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VPN Shopping 101
By: Laura Taylor
July 26, 2002
Shopping for an expensive and sophisticated product can be a daunting task. However you don't need to know all the answers, as long as you know all the right questions to ask. Here are some guidelines for shopping for a Virtual Private Network (VPN) so that you can get the best value to fulfill your unique requirements and understand the technology you're shopping for.
There are two main types of VPNs, and when shopping for a VPN you need to understand which kind it is that you need. End-to-end VPNs secure data from one wide area network endpoint to another, and secure remote access VPNs secure data transmitted by mobile users who use either dial-up, DSL, or cable broadband networks. An end-to-end VPN can be used on either an extranet or an intranet. End-to-end VPNs can also be used to connect one enterprise (or site) to multiple enterprises (or sites). All leading end-to-end VPNs offer VPN clients that can be used for secure remote access VPNs.
Suppliers want to be connected to their inventory sources, hospitals wanted to be connected to their primary care providers, and companies want to be connected to their ISPs, ASPs, and Web sites securely. Business partners need to share pieces of their intranet with other partners. There are numerous and varied reasons why companies use VPNs to ensure confidentiality and integrity of the data they are transmitting.
VPNs are typically based on three possible encryption protocols: IPSec, L2TP, and PPTP. IPSec is considered the standard, and all leading VPNs should offer IPSec.
Market Analysis and Predictions
Relevant Technologies estimates that predictions by other analysts that suggested the VPN market would reach $30 billion by 2003 to be overly optimistic. If the Internet economy had not collapsed these earlier predictions might have matriculated. Nonetheless, the VPN market is well developed with a healthy growth rate and is clearly here to stay. VPN market leaders include Cisco, Check Point, Nokia, Nortel Networks, and Symantec. The VPN market will undoubtedly continue to expand for the foreseeable future.
End-to-end VPNs often require two different offices coordinating the implementation. If the systems engineers in both offices do not report in to the same organization, the implementation process will probably be slower. If the network management team is slow to assign IP addresses, and need to reconfigure router ACLs in order to implement a VPN, this will also slow down the process. The key to implementing a VPN quickly is to have a fast moving IT team that knows how to work together, without an undue amount of red tape and corporate process overhead. Overly complex and cumbersome management processes can greatly slow down the ability to implement a VPN quickly. Often it is the case that IT shops are short-staffed, and exist in fire fighting mode, with not enough dedicate resources to move quickly to implement a VPN.
Key VPN Features
You'll definitely want to ask about the encryption, authentication, administration, and logging features since these are key features that any leading VPN product would come with. You'll also want to find out if you can use the VPN for a firewall. Many vendors sell VPNs and firewalls as an all-in-one package and if you also need a firewall, there are a lot of advantages to be had from bundling the firewall and VPN on the same server -- certainly it will decrease the cost of ownership because administering and deploying one system is usually less costly and less time consuming than administering two systems.
If you are going to deploy numerous VPNs, you'll want to find out if the vendor offers a management console so that they can all be centrally managed from one system. If the vendor does not offer a management console, you should inquire if their VPNs can be managed from another third-party management console. When you use a management console from a remote location, you'll want to use strong authentication. You should ask the vendor if the product uses HTTPS, SSH, Telnet, two-factor authentication, S/Key, RADIUS or something else in order to authenticate to the management console.
Something else you will want to find out about is if the encryption is done in the hardware or software. Typically encryption that is done in hardware (ASICS) works faster which means that there is less of a chance of performance delays. Also be sure to ask which hash algorithms are supported for encryption? Most leading vendors use MD5 and SHA-1.
Leading VPNs can be used to secure wireless connections. If you already have a wireless network, or are thinking about deploying one in the future, you should ask if the VPN can be deployed on wireless networks.
Interviewing Vendors for Product Selection
Questions You Should Ask VPN Vendors
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If you plan on purchasing, deploying, and supporting your own VPN you'll certainly want to do your homework. However, if you don't have the expertise or resources in house to support a VPN, a better option is to outsource to a service provider and purchase a VPN service package. If you decide to outsource your VPN, be sure to ask to see the service providers VPN Service Level Description. The service level description should be very detailed and include information on what products they use, how the products are configured, and what you can expect in assistance as far as support goes. Good product and service research and planning can make all the difference in the world.
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