Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Doha Diaries: Outtake - VPN Is a Traveler's Friend

So, you may or may not be familiar with VPN, virtual private network.  In essence, it is a secure connection across the Internet between your machine and a network; this results in your machine, for all intensive purposes, acting as though it is just another local machine.  For more information, wikipedia's page is more than adequate.

Those familiar with this have most likely used a VPN provided by their work so that they can safely check mail and access coporate-network-only stuff.

But there are other reasons to do this.
  1. You want greater security
  2. You want to mask your actual location, or convince someone you are somewhere you are not
Those are the biggies, and those are both good reasons to have VPN, whether or not you travel.

However, when you go overseas, there are added benefits.
  1. Security is even more important, especially if you are uncertain of your environs
  2. Depending on the country, you may be locked out content or censored based upon your location (this can be a problem because of where are or where you are not)
  3. Because sites think you are in another country, they may render their pages in the native tongue, as opposed to your own, which can kill your ability to use them effectively (especially if you have your browser set to wipe all cookies every time you exit)
Which brings us to Qatar and why VPN is nice to have here.  You see, there are a few hiccups you might experience.
  1. Content that is unavailable to you because you are in Qatar
  2. Content that is unavailable to you simply because you are not in the USA (e.g., Pandora)
  3. Various pages are too smart and they render text in pure Arabic, often with no link with "English" or a little flag to guide you
So, where does one get VPN?  My colleagues from work swear by StrongVPN, so I tried it out.  Very simple plan, $7 a month for 3 months, detailed instructions with screenshots, and constant instant chat support.

Are there reasons you might not want VPN?
  1. Extra cost, albeit trivial for most
  2. Slight increase in latency, this looks like it varies 200 to 300 Mbps
  3. You don't want to bother turning it on/off (but it's pretty darn easy)

Using Strong VPN

I went with StrongVPN.  There are three protocols - L2TP, PPTP, SSTP.  SSTP is only available on Vista and Windows 7.
  • SSTP is the most secure; only on Windows 7 or Windows Vista
  • L2TP is the next most secure - best for iPad, iPhone
  • PPTP will generally work when the other don't
Here's what I did...

Laptop: On my laptop, I went with the SSTP protocol because it is the most secure.

Mobile Devices: They have two main protocols from which you can choose for your mobile devices, L2TP and PPTP.  Each has pros and cons; they will explain them to you.  I recommend setting up both in your devices because sometimes one protocol will be blocked, but very rarely will both be blocked.  So, with both protocols set up, you can almost guarantee you will be able to use VPN on your mobile devices.  I always try L2TP first, because Strong VPN's staff reports that it is a bit more secure and faster than PPTP.

Still Using It In the USA

Back in the USA, I am still using Strong VPN, because I like the extra security, especially on my mobile devices.

The Point

If you are traveling or just want more security when using your portable devices, Strong VPN is just too cost-effective to not use.

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