What Is the History of VPN?

7 min. read

The history of the VPN is rooted in the evolution of secure online communication technologies. In the 1960s, ARPANET pioneered the concept of linking distant computers. The subsequent development of protocols like TCP/IP in the 1980s laid the groundwork for modern internet connectivity. From the 1990s onward, specific VPN technologies emerged to address growing concerns about online security and privacy.

1960s–1970s: The Dawn of ARPANET and the Need for Connectivity Across Different Networks

A 1977 ARPANET logical map with nodes, labeled with PDP and IBM models, interconnected by lines, depicting network topology.

In the late 1960s, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) developed a method to link distant computers. They introduced a system in 1969 that relied on packet switching, where data packets transferred between machines. This system, known as ARPANET, grew throughout the 1970s, connecting multiple educational and research institutions.

However, ARPANET had limitations. It operated on the network control protocol (NCP), limiting connections to computers within the same network. The challenge was to find a way to connect devices across varied networks.

1980s: TCP/IP and the Public's Introduction to the Internet

Packet-switching network with three hosts connected to four PS (packet switches) within an oval boundary.

ARPANET's use grew notably within government and educational realms, prompting ARPA to find ways to link varied networks. By the 1980s, they officially adopted the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP), also known as Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP). The new approach transitioned from NCP to a system allowing diverse device connections, giving rise to what's now termed the internet.

The dominant internet protocols today, IPv4 and IPv6, stem from this TCP/IP protocol collection. An IP comprises unique digits identifying each device online. Accessing online resources demanded the right IP, but remembering numeric sequences wasn't convenient. So, in 1984, the Domain Name System (DNS) was born, mapping simple domain names to IP addresses.

After the establishment of IP and DNS, the internet welcomed the broader public. The inaugural online platform emerged in 1985, allowing users to enter chat rooms and engage in digital communities. Named America Online (AOL), this system relied on dial-up, where users dialed their internet service provider (ISP) to access AOL.

The expansion of online activities paved the way for commercial ISPs. In 1989, "The World," among the initial commercial ISPs, began offering internet connections to users via dial-up.

1990s: The Rise of the Web and Emergence of Early VPN Technologies

Schematic of a PPTP tunnel showing a client, NAS, internet, and PPTP server, with PPP, TCP connections, and IP datagrams.

In the early 1990s, the introduction of HTTP enabled access to online resources through hyperlinks, leading to the birth of the World Wide Web (WWW).

As the digital realm began to spread beyond academic circles, the ability to communicate securely and privately online became a growing concern. This sparked the development of IP-layer encryption, which can be viewed as a forerunner to today's virtual private networks (VPNs).

A few years later, AT&T Bell Laboratories showcased the Software IP Encryption Protocol (SwIPe), an effort that effectively demonstrated the potential of IP layer encryption. This innovation had a significant influence on the development of IPsec, an encryption protocol that remains in widespread use today.

IPsec, introduced around the mid-1990s, provided end-to-end security at the IP layer, authenticating and encrypting each IP packet in data traffic. Notably, IPsec was compatible with IPv4 and later incorporated as a core component of IPv6. This technology set the stage for modern VPN methodologies.

By the latter half of the decade, Microsoft introduced Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP), often credited to Microsoft employee and engineer Gurdeep Singh-Pall. PPTP marked a significant milestone in the evolution of VPN technology. This system encapsulated PPP packets, creating a virtual data tunnel to ensure more secure data transmission over the web.

Following closely, Cisco presented L2F, a protocol addressing the shortcomings of PPTP by accommodating multiple types of internet traffic and introducing enhanced encryption methods.

An L2TP scenario with LAC Client, LAC, Internet, LNS, PSTN Cloud, Frame Relay/ATM Cloud, and Home LAN with hosts.

Eventually, a collaborative initiative between Microsoft and Cisco produced L2TP, which melded the strengths of both tunneling protocols, PPTP and L2F. This advanced protocol simplified VPN utilization and bolstered the security of data tunneling across IP networks.

What Is a VPN?

2000s: VPNs Evolve Alongside Cybersecurity Challenges

ASCII art of an IPsec tunnel with two endpoints connecting protected subnets.

The 2000s marked a significant shift in online security. As the internet became an integral part of daily life and work, the threats and challenges grew. VPNs emerged as a vital tool for businesses and individuals, ensuring online privacy and security in an increasingly interconnected world.

In the early 2000s, as the internet's adoption skyrocketed, businesses recognized the potential of an online presence and transitioned to the digital realm, creating websites, establishing e-commerce platforms, and integrating online payment systems.

Alongside these opportunities, the rise of cybercrimes became more pronounced. Vulnerabilities in the rapidly advancing internet technology became a target for malicious actors. The global nature of the internet presented challenges, as attackers could target victims worldwide. Social networking sites inadvertently created platforms for phishing and social engineering.

As businesses became more reliant on online operations, there was an urgent need to secure data. Initially, companies gravitated toward wide area networks (WAN) for security, but high costs led them to explore VPNs. Notably, during this period, James Yonan developed OpenVPN for personal use. This open-source protocol, along with the SSL VPN, became prominent solutions for businesses.

During the mid-2000s, individual users became more aware of online security. Public networks, particularly in cafes and airports, turned into hunting grounds for hackers. Consequently, the need for online privacy tools surged among individual internet users, too.

