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Coronavirus fears spark a rush of interest in the humble VPN

VPN providers have seen a spike in interest as companies prepare for more remote work.

Woman working on laptop

Companies are scrambling to purchase and implement VPN tools as they prepare for an uptick in employees working from home.

Photo: Joe Giddens/PA Images via Getty Images

Over the last several months, Rob Smith had been plugging away on a research paper with the working title "Remote Access VPN Is Dead." But that was before concerns about the coronavirus started keeping more and more office workers at home.

"I'm going to have to give that a new title," said Smith, who is a research director at Gartner.

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It turns out, business is booming for the often-overlooked VPN industry as companies prepare for the worst impacts of COVID-19.

Companies are scrambling to purchase and implement VPN tools as they prepare for an uptick in employees working from home. Amazon, for example, is reportedly asking all employees to test their VPN connection on Thursday by logging in remotely for at least 10 minutes. The technology essentially acts as a secure tunnel between a device, such as an employee's personal laptop and a corporate network: Communications and data sent between the two are encrypted, preventing third parties like hackers and governments from eavesdropping or stealing passwords and other sensitive information. Much has been made about how working from home could be a boon to videoconference providers like Zoom, but VPN shows how a much wider swath of remote work technologies could see increased adoption in response to coronavirus.

The surprise spike in interest has jolted the industry, Smith said. "On a corporate level, VPN had been a dying technology … It's dinosaur technology that really hasn't changed since the late 1990s," he said. "Now the coronavirus has suddenly given the VPN industry a new life. It's alive and well."

VPN technology typically doesn't receive much attention and can sometimes be a boring industry to observe. Smith says that out of the more than 2,000 analysts at his company, he's the only one who covers VPN tools. He gets about 10 VPN-related inquiries a week, and eight of those are from companies that already have a VPN and are looking for different solutions.

Over the last month, however, he's been fielding an explosion of inquiries from companies that are preparing for employees to work from home, but don't have the technology in place to secure that type of setup.

"People who have never allowed remote employees are saying: 'Oh my god, what am I going to do now?'" he said. "Companies that never thought about remote workers are now forced to do so because of coronavirus fears."

Last month, 77 companies mentioned "work from home" or "working from home" in conference call transcripts, compared to just four mentions in the same month a year ago, Recode reported. Twitter this week encouraged all of its employees to work from home to prevent the spread of the virus. Square is implementing a similar policy.

VPN providers said companies are knocking down their doors. Some providers have launched promotions and are giving free access to help companies affected by the virus.

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Last week, Tel Aviv-based cybersecurity firm Check Point started quietly offering companies free 60-day licenses to its VPN tools. Within days, they received interest from several hundred companies, said Maya Levine, a security engineer at Check Point.

"We realized there's going to be a huge surge in people wanting to work from home, and we wanted to help businesses in this transition period," she said.

The promotion is nice marketing for Check Point, which is used by about 7,500 companies globally, but Levine said the decision was made out of goodwill.

"This is how we can help," she said.

Pulse Security, a major provider of remote access technology, has also started offering temporary licenses to new customers, and has given existing clients emergency increases in capacity. Pulse, like many VPN providers, licenses out its software to corporations based on their use: A 1,000-person company may have a VPN license so that 100 workers at any given time can access the network remotely. "Now all of a sudden we have 500 or more users who need to use it," said Pulse Chief Marketing Officer Scott Gordon. "These companies had something in place but nothing at the scale that they need to handle this type of issue."

Gordon said Pulse has received at least five times the normal amount of requests from companies asking for emergency capacity increases. "Other events pale in comparison to what we're seeing now," he said.

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Smith from Gartner said he's also received many inquiries from companies that have realized they need to greatly expand their VPN licenses. Although he couldn't mention organization names due to client confidentiality agreements, he said he helped a large government research institute this week that was having issues because they could only accommodate so many people using the VPN at once. Many more employees were working remotely due to coronavirus fears, he said.

Both Smith and Gordon said they started noticing an uptick in VPN-related inquiries in January, specifically from companies that had a presence in Asia. Over the last three to four weeks, Smith started seeing a spike in inquiries from European and American companies. Companies in all industries and continents seem to be seeking help, he said. He estimates that about one in three companies doesn't have a remote policy.

"Companies are realizing they have to drastically change the way they work," Smith said.

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