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A virtual private network (VPN) is a technology for using the Internet or another intermediate network to connect computers to isolated remote computer networks that would otherwise be inaccessible. A VPN provides security so that traffic sent through the VPN connection stays isolated from other computers on the intermediate network. VPNs can connect individual users to a remote network or connect multiple networks together.
For example, users may use a VPN to connect to their work computer terminal from home and access their email, files, images, etc.
Through VPNs, users are able to access resources on remote networks, such as files, printers, databases, or internal websites. VPN remote users get the impression of being directly connected to the central network via a point-to-point link.
Early networks allowed VPN-style remote connectivity through dial-up modems or through leased lines. Virtual private networks existed for many years in the form of private networks using frame relay. IP-VPNs have become more prevalent due to significant cost-reductions, increased bandwidth, convenience and security.
VPNs can be either remote-access (connecting an individual computer to a network) or site-to-site (connecting two networks together). In a corporate setting, remote-access VPNs allow employees to access their company's intranet from home or while traveling outside the office, and site-to-site VPNs allow employees in geographically separated offices to share one cohesive virtual network. A VPN can also be used to interconnect two similar networks over a dissimilar middle network; for example, two IPv6 networks over an IPv4 network.
VPN systems can be classified by:
VPNs typically require remote access to be authenticated and make use of encryption techniques to prevent disclosure of private information.
Secure VPN protocols include the following:
Tunnel endpoints must authenticate before secure VPN tunnels can be established.
Network-to-network tunnels often use passwords or digital certificates, as they permanently store the key to allow the tunnel to establish automatically and without intervention from the user.
The following steps  illustrate the principles of a VPN client-server interaction in simple terms.
Assume a remote host with public IP address 220.127.116.11 wishes to connect to a server found inside a company network. The server has internal address 192.168.1.10 and is not reachable publicly. Before the client can reach this server, it needs to go through a VPN server / firewall device that has public IP address 18.104.22.168 and an internal address of 192.168.1.1. All data between the client and the server will need to be kept confidential, hence a secure VPN is used.
Overall, it is as if the remote computer and company server are on the same 192.168.1.0/24 network.
Tunneling protocols can operate in a point-to-point network topology that would theoretically not be considered a VPN, because a VPN by definition is expected to support arbitrary and changing sets of network nodes. But since most router implementations support a software-defined tunnel interface, customer-provisioned VPNs often are simply defined tunnels running conventional routing protocols.
Depending on whether the PPVPN (Provider Provisioned VPN) runs in layer 2 or layer 3, the building blocks described below may be L2 only, L3 only, or combine them both. Multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) functionality blurs the L2-L3 identity.
A device that is within a customer's network and not directly connected to the service provider's network. C devices are not aware of the VPN.
A device at the edge of the customer's network which provides access to the PPVPN. Sometimes it's just a demarcation point between provider and customer responsibility. Other providers allow customers to configure it.
A PE is a device, or set of devices, at the edge of the provider network which connects to customer networks through CE devices and present the provider's view of the customer site. PEs are aware of the VPNs that connect through them, and maintain VPN state.
A P device operates inside the provider's core network and does not directly interface to any customer endpoint. It might, for example, provide routing for many provider-operated tunnels that belong to different customers' PPVPNs. While the P device is a key part of implementing PPVPNs, it is not itself VPN-aware and does not maintain VPN state. Its principal role is allowing the service provider to scale its PPVPN offerings, for example, by acting as an aggregation point for multiple PEs. P-to-P connections, in such a role, often are high-capacity optical links between major locations of providers.
This section deals with the types of VPN considered in the IETF; some historical names were replaced by these terms.
In both of these services, the service provider does not offer a full routed or bridged network, but provides components to build customer-administered networks. VPWS are point-to-point while VPLS can be point-to-multipoint. They can be Layer 1 emulated circuits with no data link .
The customer determines the overall customer VPN service, which also can involve routing, bridging, or host network elements. An unfortunate acronym confusion can occur between Virtual Private Line Service and Virtual Private LAN Service; the context should make it clear whether "VPLS" means the layer 1 virtual private line or the layer 2
A Layer 2 technique that allows for the coexistence of multiple LAN broadcast domains, interconnected via trunks using the IEEE 802.1Q trunking protocol. Other trunking protocols have been used but have become obsolete, including Inter-Switch Link (ISL), IEEE 802.10 (originally a security protocol but a subset was introduced for trunking), and ATM LAN Emulation (LANE).
