5 VPN alternatives for securing remote network access

Abeerah Hashim Last updated: July 15, 2022
Disclosure

VPNs are an essential tool in the current digital environment. Modern and valuable still, they are not always the right tool for every business to completely secure network access. This article tells you about the tools that will let you improve a VPN's security.

Sneak peek at using alternatives to VPNs

VPNs are excellent tools that are a necessity in the current digital ecosystem. However, they’re not perfect. Sometimes you need a different tool that will give you extra advantages in anonymization, security, and privacy.

Having a top-notch VPN is such a fantastic thing! So powerful, versatile, safe, and many more things come to mind. So why could you make you want to find any alternatives? The answer is control. Even the best VPN is not designed to be compatible with your local area network and its policy structure. This is a context in which the VPN gets in the way because if your network’s policies can’t be consistent across every connection, your security becomes vulnerable.

VPNs have been around for a couple of decades already. However, the time and continued development have rendered their traditional limitations obsolete. However, the variety we have in VPN services across the market is such that some won’t even deliver on the VPN’s most essential task of masking your connection.

So VPNs have shortcomings. They’re very complicated and can make a user overconfident about security. This last problem can make the old IT risks explode and even create some new ones. Organizations whose activities need secure web connections, consistent access policies, and anonymity of users in apps and websites are much more vulnerable to these VPN-genic security issues.

In short: some organizations need to do better than a VPN. They need to combine a better mechanism for security and anonymity that gives the organization increased transparency and control over IT matters. Does it sound contradictory? Only on the surface. Some alternatives allow achieving both goals simultaneously. Let us see them.

OrganizationFree VersionPrivate NetworkAnonymityIsolation
SiloNoYesYesYes
VPNYesYesNoNo
OpenWRTYesYesNoPartial
TorYesNoYesNo
WhonixYesNoYesYes
TailsYesNoYesYes

Five VPN alternatives: The quick list

Maybe you’re already conversant with privacy technology besides VPNs and don’t need a full description for each option. However, if all you need is the gist of it because you’re already in the know or are in a hurry, here it is:

  1. Tor. The Onion Router is one of the internet’s most widespread, reliable, and secure technologies. It’s slow but foolproof.
  2. OpenWRT. A powerful and versatile network administration tool kit will get you further away than a VPN by correctly managing your routers.
  3. Silo. It works by locating the source of one of the VPN protocol’s most significant weaknesses and eliminating it.
  4. Whonix. A live Linux distro that turns data volatility into your best friend regarding privacy.
  5. Tails. It’s Linux, it’s live, and it’s Debian. So it scores a check-in many of the things that privacy enthusiasts (especially within Linux) want.

5 best alternatives to VPN to secure your network – Detailed list

VPN alternatives
(Alamy)

1. Tor

The Tor (The Onion Router) network daisy-chains a mesh of nodes to anonymize the activities of every user in the network.

So whenever you request a site, your request gets encrypted and then goes to an entry node. The entry node encrypts your data and encrypts it again as it sends it to another node called “relay.” The process continues until it reaches the site you wanted, with every node in the Tor network adding a layer of encryption and IP masking.

That’s how Tor deals with TCP traffic. Every new request follows a different path because the routing is random. 

So Tor allows users to bypass censorship, keep their activities from ISPs, and network admins to monitor an employee’s activities. So there’s always the chance that Tor gives users a little more freedom than a corporation would like. 

Tor’s power is beyond any question. But the many layers of encryption and routing through a network of volunteers makes navigation exceedingly slow compared to VPN. So while this is an utterly secure protocol and probably the best anonymization technology on the internet, it’s not suited for any activity. If you need speed or high data volumes, Tor won’t do unless you have an Onion over VPN combo.

2. OpenWRT

Using OpenWRT to manage your network needs a bit of a learning curve. However, once you have the hang of it, this tool will solve many VPN headaches you’ve wanted to get rid of. So routing a complete connection through a given node, isolating a peer, scaling, and much more.

Many plugins allow you to expand your OpenWRT’s power. For example, you can integrate Tor into your network. You could also install OpenVPN, thus turning your network into a VPN, at least as encryption is concerned. Another exciting thing is to set up a file-sharing hub within your network for secure and highly functional document sharing.

The problem with OpenWRT is that the installation process can be bothersome for new admins, and it can turn your hardware into bricks if you don’t know what you’re doing. The fact that you will need relatively expensive hardware to use it doesn’t help either.

However, OpenWRT comes with BusyBox, allowing admins control over the router, comes with Dropbear SSH, has a friendly GUI, and has many available plugins to expand its usefulness.

3. Silo

If you’re using a VPN, the local web browser still gets web code from it. This is the thing with VPNs that some experts find most unsatisfying because it keeps a door open for malware, malicious code infiltration, data exfiltration, de-anonymization, and other things that render the use of a VPN pointless. Silo is supposed to prevent that weakness.

Silo is a cloud-based web browser courtesy of Authentic8, the startup that pioneered remote browser isolation. Silo’s web traffic management leaves a VPN behind, looking archaic.

