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VPN hardware vs. VPN software

Choosing the right cybersecurity tools for your home or office can be a hassle. Do you need a VPN? If so, what kind? If you are looking for a device to encrypt your internet traffic and protect every device connected to it, a hardware VPN might be a great option. In this article, we present the definition of VPN hardware and explain how it differs from VPN software.

VPN hardware vs. VPN software

What is a virtual private network?

A virtual private network, or a VPN, is a digital security tool that encrypts the data traffic to and from a user’s device. It works by rerouting the device’s online traffic through a secure VPN server, changing the user’s IP. Masking your real IP provides privacy and security from eavesdroppers.

What is VPN hardware?

VPN hardware is a physical device that provides access to a private network from outside that network’s perimeter. A physical VPN device is usually connected to another user device and can provide robust protection and private access for whichever network it’s attached to. Unlike software-based VPNs that rely on client software installed on individual devices, a hardware VPN offers a dedicated and centralized approach to secure connectivity.

Hardware VPNs are typically used by large businesses and organizations that require secure access to their internal networks, for example, for their remote employees, branch offices, and partners. Since they are typically geared toward businesses, setting up VPN hardware for home use would require significant technological expertise, time, and finances.

Hardware VPNs have a set of hardware and software components. These components are as follows:

  1. A VPN gateway or router is a central hardware component equipped with VPN software or firmware that encrypts, decrypts, authenticates, and routes VPN traffic. It is an entry point for remote users and branch offices to connect to the private network securely.
  2. Network interface cards (NICs) are installed in routers to enable network connectivity. A device connecting to the VPN would require NICs compatible with the VPN hardware.
  3. An encryption/decryption engine performs the cryptographic operations required to encrypt and decrypt the data transmitted between the user’s device and the private network. Encryption algorithms used in hardware VPNs include AES (Advanced Encryption Standard), DES (Data Encryption Standard), or the more secure and advanced algorithms such as 3DES (Triple Data Encryption Standard) or AES-256.
  4. A network switch is a device that enables multiple devices to connect to the same network and communicate securely. In a hardware VPN setup, switches connect VPN devices, such as routers, firewalls, and concentrators, to create a secure network infrastructure.
  5. Redundancy and high availability features ensure the VPN service remains accessible and operational even if the hardware fails. A hardware VPN achieves redundancy through failover mechanisms, dual power supplies, and redundant hardware components.
  6. A management interface allows network administrators to configure and manage VPN settings. Through this interface, they set up VPN policies, manage accounts, monitor VPN connections, and perform other tasks.
  7. Authentication mechanisms ensure that only authorized users can establish a VPN connection. They can involve username/password authentication, digital certificates, or two-factor authentication (2FA).
  8. Additional security features protect the private network from cyberthreats and unauthorized access. They may include firewalls, intrusion detection/prevention systems (IDS/IPS), content filtering, and antivirus scanning.
  9. A load balancer distributes VPN traffic across multiple VPN gateways and ensures high availability in large VPN deployments.
hardware VPN components

Specific hardware VPN components and features may vary depending on the manufacturer, model, and intended use. Each organization should carefully choose a VPN vendor that offers its required features and level of performance.

Benefits of hardware VPNs

Hardware VPNs offer several benefits:

  1. A high level of security: A robust encryption and authentication mechanism.
  2. Scalability and performance: Hardware VPNs can handle many simultaneous connections.
  3. Centralized management: Centralization simplifies administrative tasks.
  4. Increased performance: Hardware VPNs offer dedicated processing power and faster data transfer.
  5. Dedicated hardware resources: Specialized components and processing power are explicitly allocated to encryption operations.
  6. Availability and redundancy components: These components ensure continuous operation and minimize downtime.
  7. Compatibility and interoperability: Hardware VPNs are compatible with many devices and operating systems.
  8. Compliance and regulatory requirements: Hardware VPNs are suitable for industries with rigorous data protection and privacy regulations.
  9. Easy to use for end users: Remote users can easily access the internal office network and other office branches.

Hardware VPN appliances might be a more secure and better alternative for businesses, but software VPNs are hot on hardware options’ heels. Software VPNs can sometimes outperform VPN hardware in both industry and personal use.

What is VPN software?

VPN software refers to the applications or programs that enable users to establish a secure and encrypted connection to a VPN. Unlike its hardware counterpart, you can install VPN software as an app directly on your device. Data encryption happens on the user’s device rather than separate, dedicated hardware. VPN software-based solutions run on various operating systems, such as Windows, macOS, Linux, iOS, and Android, and some devices even have built-in VPN functionality.

Benefits of software VPNs

If you are considering the software VPN option, especially if you are a home user, its benefits may sway you:

  • No need for advanced technical knowledge.
  • Easy to download and use.
  • Flexible and compatible with the majority of operating systems.
  • Less expensive than the hardware option.
  • It usually supports versatile VPN protocols.
  • Large server networks in a variety of locations.
  • Regularly updated and improved.
  • It might come in a package with other cybersecurity tools.
  • Easily customizable and full of advanced features.

To get a clearer picture of the differences between VPN hardware and VPN software, look at the table below or read through the detailed comparison of the key factors.

Hardware VPNSoftware VPN
High levels of securityyesyes
Easy for users to set up and accessnoyes
Wide variety of virtual locations and IPsnoyes
Dedicated servers and IPsyesno
A good option for businessesyesyes
A good option for individualsnoyes

VPN hardware vs. VPN software

Let’s compare VPN hardware and VPN software by looking at the key factors: speed, locations, setup, maintenance, updates, remote access, scalability, and price.

