VPN software makes it possible to bring the security of a private network to large and insecure networks like the greater Internet. This week we look at the five most popular tools for building your own virtual private network.
Photo by Noah Sussman.
If you're new to the idea of virtual private networks, you can read up on the technical nitty-gritty at the Wikipedia entry for VPNs. Note: This Hive Five contains both VPN server applications and VPN client applications. In many instances companies produce VPN servers, VPN clients, VPN servers with accompanying clients, or VPN clients that are designed to work with a variety of servers.
Cisco VPN (Windows/Mac/Linux, Variable Cost)
Cisco has a high market saturation in corporate and educational environments and many of you have had your entire experience of virtual private networks through such exposure. The price to run a Cisco VPN is highly variable—and you can't even get a concrete number without a quote from the company—but you can, as an end user, download the free Cisco VPN client for Windows and Mac. Many readers complained about the lack of 64-bit support in the free Cisco client.
OpenVPN (Windows/Mac/Linux, Free)
OpenVPN is an open source VPN server designed to be easy to set up for use with open source VPN clients. You can easily export configuration files from OpenVPN to import into a variety of open source and commercial clients. OpenVPN is also integrated into several router firmware packages including popular DD-WRT, OpenWRT, and Tomato. The OpenVPN system isn't compatible with popular commercial VPN providers but it provides an open source and free alternative to expensive and closed commercial models.
LogMeIn Hamachi (Windows/Mac/Linux, Free)
Hamachi's strongest attribute is its ease of use. If you've read some of the other entries in the Hive Five and realised that you don't want a contract for a corporate VPN or the hassle of configuring a bunch of routers with open-source firmware packages, you just want to set up a simple virtual network between you and your friend, your phone, or your office, Hamachi is offers nearly instant deployment. Install the Hamachi client on all the machines and devices you want to connect into your network and add them to your Hamachi VPN and you're done. The downside, if you're concerned about it, is that your VPN isn't locally managed -- it's centrally managed by Hamachi through their servers.
Shrew Soft (Windows/Linux, Free)
Shrew Soft offers a VPN that while popular in it's own right, received quite a boost when people started adopting Windows 7 64-bit in droves and found that Cisco wasn't in any hurry to release a 64-bit client to accommodate them. Shrew Soft works with a variety of VPN server protocols including IPsec, OpenSWAN, freeSWAN, and strongSWAN.
Windows VPN Client (Windows/Linux, Free)
Windows has a built-in VPN client—surprised? Many people are, it's not a heavily advertised feature—which covers many people's needs. Before exploring other client solutions it's worth pulling up the quick launch box in the Windows start menu and typing "VPN" to start the configuration process. In Windows versions prior to Windows Vista, the built-in VPN client received a fair amount of criticism for lacking features and supported protocols. Since Vista and especially in the Windows 7 implementation it has grown significantly and unless you need a feature or standard that isn't implemented you may not need to install anything at all.
An honorable mention goes out to the Mac OS X built-in VPN client. Have a VPN tip, trick or application to share? Let's hear about it in the comments.