Networking

VPN routers on the radar


Johannesburg, 11 Jan 2019

Virtual private networks (VPNs) are appearing on everyone's radar these days, from general consumers and businesses to certified security professionals. The software originated as IT professionals sought to provide secure access to remote users and safely connect different office locations to each other.

In recent years, this software has pivoted sharply to become one of the most popular and indispensable tools in every security-conscious user's online toolkit.

Businesses generally utilise VPNs to ensure remote users are authorised and using an encrypted channel. Similarly, many organisations create a permanent VPN tunnel between routers in one office and those in another, allowing employees to see the entire corporate network as though they were in the alternative location, and removing the need to log in every time they need to access a server or app.

A VPN router is a wireless router that comes pre-installed with a VPN. This can be useful for circumventing restrictions on individual devices or pieces of software, and ensuring every user is secure at all times by providing network-level protection. This is in contrast to other available options, including manual installation, consumer VPN software, or generic business security software.

Are these routers the best choice for your business, though, and what should you be looking out for?

What is a VPN router?

Small businesses can often be strapped for financial and human resources. If you want to avoid the trouble of manually installing a VPN on the router yourself, or want to eliminate your chances of ever being caught without one, VPN routers are the way to go.

This device is exactly as the name suggests: a WiFi hub, just like the one at home or in the office, which comes with VPN software pre-installed or with the ability to do so. They will automatically encrypt and secure the traffic of every device connected to them, along with all of the data sent and received. This is a great way of avoiding the simultaneous connection and multiple device limits set by conventional VPN software.

Like any piece of hardware, the price will vary depending on the size and requirements of your network. It's worth nothing that as inherently advanced pieces of hardware in comparison to standard routers, they're more expensive as a general rule.

Some of the cheapest routers on the market will cost around R1 800 or $130, while high-end options might cost upwards of R7 000, or $500.

If you choose to invest in a VPN router, you'll have to decide whether to buy one 'pre-flashed' or 'unflashed'. The difference here is simple: pre-flashed routers will have the software pre-installed, while unflashed routers require you to install the VPN manually.

The first option typically costs a little more, but removes the work on your part; plug it in and you're ready to conduct your business's activity securely. The second option might come cheaper, but will require some technical knowledge. Choosing to install manually will also give you a choice over which VPN you install, which is ideal for companies that already have a pre-existing subscription.

Specifications

Before you make your next purchase, make sure you understand exactly what each model has to offer.

WiFi standard

The WiFi standard of every router on the market will be an indecipherable code beginning with 802.11 and followed by a letter. What this number stands for isn't significant; what really matters is the letter that follows it.

Older routers will more than likely have a 'b' or 'g'; these should be largely avoided as their age means they won't be capable of the latest speeds. Newer models will have an 'n'; this means they will support a top speed of up to 300Mbps.

What you're really looking for is a router that supports 802.11ac. This is the latest consumer standard, allowing for transfer speeds of 1.3Gbps. Even if your ISP doesn't offer speeds that high, which it probably doesn't, it means you can connect more devices at once, all delivering downloads at the maximum speed your connection allows. This is perfect for an office situation where dozens of employees will be connected simultaneously.

Wireless frequency and speed

Most new routers, and certainly those modern enough to come with a pre-loaded VPN, will offer a choice of either 2.4GHz or 5GHz frequencies.

Simply speaking, 2.4GHz provides slower speeds over larger distances, while 5GHz offers faster speeds over shorter distances. It's worth noting that the 2.4GHz frequency often suffers from interference due to overcrowding, as there are fewer wireless devices out there capable of using 5GHz.

Be mindful of the capabilities of your default business hardware. Factor in your own situation when considering which option might be better here.

The WiFi standard and frequency aren't the only variables that will determine a router's final speed. Most routers will state their maximum speed outright. There's nothing technical to note here, look for the highest figure possible within your price range.

Ports

Most VPN routers will come with plenty of Ethernet ports for wired connections. Though not always the most convenient, this is the simplest way to improve your chances of optimal speeds and reliability.

They'll also typically have one or two USB ports. You can use these to turn an otherwise 'wired-only' printer into a WiFi-capable one, or connect a storage device to create a shared network drive. This can be a great way to offer secure shared storage at specific office locations, and can remove the need for external or third-party data suites.

Which providers come with preconfigured flashed VPN routers?

Many small and medium-sized businesses use consumer VPN software across multiple devices to meet their security needs. These services may not operate exactly like the router-level VPNs described previously, but they can nevertheless have a significant impact on your company's overall data security. These services still offer heightened security, secure remote access to third-party data suites, geo-independence, and affordability.

That being said, a surprising number of big-name consumer providers offer their VPNs on configured routers too. If you've yet to buy a subscription to these services, it's worth checking reviews online to see which provider is right for your company's needs. Some of the most popular brands that offer their software on preconfigured routers include Windscribe and HideMyAss.

If you already have a subscription to one of these services then you're at an advantage, as you'll need to do nothing more when you purchase and connect your router than login to your account.

If your provider of choice doesn't offer a preconfigured router option, that's fine; just make sure it supports the OpenVPN protocol and then purchase a router that also supports it. You can set it up manually from there.

Are there disadvantages to using a VPN router?

VPN routers may seem like a catch-all solution to your online security, and they can be, to an extent. But this will come at a cost, and not just the financial one.

The main issue is that a VPN router is not an efficient option for any business planning to use its VPN primarily for geo-spoofing or content unblocking. If you work in media or digital marketing, this solution might not be for you.

VPN routers are mainly for the privacy-conscious: once it's set up, it's not easy to turn it on and off or change your location. You might even have difficulty accessing content that would normally be easily available in your region, as many services outright block VPNs regardless of where the traffic originates.

It's worth noting that your speeds will take a permanent hit, too. Even if you buy a high-end router and equip it with one of the fastest VPNs on the market, there will naturally be some slowdown compared to an unrestricted and unprotected connection.

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