An Introduction to Mobile VPN
The following article aims to provide a brief introduction to the concept of mobile VPN, how it works and its potential applications in business and the public sector.
A Virtual Private Network or VPN is a mechanism which allows users to securely connect to local networks from remote locations across public networks using encrypted parcels of data and authentication at each end point.
The term mobile VPN, or mVPN, refers to systems in which users of portable devices such as mobile phones, tablets and laptops connect securely to fixed local networks from remote locations, across the internet, by connecting initially to wireless networks or mobile phone carrier networks. The key challenges for mobile VPNs relate to the fact that the user and their device will, by definition, be mobile. They will need to be accessing their VPN connection from differing networks, often roaming between networks as they are on the move and occasionally experiencing moments offline between these networks (or as they put their device to sleep). The aim of a mobile VPN is to allow the device to be authenticated when connecting from this variety of networks and to maintain the VPN session as the user and their device roam.
The problem this poses, however, is manifold. Firstly, the IP address of the client device will vary depending on where they are accessing the network from, making authentication harder. The device may be assigned a dynamic IP address anyway (which will therefore change every time they connect), regardless of its location, but in addition the device's IP address will change each time it connects from a different mobile or wireless network (Wi-Fi hotspot). What's more, when the user is roaming across networks, the identity of the device end point will be changing each time they do switch from one to another. Secondly, the moments when the device is offline when the it is in a location without an available network, is switching from one to another or is idle can result in the suspension of the VPN session.
How Does It Work?
The classic model of a VPN involves the creation of a secure tunnel (in which information is encrypted) through the internet, essentially from one IP address to another, usually with the IP addresses of each end point predefined. This mechanism creates two problems for mobile users. Firstly a mobile system cannot utilise IP verification if the IP address of the connecting device changes on each occasion, which negates one of the authentication methods, removing a level of security for the VPN. Secondly this tunnel would break each time the IP of an end point changed or when the device goes offline. Mobile VPNs therefore overcome this obstacle with VPN software that assigns a constant static IP address to the actual device rather than relying on its network assigned IP address. In addition they can utilise a virtualised VPN session which is kept open as the status of the device changes and then an automated login to reestablish the connection when the device reconnects.
Where Can It Be Used?
Mobile VPNs can be beneficial for any profession or industry where the client is on the go, working from various locations; particularly where the information that is being accessed and transmitted is of a sensitive nature and therefore needs to be kept secure. In the public sector, for example, mobile VPNs can allow health professionals to communicate with central networks when outside of the surgery or hospital (i.e., in the field), to view and update patient records. Other public services whose jobs also require them to be on the move constantly, such as the police can employ the technology to the same effect to view centralised databases.
Whilst being initially popular in the public sector the technology is becoming vital to the private sector too with enterprise realising its value in allowing output to continue seamlessly for employees within businesses where travel is a necessary element of the work. Examples form the private sector can include transportation and delivery services, utility employees and travelling salesmen.
As the cost and productivity efficiencies of working securely on the move are realised by both business and the public services, and with the continuing proliferation of smartphones and tablets, the adoption of mobile VPN technology is set to gather significant pace and consequently become commonplace throughout many aspects of our lives.