Column: Virtual Private Networks cast intranets wider

First there was the Internet, then intranets and now they're raving about Virtual Private Networks.

First there was the Internet. It gave everybody equal access to worldwide information. Then there was the intranet. It gave users over a closed internal system access to selected corporate information. Now the latest buzz is the Virtual Private Network (VPN) which allows access of selected corporate information across the Internet to remote intranets (VPNs have also been referred to as Extranets but here in New Zealand that term has connotations that not all ISPs are comfortable with ...).

In essence, a VPN is an external intranet — a closed group of TCP/IP-based local area networks, regardless of location, that can publish and access private HTML-based information from the desktop using a browser. Not unlike Compuserve’s Forums in concept, VPNs can be an effective way

for organisations with a number of branch offices to exchange company information, for distributors to communicate with resellers and outlets, and for special interest groups to manage their projects without public scrutiny.

According to Mark Presnell of Netlink, one of the ISPs actively promoting VPN, the enabling technology is rather straightforward.

“A router connected to the LAN is enabled with Encryption/Compression (ENCO) tools”, Presnell says. “When a packet of information is sent from a node on the intranet it goes to the router. At that point it is encrypted and compressed using Data Encryption Standard-compliant (DES) techniques.

DES standards are based on 56 byte storage, meaning that there are somewhere in the vicinity of 70,000,000,000,000,000 (give or take a few 0’s) different keys. Security is not an issue here.

Although there are no generally-acknowledged implementations of VPNs so far in NZ, the technology is so compelling that the first examples will be coming online soon. VPNs provide the ability to link remote sites for email, transactional database management, and the serving of standardised corporate information such as employee manuals, ISO 9000 documentation and other commonly used documents. On the marketing front, since the network is private, reseller price lists, competitor information, sales contacts, sales reports and other sensitive information can be shared across the network without worrying about security leaks. For joint development projects, workgroups can collaborate across the network on building documents, again in the privacy of their own network, regardless geographical location.

Virtual Private Networks are the logical next step beyond the Internet and intranets. It is only a matter of time before they catch on. VPNs are just another example of the technology racing ahead far faster than we mere mortals can apply it in an effective manner. That being said, when we do catch up, we’ll have some pretty slick tools waiting.

(Parent is an Internet consultant at Creative Data. He can be contacted by email at pip@iprolink.co.nz or via Creative Data's Web page at http://www.cd.co.nz/cd.)

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