Do small businesses need a VPN?

Rachel Bishop
Rachel Bishop|July 24, 2023
Illustration of computer desk and monitor with PDQ logo
Illustration of computer desk and monitor with PDQ logo

Virtual private networks, or VPNs, are often used in large businesses that handle sensitive data — but are they excessive for small businesses? The answer to this question — and we bet you’ve heard this before — is it depends. 

Small businesses can benefit from implementing a VPN if they handle sensitive data, want to improve their security posture, and have a number of remote employees. However, there are some considerations and potential drawbacks to keep in mind, depending on your small business’s environment.

What is a VPN? A VPN is a virtual private network that establishes a secure connection and masks your IP address for privacy and security.

Why do businesses use a VPN? 

There are a few reasons why businesses of any size choose to invest in a VPN. 

1. They transmit lots of sensitive data. 

Security concerns are a primary reason why businesses invest in a VPN.  

VPNs are like tunnels. An end user sends their data through that tunnel where it’s encrypted, and at the end of the tunnel, the data is picked up and metaphorically wrapped in a blanket of an organization’s security measures (e.g., a firewall). Once the data is safely nestled in that blanket (a security blanket, if you will), it’s rerouted to wherever it needs to go. 

In short, VPNs secure data by encrypting it and putting up a shield around it so no unauthorized users can access it. It also adds a layer of anonymity by masking your IP address. 

2. They have remote workers. 

A VPN extends perimeter security beyond the physical boundary of a business, encompassing end users at their work locations of choice.  

It’s like a security system of a house: When you implement a home security system, you’ve got technology that closely monitors for and detects unauthorized entries — and then alerts the authorities should an unauthorized entry occur. The security system monitors the perimeter of your house — just like perimeter security in a business looks out for what happens between the walls of the business.  

But with remote workers, business happens outside of that physical perimeter — and that’s where a VPN comes into play.

When the global event that shall remain unnamed happened in 2020, VPN usage increased by 44%. As many businesses pivoted quickly to remote environments, they either adopted or more widely used business VPNs. 

With an influx of remote employees, IT staff scrambled to make on-prem resources accessible remotely. VPNs were widely used to do just that. With a VPN in place, employees could access the tools and systems they needed to do their jobs remotely, keeping downtime to a minimum. 

The shift to remote work also required that businesses add an extra layer of security to protect operations happening offsite. This boils down to a concept known as perimeter security.

3. They have a bring your own device (BYOD) policy. 

With the mobile nature of work these days, BYOD policies are now mainstream. Whether you’re checking Slack or responding to an email on your personal computer or phone, it’s now the standard to use your own devices on occasion for work purposes.  

Small businesses often adopt BYOD policies to save on equipment costs and help employees feel more comfortable working from their own devices. But when implemented improperly, these devices could open up gaps in a business’s security posture, making it easy for threat actors to wreak havoc. 

VPNs are just one measure that helps mitigate these security risks. Connecting to the corporate network from a personal device via a VPN gives the same protections as a company-issued device during data transmission — that is, if your BYOD policy is secure. 

Considerations for VPNs for small businesses  

Still wondering whether you need a VPN? Let’s walk through some additional questions to consider. 

Is your network capable of handling increased traffic? 

Because VPNs add an extra stop for network traffic, by nature, they’re slower than non-VPN connections. For larger businesses with bigger budgets, the solution is to grab a paid VPN with a large bandwidth. But for smaller businesses that may not be able to afford that increased bandwidth, VPNs might slow down business operations. 

For example, if Carol from HR finds herself needing to download a 100 GB manual with suggestions on how to keep employees happy (bless her), doing this via a VPN might slow down everyone's operations. And while it may be worth it if that manual strongly suggests a monthly all-expenses-paid trip to Hawaii, slow connectivity will undoubtedly put a damper on everyone’s day. 

Do you have the IT staff to support implementing and upkeeping a VPN? 

While VPNs can be fairly simple to run once they’re set up, you need a team to implement a VPN in the first place. If your IT team is already understaffed, that may be a barrier to supporting a VPN in your small business. 

On that note, think about how tech savvy your employees are. Will they know how to connect to a VPN? Do they even know what a VPN is? And if you need to provide training, do you have the IT staff to support that? 

Resources are key when it comes to properly implementing and maintaining a VPN.

Can your business afford a VPN? 

There are multiple types of VPNs — some paid and some free. However, there are limitations to free VPNs you need to consider. For example, paid VPNs often offer stronger encryption, giving your data an extra layer of protection in transit. And if your small business handles sensitive data, you’ll likely need to invest in a paid VPN service. 

Does your business have compliance standards to adhere to? 

Businesses often require VPNs to be considered for cybersecurity insurance. If your small business needs to be covered by cybersecurity insurance, you may not have a choice but to dish out the monthly costs for a VPN. 

Additionally, your business may have other compliance standards to adhere to, such as HIPAA for medical data. A VPN helps you stay compliant with safer data transmission. 

To configure a VPN, you need to know which devices and operating systems are in your environment. We make inventorying the devices in your fleet easy. Start your 14-day free trial of PDQ Connect or PDQ Deploy & Inventory to see how simple streamlining your systems management can be. 

Rachel Bishop
Rachel Bishop

A professional writer turned cybersecurity nerd, Rachel enjoys making technical concepts accessible through writing. When she’s not solving her Rubik’s cube, she’s likely playing a video game or getting wrapped up in a true crime series. She enjoys spending time with her husband (a former sysadmin now in cybersecurity) as well as her two cats and two birds.

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