Explained: Difference Between VPN Server and VPN (Service)

Dennis Faas's picture

Infopackets Reader Kathy S. writes:

" Dear Dennis,

I have been researching the difference between a VPN server and a VPN, and I am super confused. I read your article entitled 'Do I need a VPN? Are VPNs Safe for Online Banking?' and that has helped a bit, but I was wondering if you could explain which one would be cheaper for me in the long run? It is cheaper to have my own VPN server or should I pay for a VPN service? "

My response:

A VPN server and VPN (service) operate very similar because they use the exact same technology - however, using a VPN server vs a VPN (service) are two completely separate ideas. I'll illustrate the differences between the two below.

Explained: Difference Between VPN Server and VPN (Service)

Let's look at an example.

If you had a job that required you to be on the road a lot, but you still needed to access your work PC remotely in an office, then you would want a VPN server. A VPN server is nothing more than a software program than runs on your office PC 24 hours a day, waiting for you (the VPN client) to connect to it remotely.

Once the connection is made to the VPN server, you would have access to your office PC files and other resources in the office - just as if you were physically attached to your office network in person. In this case, you can think of a "VPN server" as a secure way to connect to your remote office network to access remote resources seamlessly. (If this is something you're looking to do - I can help set this up for - just shoot me an email).

Accessing the Internet Anonymously using a VPN (Service)

Now let me explain what a VPN service is.

If you search for the word "VPN" on Google, you will come across many articles stating that VPNs are great for accessing the Internet without being tracked. While this is true, the word "VPN" merely means "virtual private network" - so to use the acronym in this manner isn't quite correct because it's not really describing what the VPN is doing.

If you intend to use a VPN so that you can use the Internet anonymously, then this is technically a VPN service.

In this case, a company - such as NordVPN, CyberGhostVPN, IPVanish, PureVPN, etc - has already set up multiple special-use VPN servers which are designed to relay data between you and a third party (web site, web service) securely. It does this so that your IP address remains hidden to the outside world, which means your IP address can't be tracked. Many users use this type of setup when using bittorrents in order to anonymize their IP address to illegally pirate software, music and videos.

To use a VPN in this manner (reliably) requires that you pay for a VPN service, which can cost anywhere from $35 a year to $10 a month (for example). In this case, while the VPN service (such as NordVPN, CyberGhostVPN, IPVanish, PureVPN, etc) hides your IP address, it will not allow you to connect to your office PC by remote. So you can see, these are two completely separate ideas.

On that note, technically it is possible to set up an office PC (or any other remote PC for that matter) to be a VPN server to work like a VPN service (such as NordVPN, etc) - but 9 times out of 10, most people asking this question don't have access to a remote PC as it is, nor do they want to set up the remote PC to work in this manner because the remote PC's IP address would be traceable, which means it won't provide you with anonymous Internet like most VPN services offer.

I hope that helps.

Additional 1-on-1 Support: From Dennis

If you need help accessing a remote PC - whether it's a PC at home or in an office - I can help using my remote desktop support service. Simply contact me, briefly describing the issue and I will get back to you as soon as possible.

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About the author: Dennis Faas is the owner and operator of Infopackets.com. With over 30 years of computing experience, Dennis' areas of expertise are a broad range and include PC hardware, Microsoft Windows, Linux, network administration, and virtualization. Dennis holds a Bachelors degree in Computer Science (1999) and has authored 6 books on the topics of MS Windows and PC Security. If you like the advice you received on this page, please up-vote / Like this page and share it with friends. For technical support inquiries, Dennis can be reached via Live chat online this site using the Zopim Chat service (currently located at the bottom left of the screen); optionally, you can contact Dennis through the website contact form.

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russoule's picture

Another use for a VPN Service is to allow access to sites that are geographically barred from use, such as BBCiPlayer available only to the British Isles. the server has UK sites which then allow an American user to use the BBCiPlayer. this certainly would come in handy for users in places like China or Iran where the access is limited to "acceptable" sites.