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What is a VPN and Why Do You Need One?

A History of Virtual Private Networks: Securing Connections for Over 25 Years

Virtual private networks, or VPNs, are now used by over 654 million individuals and businesses globally to encrypt internet traffic, mask locations, and keep data secure online. But this staple of cybersecurity has surprisingly only been around for a little over two decades. VPN technology originated in 1996 and has evolved dramatically since then – let‘s dive into the history behind this essential security tool.

Defining VPN Technology
First, what exactly is a VPN? VPN stands for "virtual private network." It‘s a type of software that creates an encrypted tunnel for internet traffic to flow through between your device and the internet gateway. This protects the data from being read or modified during transit by third parties. It also masks a user‘s real IP address and tricks websites into thinking the user is accessing the internet from a different location.

VPN technology enables remote, secure access. Businesses use VPN clients or VPN routers to allow employees to securely connect to company data and apps when working remotely. Individuals use personal VPN services to encrypt traffic and bypass geographic restrictions when accessing public WiFi or when traveling abroad. So VPNs essentially create tunnels through the public internet to power much of the secure connectivity we rely on daily across the globe.

The Origins of VPN: Born at Microsoft in 1996
VPN technology traces its origins back to a Microsoft product release in 1996. Windows NT version 4 came with a new built-in feature called the Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP). PPTP offered a way for corporations to enable remote office workers or traveling executives to securely access local network resources over the public internet.

For example, this meant an executive could access work files, database servers, and intranet sites from a hotel abroad without requiring an expensive dedicated leased line. PPTP created a protected "tunnel" through the public internet to emulate remote direct access to the corporate network.

In technical terms, PPTP works by encapsulating and encrypting packets inside TCP/IP streams using what‘s called tunneling. The encrypted PPTP traffic is then routed through TCP port 1723 across the internet with the IP header identifying the corporate VPN gateway as the destination. This protected path created a secure tunnel shielding traffic between the remote device and network. And this core concept developed by Microsoft over 25 years ago remains the foundation for how VPNs operate today.

The release of Windows NT 4 laid the groundwork for VPN adoption. PPTP offered the first built-in VPN client within a major commercial operating system. And one 1997 report estimated nearly 2 million remote office workers in North America alone depended on remote access to systems on corporate networks. So while PPTP takeup started slowly in the late 1990s, compatibility expanded as subsequent Windows and Cisco router firmware releases broadened support.

![Chart showing steady adoption of PPTP VPN from 1996 to over 2 million remote workers by 2002]

Early VPN Innovations – New Protocols Emerge
In the years immediately following the release of PPTP in Windows NT, a number of other VPN protocols emerged aiming to improve speed or security:

L2TP/IPSec (Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol + IP Security) – Offered enhanced security compared to PPTP by combining L2TP tunneling and IPsec encryption and authentication. IPsec encrypts each packet with AES, 3DES, or Blowfish cyphers before routing. And authentication via the pre-shared key or X.509 certificates model prevents man-in-the-middle attacks. L2TP/IPsec gained widespread adoption on business VPN gateways as well as personal VPN services. But despite security gains, L2TP still experienced performance lags as internet speeds increased.

SSL VPNs – Leveraged the SSL or TLS protocol (used broadly today in HTTPS websites for secure web traffic) to enable VPN-type connectivity directly from a web browser without needing dedicated client software. Web-based SSL VPN portals from vendors like Cisco or Citrix allowed easy but limited access to corporate resources like email or intranet sites. While browser-based access was convenient for some applications, it was light on features compared full VPN clients.

OpenVPN – Open-source VPN software released in 2001 focused on higher speeds while still encrypting traffic with SSL/TLS. It used TCP port 443 to bypass firewall blocks but added extra encryption layers combine RSA certificates and AES/CBC cyphers with SHA1 authorization. These open-source tools and improved performance quickly attracted many supporters. Major VPN services still base their applications on OpenVPN‘s open-source code.

So while PPTP was pioneering for easy remote access VPNs in 1996, these subsequent protocols each brought their own advantages. L2TP/IPSec improved protection for traffic while SSL VPNs increased convenience if simplicity was preferred. And OpenVPN prioritized performance as 100Mbps+ internet connections went mainstream in the 2000s.

Expanding VPN Adoption in the Early 2000s
As internet usage boomed globally in homes and offices in the early 2000s, so did interest in personal VPN services for individuals and remote-access VPN gateways for businesses. With most homes having always-on broadband connections by the mid 2000s, consumers sought tools to protect general internet activity and encrypt public WiFi sessions at coffee shops or hotels.

Early personal VPN providers like AnchorFree‘s Hotspot Shield, ItsHidden, privateTunnel, and WiTopia tapped into demand by routing traffic through remote servers to mask real locations and IP addresses. Some operated on a freemium model with limited data allowance or speeds. Others were subscription based with premium features. At the same time, software firewall and parental control tools like ZoneAlarm, NetNanny, and Norton Internet Security also gained popularity to combat growing malware threats targeting home PCs.

Meanwhile, enterprise demand for advanced remote-access VPN flexibility intensified considerably between 2000-2005. Cisco‘s 2001 VPN 3000 concentrator series helped cement IPSec VPNs as the go-to for larger networks. Improving protocols like L2TP/IPSec and SSL lowered barriers for securely accessing work resources outside the traditional office. And growing international business travel and operations increased the need to enable access across borders and hotels.

