections against surveillance and hacking. Enterprise VPNs generally use a static IP address with dedicated software or hardware, while consumer VPNs typically share IP addresses with multiple users, changing every time the user reconnects to the service.

The main difference, however, is that consumer VPNs tend to be installed on individual devices and lack the multi-device management capabilities found in enterprise solutions. The results is that an IT team can have much better visibility and control over policies and what happens on those devices, such as what websites employees are visiting, what time they are visiting those sites, and whether employees are using social media platforms or video streaming services on those devices.

Choose wisely

With the cost of VPN deployment and support coming down considerably over the years, it is now easier than ever for organizations of every size to find a VPN that suits their needs. Even with limited internal resources, a VPN can be simple to install and deploy with very little disruption to established employee workflows. VPNs complement installed security solutions, so contrary to popular belief they don’t require a rip-and-replace approach. Best of all, the new breed of VPNs is extremely easy to manage and provides a great deal of visibility over the networks that aren’t even owned by the organization.

Every business – big or small – has data that needs to be kept safe. Choosing the right VPN for the task results in a scalable solution that can expand as the company grows, without stressing the network. The right VPN can provide security for devices and data while keeping would-be attackers out. And it can reduce user frustration by improving the experience on any application.

Originally published on the NetMotion Blog, June 4, 2020, by Mark Chisholm.