We’re fast becoming the ‘work from home’ generation.
Spare rooms have become offices. And more of us than ever rely on virtual private networks (VPNs) to keep our business activity confidential.
VPNs protect sensitive data when we use less secure internet connections. They’re one of the front-line cyber security services, but the truth is: some VPNs do a better job than others. How can you know which perform the best? If you talk to an IT consultant, they may tell you to look at the VPN server count to know if it’s reliable.
As a professional network security company, we suggest otherwise. It takes more than a vast network of servers to operate a successful VPN.
Let us explain.
Servers Are Not All Made Equal
Servers perform all sorts of tasks.
Some handle high-performance applications (like databases). Others run less resource-intensive activities (like serving web content). The action dictates the server design. And the design determines performance. Meaning you need the right servers for the job, not just lots of them, to guarantee top performance.
Hence, manufacturers offer various processors, bandwidth, and storage options to allow savvier operators to buy precisely what they need. But as with any technology, servers evolve quickly with new products released frequently. And so, a low-grade ten-year-old server might not match up to a brand new, state-of-the-art product, yet they’ll still feature in the same tally.
All this goes to show: judging a VPN based on server count is as wayward as judging someone’s wealth by the number of cars in the driveway. Four vehicles are not a sign of success.
It’s what’s under the hood that counts.
Younger Doesn’t Necessarily Equal Better
One point of warning: age isn’t a surefire sign of quality.
Many older servers have stood the test of time and will outperform their fresher-faced counterparts. And in the context of VPNs, some people even prefer older servers as they tend to have more cores, even multiple CPUs (which is a good thing).
The precise role of the server also dictates its worthiness. You wouldn’t race a bus at an amateur meet, but you’d use it to ferry your extended family on a day trip to Nascar. The same can be said of the server. A clunky old one may not help you with database management, but it could be perfect for a VPN.
For this very reason, even if a company brags about its thousands of brand new servers, try to find out if they’re fit-for-purpose. Without further details, you’ve no way of knowing these glistening beasts are better-placed than a few hundred proven, time-tested models.
A Server Is Useless Without A Good Connection
Here’s where the ‘server count’ argument really falls over.
VPNs are like couriers. They pass data between you and the internet, doing a lot of heavy lifting to ensure a seamless service. But even the best courier will struggle to perform if their truck breaks down. The same can be said of a VPN.
If a connection fails, no amount of servers is going to save you. Meaning even with servers offering a 1GB/S connection: if a VPN provider has ten servers (and so requires a 10 GB/S uplink to their ISP), but they decide to use a cheaper 5 GB/S uplink, they’ve already cut their capacity by 50%.
There’s no way for you to know this. But in doing so, the provider has rendered the server count almost entirely irrelevant. And the speed of your connection could be ultra-slow — it could even fail — if the VPN network gets busy.
…Confused? Let’s try another analogy. Say you go to a ball-game, and the parking lot is vast.
When you arrive, it’s easy enough to find a space as the traffic filters in at a gentle pace. But when the game finishes, the stadium tries to leave at once. The ensuing rush will bring the lot to a grinding halt. Why? Because the roads were only designed to ferry cars to spaces, not maximize throughput as cars try to leave.
The limitation creates a bottleneck. And a similar thing can happen with VPNs. If something creates a squeeze (say, a lower-grade uplink), it will cause congestion when traffic overloads the connection, no matter the server count.
Location, Location, Location.
The final piece of the puzzle lies in the location of the servers.
Each carrier will hold a separate agreement with their provider, meaning some VPNs will work brilliantly within the US (but are terrible for international traffic to Europe). In contrast, others will work well for Europe (but might grind to a halt when serving Australia).
The key learning is this: when choosing a VPN, you need one that has enough capacity to serve your target markets. If you only focus on the USA, then international bandwidth is not a concern. If you have customers elsewhere, your VPN needs to cater to those regions as well.
Takeaway: A Low Server Count Is Not A ‘Red Flag’
It’s absolutely possible for a VPN to work reliably with only a handful of well-managed, properly configured servers.
The most important details to look for are the server locations and connection types. As an IT consultant, we typically look for good uplinks and robust connectivity when considering which VPN to use.
And we know many other reputable network security companies that do the same.
If you need cyber security services that extend beyond a VPN, give Mid-coast Tech a call at 207-223-7594 — we’d be delighted to chat.