So while early VPN adoption was primarily driven by large corporate networks, the 2000s saw a rapid expansion into homes and small businesses as well. The risky realities of the early internet drove this expansion – inadequate security protections and the growing prevalence of viruses and identity theft. Both corporations and individuals had to adapt as the internet became unavoidable for work and personal life.

![Chart showing rapid acceleration in VPN adoption from under 10 million users globally in 2001 to over 100 million by 2007]

Faster VPN Protocols Emerge
As personal VPN services continued maturing in the late 2000s, reliability and speed remained problem areas hampering adoption and user experience. Many providers still relied on dated PPTP or L2TP protocols better suited for lower-bandwidth corporate tunneling.

Frustrated with lagging connections on emerging 3G and 4G cellular networks, two new high-efficiency VPN protocols aiming for top speed on mobile devices emerged:

OpenVPN – Continued evolving with new versions between 2009-2014 focused on faster encryption handshake methods along with support for AES-NI and SHA-2 on iOS/Android devices. Version 2.4 in 2014 further improved speeds by reducing packet overhead by over 25% compared to SSL VPN tunneling. OpenVPN‘s open-source codebase meant improvements could be quickly adopted across providers. And support for nearly all client platforms kept it popular globally.

IKEv2/IPSec – A new fast protocol first built into Blackberry devices in 2010 before arriving on iOS and Android mobile platforms by 2012. It relied on the same IPsec encryption as L2TP but dramatically accelerated connections by improving on IKEv1 key exchanges. IKEv2 also introduced new modes like MOBIKE to deal with mobile IP changes and Multipath TCP support to bundle multiple links. Implementation did face some hurdles due to complexity, but IKEv2 delivered major speed gains.

These faster VPN protocols paired with improving smartphone processors were game-changers for mobile performance. As iPhone and Android adoption soared after 2010, IKEv2 and upgraded OpenVPN enabled users to stay secure on the go without excessively dragging down mobile broadband speeds. More responsive connections led to growing daily VPN use.

VPN Use Explodes Globally
The massive rise in mobile connectivity and BYOD business policies triggered explosive VPN growth between 2010-2020. VPNs enabled securing WiFi sessions at coffee shops, protecting sensitive browsing during commutes, and bypassing geo-filters to stream region-locked video content abroad.

By 2016, VPN usage had ballooned to over 654 million monthly active users globally according to research firm GlobalWebIndex. Consumer fears following revelations about NSA surveillance programs harvesting data en masse drove interest. And demand increased in regions like Egypt, Russia, and Turkey as regimes blocked social media and restricted access during protests.

Dozens of consumer VPN providers entered the scene marketing privacy, security, and open access online. Top services today like ExpressVPN, NordVPN, Surfshark, CyberGhost, and Private Internet Access all launched between 2009-2014 to meet surging demand. Heightened competition pushed connection speeds up while improving reliability and adding premium features.

On the enterprise side, Cisco and Juniper remained VPN market leaders thanks to hardware VPN flexibility. But as more cost-conscious small businesses drove remote work support demands up, firms like SonixPath, Perimeter 81, and Pulse Secure offered simpler VPN router solutions. Software client options also improved considerably by moving to platform-independent connectors compatible across devices.

![Chart showing surge in total VPN users globally from 120 million in 2010 to over 650 million by 2022]

Recent Years: Privacy Concerns Continue Driving VPN Surge
In recent years, VPN adoption has continued accelerating across consumer and business segments globally. By 2022, surveys found 75% of US households actively using a VPN on at least one device. The global monthly active VPN user base reached 654 million – doubling from 2016.

This surge coincided with controversies like the Facebook Cambridge Analytica data scandal in 2018 showcasing the disturbing risks posed from online tracking and unchecked personal data harvesting. High profile ransomware attacks like 2017‘s WannaCry and NotPetya outbreaks also shook perceptions about cyber threats. These and other breaches fueled over 40% year-over-year growth in corporate VPN adoption between 2017-2019.

On top of these market forces, innovations around core VPN technologies also unlocked new use cases and audiences:

VPN at the Router Level – Major router vendors like ASUS, D-Link, and TP-Link now offer integrated VPN clients within firmware. This encrypts traffic for all connected devices without needing standalone clients.

IoT Device Encryption – The massive growth in connected cameras, appliances, building controls and vehicles increased risks of data harvesting or remote hijacking. Global IoT VPN market is forecast to grow 248% by 2028.

DNS-level Protection – DNS-level blocking, spoofing, and hijacking risks prompted VPN vendors to incorporate encrypted DNS resolving to cover gaps beyond browser and application traffic.

So consumers and businesses today rely on evolving VPN services to provide core defense when going online. Secure protocols like OpenVPN and IKEv2 enable VPN networks to now handle bandwidth-intensive use cases like 4K video streaming across billions of devices with ease.

The online privacy protections and encryption tools VPN pioneers set in motion back in 1996 have never been more vital. Core VPN functionality has stayed largely unchanged for over 25 years now. But the applications have evolved dramatically from early corporate networks to now securing remote work, home internet, mobile connections, WiFi, and even IoT device traffic across over 654 million users. And ongoing innovations around speed, reliability, flexibility and security will ensure VPN remains an essential last line of defense as the internet continues growing more invasive and dangerous.