It wasn’t too long ago that “logging in from home” was less of a phrase and more of a perk for corporate upper-management types. Nowadays, with the proliferation of secure virtual private networks (VPNs), it’s actually more like a given for the average worker.

“It’s as essential as a cell phone,” says Benjamin Brukner, an IT consultant with Stemp Systems, based in Long Island City, N.Y. “If you’re a small to mid-size business without a VPN, we find with our customers it’s entirely an issue of education.”

It’s also typically an issue of size. The statistics tell the story. According to AMI Partners, a market intelligence company based in New York City, only a third of PC-owning companies with five to 19 employees has a VPN. Compare that to 75 percent of all companies with 50 to 500 employees that have VPNs.

In other words, the bigger you get the more likely you need it. If you’re business is one of those companies still doing without or contemplating scaling up, perhaps this brief primer will help you take the next step:

What a VPN is

A VPN is not a wide area network (WAN). A WAN is a point-to-point connection between two distant computers or private networks typically over leased lines or a dedicated circuit path. Larger organizations, including internet service providers and entire cities typically have a WAN. The Internet itself is considered a WAN.

A VPN is a cheaper solution that connects far-flung private networks and its users by piggy-backing across already existing public telecommunications infrastructure using secure connections protected by a variety of “tunneling” and privacy protocols.

VPNs can be kept in-house or hosted by outside companies. To determine what type your business needs, consider the following questions:

  • How much traffic do you anticipate? Take an inventory of the number of remote offices or work-from-home employees involved.
  • How often will these satellite users be dialing in to the system?
  • What percentage of your staff works on the road almost exclusively?
  • What about access for customers and suppliers?
  • How mission critical will your VPN be to the business?

Hosted VPNs

There are many advantages to a hosted VPN. Top of the list, it’s a turnkey solution for the company, not having to deal with maintenance or upgrades. This is especially advantageous for smaller companies with little or no on-site IT staff. “The more dependent you are on outside IT support, the more likely hosted is better. For the early stages of deploying VPN, you’re better off with hosting,” says Andy Bose, CEO of AMI Partners.

Bose, who frequently advises small to midsize businesses, offers the following tips for picking a hosting provider:

Make sure the host is industry friendly to your business. If you’re an insurance company, find a provider that caters especially to the insurance industry, for example.

Find out what brands of IT solutions they use, like Cisco or Microsoft. Make sure they are certified to maintain them.

Seek out references and client testimonials. How big is the provider? What size companies do they serve and how many?

Commit to only six months up front. “For that first contract, six months is a good length. Less than that wouldn’t give you enough time to gauge the provider’s effectiveness. But, you want to be able to get out of it fairly quickly if it’s not working out,” says Bose.

Keeping a VPN in-house

If a hosted VPN is so easy, why would any company choose to do it themselves? First of all, it means more control and better service since you are relying on your own IT staff. If you already have a robust IT infrastructure and staff, the organization will likely get a better result in terms of integration, future scalability and customization. It may also be cheaper.

Here are the types of VPN solutions on the market today:

Point to point tunneling protocol (PPTP). PPTP is largely associated with Microsoft since it was developed by them. Naturally, it works great with the Windows operating systems. Not all firewalls, however, support PPTP, so integration can be seamless or a nightmare. Double check before you commit.

Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol (L2TP). L2TP is a hybrid solution developed by Microsoft and Cisco.  L2TP works with a wider range of other brand name VPN appliances than PPTP. But there are still limitations. Again, do your homework before buying.

Internet Protocol Security (IPSec). IPSec is a security protocol that sends data securely through an encrypted “tunnel” through the Internet. Unlike PPTP and L2TP, it is supported by all of the other major VPN and firewall vendors making it your best bet for integration and scalability in the future.

Secure Sockets Layer (SSL). This is the so-called clientless solution, since it is Web-based. There’s no need for client software, no worries about integration and there are no limits on the number of users that can use it. The only hitch: it can only access Web-enabled servers.

Last piece of advice: make all your decisions with an eye on the future and with scalability in mind. The last thing you want to do is have to start over from scratch.