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iPad power: connect to a VPN

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While there are plenty of ways to protect your iPad and its data from ne’er do wells, one way is of specific interest to business users: the virtual private network or VPN.

Out of the box, with no additional software, the iPad supports three kinds of VPNs: Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol (L2TP), Point-To-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP), and Cisco IPSec (that stands for Internet Protocol Security). All three do much the same thing, just in different ways. The kind of VPN you set up on your iPad depends entirely on the kind of VPN that’s set up on the network you’re connecting to.

The iPad also supports what are known as SSL VPNs, which use the same SSL protocols that Websites use when they want to secure the connection so you can send sensitive data to them, without worrying about someone else sniffing that data for their own uses. The iPad supports SSL VPNs from Juniper, Cisco, and F5, although you need to download clients for those from the App store. You can also create your own custom SSL VPN setup if you wish.

iPad VPN
The iOS VPN configuration screen is straightforward. You can get the details you need from your IT administrator.

Get set up

I can’t provide details for every possible VPN set up, but I can explain how I’d set one up using Cisco IPSec: It’s relatively common and it’s the one I use; you’ll follow the same general procedure for any of the others.

Start by going into Settings, and then tap VPN. Select Add VPN Configuration and then IPSec. There, you’ll need to fill in a configuration screen with the following details:

  • Server (the IP Address or DNS name of the VPN router);
  • Account (also known as a user ID);
  • Password;
  • Either a certificate (which will be provided for your iPad by the VPN administrator) or (in a field further down) or a Secret (that’s VPN-ese for a second password that provides another layer of authentication; unlike your password, a Secret isn’t specific to the user); and
  • Group Name (used to assign appropriate access privileges to different types of users; for example, your IT group likely has different kinds of access compared to, say, Sales).

Before you go to the trouble of entering all of that manually, check with your IT department. IT may be able to use Apple’s iPhone Configuration Utility to create a configuration profile, which you install on the iPad and which configures the VPN for you.

How to use it

Once the VPN is set up, using it is simple: When you want to connect to your VPN, you re-open Settings, tap VPN, select the configuration you want to use (if you have more than one), and tap the VPN on/off switch. Enter a password (if it isn’t already saved in the configuration). A couple of seconds later, you should be connected.

At that point, you can connect to your network and do whatever you need to do, and it should just work. The only visible sign that you’re using a VPN at all is the small icon in the upper left corner of the screen. When you’re done, go back into VPN settings, tap the VPN on/off switch, and the VPN connection will be terminated.

If you’re using an SSL VPN, you can take advantage of “VPN on demand.” Then, you don’t even have to turn it on. Whenever you try to access a site or a resource behind the VPN, the VPN will automatically start for you and quit when you’re done.

As with so many other things, Apple has done a good job of making some ferocious technology simple to use. Setting up a VPN on the back end may be a truly tedious and annoying process. Connecting to one from an iPad is anything but.

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