You know the old saying: "You can't take it with you." Well, you can, but often you don't. When you're out on the road with nothing but your phone and desperately need access to a document that's stored on your computer at home or at work, what do you do? Because a modern smartphone is really just a small computer, you can securely connect to your home LAN or company network over a VPN connection. Let's take a look at how you can do this with popular Android phones.
On the server side
First, in order to use virtual private networking, you need a VPN server configured on the network to which you want to connect. Most business networks that allow remote access will have a VPN server set up. At home, you can set up your desktop or laptop computer to be a VPN server (of course, you'll need to leave it on when you're gone so you can connect to it). The steps for doing that depend on what desktop operating system you're using. Here are links to help you with that task:
- Setting up incoming VPN connection in Windows 7
- Configuring Linux VPNs
- Enable VPN server in OS X for remote access
An important consideration is what VPN protocols are used by your VPN server. Most common are PPTP, L2TP, IPsec, SSTP and SSL. Your VPN client software on your phone will need support the protocol(s) used by your VPN server.
You can also subscribe to VPN services that will allow you to browse securely and/or anonymously through public Wi-Fi hotspots from your phone for a monthly fee. You can even get an IP address that's out of a different country, so that you can access online TV services and other services that are restricted to users from that particular area. Check out this review of 10 top VPN service providers.
Built-in Android VPN client
Android phones generally include a built-in VPN client, which you'll find in the Settings | Wireless & networks menu. It's labeled VPN settings: Set up and manage Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), as shown in Figure 1. The phone used for the screenshots is an HTC Thunderbolt running Android 2.2.1 (Froyo). However, Android has included VPN support since version 1.6 (Donut).Figure 1
Android phones have a built-in VPN client
As you can see in Figure 2, you can select the type of VPN protocol to be used: PPTP, L2TP, L2TP/IPsec PSK, or L2TP/IPsec CRT. The last is most secure but requires a digital certificate. With L2TP/IPsec PSK, you can use a preshared key (a password). PPTP is the easiest type of VPN to set up, but it's also the least secure.If the VPN server requires certificates, you'll need to download the proper certificates and store them on your phone. You can also install a certificate from your microSD card. You'll need to set up the phone to use certificates. In the Settings menu, go to Security and check the box that says Use secure credentials. You should also set a password for the credential storage. Figure 2
Select the VPN protocol(s) used by your VPN server
In any case, you'll need some information to create the connection. The first step is to give your VPN connection a name to identify it (especially if you'll be setting up more than one VPN connection -- for example, one to connect to your home network and one to connect to your work network).As you can see in Figure 3, you'll need to set the VPN server by entering its public IP address. Encryption is enabled by default, and most VPN servers require it, so you'll probably want to leave the box checked. The DNS search domains field is utilized if you need to use an internal DNS server (one that's on your home or work network to resolve internal names) after you connect over the VPN. Figure 3
Setting up a PPTP VPN requires completing only a few simple fields
Next, you'll need to enter your user name and password -- either domain credentials, if those are enabled on the VPN server, or credentials for a local account on the VPN server. Note that you might need to include the domain or VPN server name, separated by a backslash, as part of your user name (example: VPNServername\username).Once you have all the information entered, just touch the Connect to network link. If it's configured correctly, you'll get a message that your VPN is connected, as shown in Figure 4. Figure 4
Your smartphone is now successfully connected to the VPN
An icon that looks like a key will appear in the notification area at the top of your Android phone's screen, which you can also see in Figure 4, fourth icon from the left. If you slide the notification pane down, you'll see the message that your VPN is connected, as shown in Figure 5.Figure 5
The notification pane will inform you that you're connected to the VPN
Once you're connected to your home or work network via VPN, you can access internal file servers and web sites on your intranet, access an internal mail server, or create a Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) connection to a computer on the network so you can control its desktop and run applications that are installed on it (you'll need an RDP client app to do this). To disconnect from the VPN, just tap the VPN connection name.
Third-party VPN client apps
If you want to use a type of VPN that isn't supported by the built-in Android client, such as SSL, you'll need to find third-party client software to install on your phone. Different vendors of SSL VPN appliances implement their VPNs in different ways, so you should contact the vendor to find out if they make client software for your phone's platform. Cisco recently announced the release of the AnyConnect SSL VPN client for Android, which is available from the Android Market at no cost. It's currently only supported for Samsung devices (Galaxy S/S II and Galaxy Tabs) but will also work on other Android devices if they're rooted.
The implementation of SSL VPN used by Windows Server 2008 is called SSTP (Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol). It's fast and stable, but unfortunately, it only support Windows 7 clients.
Using a VPN to connect your smartphone to your home or work network can expand the usability of your phone and help you to be productive no matter where you are. The VPN client that's built into the latest versions of Android work fine for creating basic PPTP and L2TP based VPNs, and there are third-party clients available -- many of them free -- if you want more options and/or want to connect to an SSL-based VPN.
If you use a different phone platform, note that the iPhone, Blackberry, Windows Mobile, and Symbian also support virtual private networking. The Nokia built-in VPN client requires Nokia's VPN policy servers. At this time, Windows Phone 7 does not include support for the common VPN protocols (PPTP, L2TP/IPsec). It only supports SSL VPN (SSTP) through a Unified Access Gateway (UAG) using Exchange (on site or hosted).
Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 additional books on subjects such as the Windows 2000 and Windows 2003 MCSE exams, CompTIA Security+ exam, and TruSecure's ICSA certification.