VPN yo’self

June 7, 2006 at 12:13 pm Leave a comment

With the Olympia bookfair just around the corner, I've been quite busy. We've been printing out little mini catalogues and packing up stock. Getting things to look good and get ordered right on our website. And of course, sorting out equipment for the fair. As a result, I haven't had much time to post here, so forgive my brief absence.

Nonetheless, the work I've been doing has given me opportunity to look at some new technology. Usually at Olympia, we try to set up a VPN between our fair laptop and the shop to work on our data in realtime. This process can get pretty complicated and is often a little tedious to set up. To make things a little more tricky, our core server at the office runs Linux as its base operating system. So configuring a VPN is a fractionally more complicated than a point-and-click excercise.

Last year, I set up OpenSWAN (a variant of the well known FreeSWAN VPN server software for linux) and connected to it with a very hard to track down free-release of SSH-Sentinel. Unfortunately, since that release of SSH-Sentinel, the software has become commercial and we found that the last free-release is fairly buggy and can throw up some interesting problems with your normal networking facilities under windows. This year, I felt it was time to review the whole VPN setup and find something a little less complicated and that would give us a lot more flexibility in our setup.

At first I looked at Hamachi which looked very promising and would probably be very useful to most small dealers. It has a unique system that looks very much like your average Instant Messaging client. You simply add the computers you want on your VPN to a group and voila! you're connected and your VPN exists. Unfortunately, from my perspective, the software is still relatively young and the linux support for it is weak. I didn't think this would be ideal for the scenario that I wanted to set up for our fair laptop. Still, for people with small networks… this is a great option. Especially if you run windows. You literally don't need to know what a VPN is to make use of it…

Finally, I downloaded OpenVPN and gave that a whirl. I cannot be more supportive of an open source initiative when it comes to networking software. Compared to the many other VPN systems I have tried out under linux, this was as simple as you could get. Although the documentation is not well written, there is plenty of it and if you're willing to wade around a bit you can get your VPN up and running with the least hassle in around half an hour.

On top of the ease of configuration on the Linux side, the software also runs on Windows and MacOS X. This means that all of your VPN software is the same across all platforms. While the configuration files might seem arcane to the average gui user, being simple text files, they are not overly long and the syntax is well documented with many examples available to help you through your first configuration. Once installed under windows, you can even look at installing a small gui for the application from here. Although this gui is not particularly advanced and doesn't help out much with configuration file editing, it does make it relatively simple to initiate your connection and troubleshoot once you're up and running.  GUI software under linux is far more developed, and if you've got time to learn your way around, you should check out something like Kovpn. Personally, I found just changing a few variables in the text config files was sufficient, and there was little need to run any complex software.

 All in all, I was pretty impressed with the suite and it didn't take me long to get a powerful VPN up and traversing two firewalls. Now its just a matter of getting it all to run right at Olympia. I'm holding thumbs.

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