Speed

Hardware VPNs typically display high-performance encryption capabilities due to their dedicated hardware resources. They are capable of handling a large number of simultaneous connections and offer higher speed, which is essential in enterprise-graded solutions. Software VPNs might be slightly slower because they rely on the resources provided by the user’s device. However, the speed is still high and sufficient even for small-scale business use. A software VPN will be quick enough if you are an individual user looking for a fast VPN.

Locations

One of the most significant benefits of a software VPN is a large variety of server locations in dozens of countries and cities. Hardware VPNs usually offer only a limited number of server locations, primarily in the cities or regions where your business has branches.

Setup, maintenance, and updates

It is generally easier to set up and configure a software VPN, even for beginners. You simply download the software on your device, enter your login credentials, and select a VPN server if prompted. A hardware VPN set-up requires more technical knowledge and expertise and may involve physical installation and network integration — you might need to manually configure your VPN hardware devices.

Hardware VPNs require more maintenance that can only be handled by IT administrators and network engineers, such as firmware updates, replacement of hardware components, and network monitoring. VPN software requires minimal maintenance from end users. The VPN provider typically takes care of software updates and bug fixes, while end users only need the latest software version installed on their devices.

When it comes to updates, software VPNs have an advantage. They receive regular, automatic updates from the VPN provider to address security issues, introduce new features, and improve performance. If you are using a premium software VPN, you’ll probably hear about the latest updates from the service provider as soon as they are released (via pop-ups, app store reminders, or emails, for example). Hardware VPNs also require firmware updates and patches to address vulnerabilities and enhance performance. Even though the VPN manufacturer provides these updates, the IT administrators must apply them themselves.

Remote access

Hardware VPNs create secure and encrypted connections so employees can access the company’s intranet away from the office. Setting it up can get complicated, but if you have a dedicated team of IT professionals with the technical knowledge, they can set it up.

Regarding software, not all VPNs offer remote access to the company’s internal network. However, most VPN software enables secure remote access to company resources in the cloud or to office intranets. Each employee can access company data remotely from any of their devices using allowlisting.

PRO TIP: NordVPN now offers Meshnet, a feature that allows remote access through an encrypted connection.

Scalability

Another vital factor every business should consider is how easy (or difficult) it’ll be to upgrade their VPN if the company grows. Each hardware VPN only provides a limited number of VPN tunnels. If your company is expanding, you will probably have to invest in a new device soon. It’s more cost effective and much easier to upgrade a software VPN because you only need to pay for additional accounts for new employees.

Price

Hardware devices are the costlier option. Aside from the fact that these devices are expensive, they also require specialists with technical knowledge to set up, configure, and maintain. Software VPNs often have lower upfront costs, especially for basic functionality. They offer affordable subscription plans for premium features and a broad network of servers. Therefore, software VPNs are the top choice for individual users and smaller to medium-size businesses. Some providers even offer VPN services free of charge, but you should be careful with free VPNs because they typically have security vulnerabilities that paid VPNs quickly address.

Does a VPN require special hardware?

You need special hardware if you aim for a VPN solution for a business organization that requires multiple simultaneous connections and to secure data traffic for remote employees and branch offices.

But a software VPN does not require hardware — it’s enough to download and install an app on your device. Most software VPNs also offer multiple connections, but the number is much lower than with hardware VPNs and more suitable for household and small business settings.

Choosing VPN hardware devices

To choose the best VPN hardware device to meet your needs, check if it offers the relevant features. Make sure that:

  1. It can handle the expected number of concurrent VPN connections.
  2. It supports commonly used protocols like OpenVPN, IPSec, or SSL/TLS and offers strong encryption algorithms, such as AES.
  3. It has built-in firewalls, IDS/IPS, content filtering, and malware protection.
  4. It is compatible with the existing infrastructure, including regular and VPN routers, switches, and other security devices.
  5. The vendor you are buying the hardware from is reliable and has a good track record.

The best VPN hardware device for you can vary depending on your specific requirements. Still, these are some of the most popular and trusted VPN hardware manufacturers, and their VPN hardware models are worth looking into:

  • The Cisco Gigabit Dual WAN VPN Router has 14 LAN ports, built-in SSL and firewall, and advanced IP security, making it one of the top VPN hardware choices in the US.
  • The Zyxel Zywall VPN Firewall supports up to 1,000 users, allows 500,000 sessions, and has a multi-core CPU delivering up to 3.6 Gaps VPN firewall.
  • The FortinetGate series offers comprehensive security features, high-performance VPN capabilities, and centralized management options.
  • The GL.iNet GL-AR150 Mini Travel VPN Device is a portable solution for small businesses and larger households. It is compatible with over 30 VPN services in the US and has dual Ethernet ports.
  • Juniper Networks SRX Series Services Gateways are known for their security features, VPN capabilities, and support of various VPN protocols.
  • The Linksys Business Dual WAN VPN Device offers a data transfer rate of 1,000 Mbps and site-to-site VPN support Ethernet connectivity.

Software benefits of NordVPN and NordLayer

NordVPN is one of the fastest software VPN services offered, ideal for individual users and households. It’s easy to download and use, offers top-tier security for your online data, and provides quick and effective client support. No need for extra hardware!

NordLayer is NordVPN’s counterpart for businesses, offering advanced VPN solutions, including:

  • Two-factor authentication.
  • Single sign-on for using one set of credentials to access multiple apps.
  • Auto-connect for hassle-free usage.
  • Virtual private gateways for connecting to internal business LAN.
  • AES encryption.
  • NordLynx VPN protocol.
  • Dedicated IP (fixed IP) for network access control.
  • Endpoint-to-endpoint file sharing between connected devices.

Protect your company’s network with an advanced business VPN and take care of your personal data security at home with an easy-to-use VPN.


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