Silo never fails to mask your connection (which is more than we can say about many VPNs). It also isolates your browser from your IT environment altogether.

This browser prevents any web code from touching the local endpoints. The trick is that everything that nothing is happening on your local computer but on the cloud’s servers. So what you see on your local browser is like a movie of your browsing activities taking place elsewhere.

Silo makes browser-based attacks and malicious landing pages a moot point. Additionally, the browser vets the files you download to ensure they’re safe.

The browser comes with an all-important password manager (which doesn’t store any credentials on your local machine).

Last but not least, there’s the Silo web launch feature. This allows you to use Silo through a standard browser without installing the Silo software.

4. Whonix

Whonix is a Debian-based Linux distribution optimized for the strongest anonymization possible. The deed is done with the help of the Tor network.

In the distro’s security model, a user’s IP address can’t ever be leaked, even if an exploit or piece of malware attacks the system. And this applies even to users with root accounts.

The Whonix data architecture turns DNS and IP leaks into an impossibility, almost of physical level, which is one of the problems that mediocre VPNs most often have.

So is Whonix perfect? Of course not. “Perfect” is not a word you can use in digital security. However, the only way to compromise the distro’s integrity is to have it running in a virtual machine that is running the correct software that would allow the guest operating system to exploit it. Meeting all the requirements in this scenario is practically impossible. As you can see from the description, the vulnerable setup is not simple to achieve and requires a deliberate effort from the owner of both the virtual and the host machine.

You can make Whonix even stronger if you combine it with Qubes. Qubes is another operating system that runs every application as a separate virtual computer. Since every piece of software is technically running on a different computer, the local interactions that allow malware to succeed in local systems can’t occur.

Whonix is a fantastic anonymizing tool, and when you make it work in tandem with Qubes, you get a phenomenal suite that is more powerful than even the best VPNs out there.

5. Tails

This is another Debian-based Linux operating system. It routes everything through Tor, but it doesn’t need another operating system to work, and it includes “amnesia,” a unique feature.

Tails wipe out any data left behind by a user’s activity every time it reboots. In addition, tails is the only thing that Tails remembers with every new session, making volatility a privacy tool. Finally, tails even cleans out your RAM with every reboot –thus preventing cold-boot attacks.

The distro is fraught with security tools and implementations so that it can neutralize even the most sophisticated attacks.

It also has plenty of privacy-oriented, Tor-friendly software, so you can use the Onion network to manage all of your traffic. Electrum, a BitCoin wallet, is a good example. However, many more standard applications like Thunderbird or Pidgin are also there because they’re compatible with Tor.

One cool thing about Tails (with many Linux privacy and security distros) is that you don’t need to install anything. Instead, this OS runs as a live distro from a USB stick or a microSD card. So you boot from your portable media and start working out of the box.

If you find Tails’ total amnesic policy to be too much for you, you can set up a persistent encrypted container that will keep your files available across many sessions. Any file or data that is not within this encrypted volume will go away after rebooting. This feature makes the distro more practical, but you don’t have a fully forgetful system, which is one of the distro’s points.

What are the disadvantages of using a VPN?

Like any tool online, VPNs have pros and cons too. Below you go with key reasons why one might want to try a different option.

Conclusion

Do not get us wrong; we love VPNs — good VPNs, at least. But only the best VPNs in the market can deliver on everything a VPN is supposed to do. Unfortunately, the market is overcrowded, and too many mediocre vendors can’t protect you against DNS or IP leaks or have other issues –, and we’re not even thinking about the security disaster that free VPNs are.

However, free VPNs are no silver bullet. The tight security that the top-notch VPNs give you limits your options in other areas, and local area networks are essential. Even if you know and love your current VPN, and it works perfectly, if it gets in the way of using your employer’s local network or your school’s, you’ll need to split your traffic, so the traffic you need to use for work remains outside the VPN tunnel.

Also, from the network administrator’s point of view, VPNs are not so hot because they take away some of his ability to control the network, thus maiming his capacity to keep everything safe.

So yes, sometimes you need something besides a VPN. And it can even be better if you know what you’re doing. For example, our first choice allows you to create an OpenVPN tunnel within your local network. So you’re turning it into a fully-fledged VPN (but you need to mind the IP spoofing). Others are live Linux distros that will do the job you want as soon as you plug your USB stick into your computer and reboot.

Whatever your situation is, you will find valuable options on our list. They are powerful, versatile, and primarily free and can outperform even the best VPNs at some specific tasks.

We hope that reading our article sheds some light on the scenarios in which your VPN is not enough and how to solve them successfully. The main objective that every software on the list pursues is to keep a user as safe, private, and anonymous as possible online, even beyond the VPN standard. Isn’t that what we all want?

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About the Author

Abeerah is a passionate technology blogger and cybersecurity enthusiast. She yearns to know everything about the latest technology developments. Specifically, she’s crazy about the three C’s; computing, cybersecurity, and communication. When she is not writing, she’s reading about the tech world.

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