Developed by IEEE, VLANs allow multiple tagged LANs to share common trunking. VLANs frequently comprise only customer-owned facilities. Whereas VPLS as described in the above section (OSI Layer 1 services) supports emulation of both point-to-point and point-to-multipoint topologies, the method discussed here extends Layer 2 technologies such as 802.1d and 802.1q LAN trunking to run over transports such as Metro Ethernet.
As used in this context, a VPLS is a Layer 2 PPVPN, rather than a private line, emulating the full functionality of a traditional local area network (LAN). From a user standpoint, a VPLS makes it possible to interconnect several LAN segments over a packet-switched, or optical, provider core; a core transparent to the user, making the remote LAN segments behave as one single LAN.
In a VPLS, the provider network emulates a learning bridge, which optionally may include VLAN service.
PW is similar to VPWS, but it can provide different L2 protocols at both ends. Typically, its interface is a WAN protocol such as Asynchronous Transfer Mode or Frame Relay. In contrast, when aiming to provide the appearance of a LAN contiguous between two or more locations, the Virtual Private LAN service or IPLS would be appropriate.
A subset of VPLS, the CE devices must have L3 capabilities; the IPLS presents packets rather than frames. It may support IPv4 or IPv6.
This section discusses the main architectures for PPVPNs, one where the PE disambiguates duplicate addresses in a single routing instance, and the other, virtual router, in which the PE contains a virtual router instance per VPN. The former approach, and its variants, have gained the most attention.
One of the challenges of PPVPNs involves different customers using the same address space, especially the IPv4 private address space. The provider must be able to disambiguate overlapping addresses in the multiple customers' PPVPNs.
In the method defined by RFC 2547, BGP extensions advertise routes in the IPv4 VPN address family, which are of the form of 12-byte strings, beginning with an 8-byte Route Distinguisher (RD) and ending with a 4-byte IPv4 address. RDs disambiguate otherwise duplicate addresses in the same PE.
PEs understand the topology of each VPN, which are interconnected with MPLS tunnels, either directly or via P routers. In MPLS terminology, the P routers are Label Switch Routers without awareness of VPNs.
The Virtual Router architecture, as opposed to BGP/MPLS techniques, requires no modification to existing routing protocols such as BGP. By the provisioning of logically independent routing domains, the customer operating a VPN is completely responsible for the address space. In the various MPLS tunnels, the different PPVPNs are disambiguated by their label, but do not need routing distinguishers.
Some virtual networks may not use encryption to protect the data contents. While VPNs often provide security, an unencrypted overlay network does not neatly fit within the secure or trusted categorization. For example a tunnel set up between two hosts that used Generic Routing Encapsulation (GRE) would in fact be a virtual private network, but neither secure nor trusted.
Besides the GRE example above, native plaintext tunneling protocols include Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol (L2TP) when it is set up without IPsec and Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP) or Microsoft Point-to-Point Encryption (MPPE).
Trusted VPNs do not use cryptographic tunneling, and instead rely on the security of a single provider's network to protect the traffic.
From the security standpoint, VPNs either trust the underlying delivery network, or must enforce security with mechanisms in the VPN itself. Unless the trusted delivery network runs among physically secure sites only, both trusted and secure models need an authentication mechanism for users to gain access to the VPN.
Mobile VPNs are used in a setting where an endpoint of the VPN is not fixed to a single IP address, but instead roams across various networks such as data networks from cellular carriers or between multiple Wi-Fi access points. Mobile VPNs have been widely used in public safety, where they give law enforcement officers access to mission-critical applications, such as computer-assisted dispatch and criminal databases, while they travel between different subnets of a mobile network. They are also used in field service management and by healthcare organizations, among other industries.
Increasingly, mobile VPNs are being adopted by mobile professionals and white-collar workers who need reliable connections. They are used for roaming seamlessly across networks and in and out of wireless-coverage areas without losing application sessions or dropping the secure VPN session. A conventional VPN cannot survive such events because the network tunnel is disrupted, causing applications to disconnect, time out, or fail, or even cause the computing device itself to crash.
Instead of logically tying the endpoint of the network tunnel to the physical IP address, each tunnel is bound to a permanently associated IP address at the device. The mobile VPN software handles the necessary network authentication and maintains the network sessions in a manner transparent to the application and the user. The Host Identity Protocol (HIP), under study by the Internet Engineering Task Force, is designed to support mobility of hosts by separating the role of IP addresses for host identification from their locator functionality in an IP network. With HIP a mobile host maintains its logical connections established via the host identity identifier while associating with different IP addresses when roaming between access networks.