Posted tagged ‘networks’

VPN’s Explained

September 13, 2013

Last night I mentioned the use of a VPN on Facebook. It occurred to me that many of my FB friends don’t have a clue what I was talking about. So here is a brief tutorial on VPN’s.

VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. It was originally developed to allow remote users to securely connect to a corporations internal networks. Corporations install firewalls to prevent unauthorized users to snoop around their internal networks. The VPN provides end-to-end encrypted connection.

That was the original idea. Now it seems some new and clever uses have emerged. There are companies that will sell for a modest price VPN service that provides anonymous connections to the internet. This has been used successfully in third world countries to allow users (say in China) to bypass Chinese government attempts to prevent Chinese citizens to look at sites outside their country.

The service that I use is sold by a company called Avast!. They also provide free anti-virus apps. So when I bring up my VPN it goes through one of Avast’s servers around the world. This prevents snoops (like the NSA or CIA) from looking at what web sites you are visiting.

Web servers have the ability to find out in a general fashion where you are located. For instance, a weather site would find out that I live in the Los Angeles area and that I probably would be interested in the weather in LA. A site can do a “traceroute” to find out where your IP address is located. Netflix uses traceroute to make sure that you are inside the continental USA. Their agreement with content providers is for US access only.

So when I use a VPN, I can make a web server think that I am located somewhere else. Last night I was trying to access both the Apple and AT&T site. My thought was that they might be giving east coast users a head start on ordering new iPhones. So I loaded my VPN going through New York. It didn’t help because the Apple and AT&T sites were severely overloaded.

I also occasionally use it for accessing MLBtv. That is the Major League Baseball subscription app for viewing baseball games. MLB however blacks out games in your local area. Seeing as I usually want to watch Boston Red Sox game, this is not a problem. However, when the Sox were playing the LA Dodgers, the game was blacked out here in LA. So I loaded my VPN going through Seattle. Presto, MLB thinks I’m in Seattle. Game on. Unfortunately this doesn’t work for my iPad. Apple devices also have a GPS that MLB uses to find out where you are.

VPN’s are also very useful for securing your internet access from public wiFi access (eg. at Starbucks, Local Libraries and hotels). I strongly encourage VPN use in those situations. You just don’t know who is listening.

Here are a few links for your education (be forwarned these wiki articles are a bit technical):

Virtual Private Networks Wiki


Avast! VPN Service

VPN Anyone?

August 19, 2013

You might say what the heck is a VPN? VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. VPN’s were originally developed to allow internet users access to the web from behind corporate firewalls. It was also used to allow home users access to corporate networks that were hidden by firewalls. Here is a much more detailed explanation of VPN’s on Wikipedia.

Okay, all well and good. Now VPN’s are used for several other purposes. Here’s a list. (by no means exhaustive).

  1. Security on public networks. If you use public internet access, say at your local Starbuck’s or local library, you are using a public internet. This means that other people with some clever tools can listen into what you are doing. The can see what sites you are visiting. They sometimes see the data you are transmitting. Using a VPN on public internet is a very good practice.
  2. Access to sites that are blocked. Some sites are blocked. Sometimes by governments (eg. China, Middle East), sometimes by corporations, and sometimes by ISP’s.

So there are private VPN’s operated by corporate IT departments and there are VPN’s that are public where you can purchase a license to use their service. I will be talking about the latter case, because that one is the most useful for the average user.

I first started thinking about VPN’s recently when CBS and Time Warner Cable (TWC) started a very public fight. The fight is over fees that CBS wants TWC to pay for the right to provide CBS to TWC’s customers. TWC customers could no longer watch CBS shows on their TV service. TWC also blocked access to CBS web sites on their internet service. I can’t do anything to fix the former problem (unless I buy an antenna or switch providers).  But I can do something about the internet service. I could of course switch TV and network providers, but that is a giant PITA.

The solution is to install a VPN on my laptop. There are several providers available. Most of the providers try a free “try before you buy” license, typically good for a few days. Currently, I am trying out “Avast Secure Line”, Seems to work. I can view the CBS sites. I need to try on MLBTV by attempting to watch games that are typically blacked out. It has free three day license. Then $42 for a year.

Here’s the screen shot of the Avast Secure Line:

avast secureline

iOS solution is a bit different. There are several iOS apps available. Search the App Store for “VPN”. Installation seems to be straight forward. The apps tend to be free. They typically limit initial free bandwidth to 300mb. So you get to try before you buy. After that you have to do in-app purchase to buy bandwidth. The privacy needs for my iPAD and iPhone are more important than my PC. I don’t take my laptop travelling very much. Most of the time it is plugged in to my home wifi. Here’s the link to the app store entry for “VPN Express“. There are other VPN apps. Try them and see what works.

2013-08-19 11.17.01

So my recommendation, get a VPN. Remember that freedom isn’t free, and neither is security. There is way too much snooping going on, Both by the government(s) and others. This is one additional way to keep people from snooping. Plus, now I can watch “David Letterman” and “Big Bang Theory”. VPN’s won’t prevent mail providers like Google or Yahoo giving the NSA the admin passwords to the mail servers. But it does plug an important hole in internet security.

I still need to try the VPN apps with MLBTV games that are blacked out for being local. For me that would be LA Dodgers and LA Angels. Not a real big deal. I only care about them when they’re playing the Boston Red Sox.

Twelve Networking Truths

May 21, 2012

While looking on my hard drive for something else I found the following document about networking. This is about “computer” networking not the “people” kind of networking. It amused me a while ago and amuses me yet again. It was written by Ross Callon. Here’s the link Originally written 1996. Still amusing.

  1. It Has To Work.
  2. No matter how hard you push and no matter what the priority, you can’t increase the speed of light.
    2a. (corollary). No matter how hard you try, you can’t make a baby in much less than 9 months. Trying to speed this up *might* make it slower, but it won’t make it happen any quicker.
  3. With sufficient thrust, pigs fly just fine. However, this is not necessarily a good idea. It is hard to be sure where they are going to land, and it could be dangerous sitting under them as they fly overhead.
  4. Some things in life can never be fully appreciated nor understood unless experienced firsthand. Some things in networking can never be fully understood by someone who neither builds commercial networking equipment nor runs an operational network.
  5. It is always possible to agglutinate multiple separate problems into a single complex interdependent solution. In most cases this is a bad idea.
  6. It is easier to move a problem around (for example, by moving the problem to a different part of the overall network architecture) than it is to solve it.
    6a. (corollary). It is always possible to add another level of indirection.
  7. It is always something
    7a. (corollary). Good, Fast, Cheap: Pick any two (you can’t have all three).
  8. It is more complicated than you think.
  9. For all resources, whatever it is, you need more.
    9a (corollary) Every networking problem always takes longer to solve than it seems like it should.
  10. One size never fits all.
  11. Every old idea will be proposed again with a different name and a different presentation, regardless of whether it works.
    11a (corollary). See rule 6a.
  12. In protocol design, perfection has been reached not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.