By 2005, recognizing the need for user-friendly security tools, the first commercial VPNs appeared, simplifying the previously complex setup processes. The decade concluded with VPNs evolving as essential tools, leading to an increase in third-party VPN service providers and innovative protocols like IKEv2/IPsec and SSTP.

2010s: A Decade of Digital Transformation

Site-to-site VPN connecting a main office with three branch offices securely via the internet.

The 2010s marked significant internet growth. IT advancements led to a global online network affecting work and leisure. Cyberthreats rose in severity and number.

The internet of things enabled diverse devices to connect online. Smart assistants enhanced user experience. The gaming sector introduced online multiplayer games. Online retail growth shifted consumers to mobile shopping.

Streaming services like Netflix expanded, which introduced competition among platforms. New online professions emerged, necessitating reliable internet connections. ISPs faced demands for better speed and service.

As more activities moved online, the need for strong security solutions became evident. VPNs gained popularity due to the increasing online data vulnerabilities. VPN service providers responded by broadening their offerings and introducing features like no-logs policies, kill switches, and multihop connections.

VPN competition led to improved connection speeds and user-friendly designs. WireGuard emerged as a notable VPN protocol in the late 2010s, distinguished for its efficient encryption and adaptability to network changes.

Enterprises recognized the importance of secure networking. Solutions like SD-WAN and SASE rose to prominence, catering to requirements for secure and scalable business network connections.

2019–Present: The Response to Remote Work and Limitations of VPNs

The 2020 COVID-19 outbreak intensified the need for secure online activities, emphasizing the importance of remote access VPNs. As organizations transitioned online, the demand for reliable VPNs grew. Remote access VPN providers expanded server capabilities, adopted multifactor authentication, and integrated malware protection.

Remote access VPN with a central building icon connected by dashed lines to three user symbols.

Today, remote work persists. But there’s a problem. Architecturally, remote access VPN is a hub-and-spoke architecture, with users sitting in spokes of various lengths depending on their distance from the hub (the internal data center). The distance reduces performance and introduces latency problems, but this remains the optimal architecture for data center applications because the goal is to reach the hub.

A VPN diagram with users linked to a central building, which connects to the cloud, symbolizing backhauled internet traffic.

The model breaks down when there are cloud applications in the environment. Traffic in a remote access VPN always goes to the VPN gateway first, even if the application is hosted in the cloud. As a result, the traffic goes to the VPN gateway at headquarters, then egresses from the corporate perimeter firewall to the internet, with the application response going back to headquarters before it returns to the user.

Although this is reasonable from a security perspective, it doesn’t make sense for network optimization. To compensate for the networking difficulties with remote access VPN, organizations often make compromises that have negative security implications, including user-initiated tunnels, split-tunnel VPN, and web proxies.

Diagram of Prisma Access for mobile devices with secure, automated connections to data centers and cloud services via GlobalProtect app.

With the rapid growth of remote workforces and cloud-based applications, organizations are finding that remote access VPN is neither optimized for the cloud nor secure. An innovative approach is necessary to account for today’s application mix: A modern architecture for the mobile workforce.

Today’s mobile workforce needs access to the data center, the internet, and applications in public, private, and hybrid clouds. In other words, the proper architecture should optimize access to all applications, wherever they or the users are located.

Remote access VPN has been an enterprise network staple for years. However, as enterprises rapidly adopt more cloud applications, their security and networking needs are changing fundamentally. After a long history of the VPN’s evolution, so too must the solutions.

  1. https://www.computerhistory.org/collections/catalog/102646704
  2. https://www.darpa.mil/about-us/timeline/tcp-ip
  3. http://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/library/cc768084.aspx
  4. https://datatracker.ietf.org/doc/html/rfc2661
  5. https://datatracker.ietf.org/doc/html/rfc4306

VPN History FAQs

The oldest VPN protocol is the Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP). Introduced in the mid-1990s by a consortium led by Microsoft, PPTP was one of the first technologies to allow secure connections over the internet, effectively creating a virtual private network.
The concept of a VPN as we understand it today evolved over time with the development and convergence of various networking and encryption technologies. The oldest VPN protocol is PPT. Introduced in the mid-1990s by a consortium led by Microsoft, PPTP was one of the first technologies to allow secure connections over the internet, effectively creating a virtual private network.
While VPNs aren't necessarily becoming obsolete, the traditional remote access VPN model struggles with cloud-based applications, causing latency and inefficient routing. As remote work and cloud applications grow, enterprises need modern solutions that optimize access for the mobile workforce, addressing both security and networking efficiency.
For enterprise use cases, ZTNA, SASE, and SD-WAN tend to be better choices than VPNs. ZTNA ensures secure access based on identity, not just a connection. SASE combines networking and security services into a single cloud-based service. SD-WAN optimizes traffic flow across wide area networks, improving performance and flexibility. These solutions address both security and efficiency for modern businesses.
VPNs may not be replaced entirely, but their role is evolving, especially in enterprise environments. Primary secure alternatives for VPNs include Zero Trust network access , secure access service edge, and software-defined wide area networking. Software-defined perimeter, identity and access management and privileged access management, unified endpoint management, and desktop as a service may also be options.
On their own, VPNs encrypt internet traffic and mask IP addresses, but they don't protect against internal vulnerabilities, malware, phishing attacks, insider threats, or insecure applications. They also won't secure misconfigured systems or prevent breaches stemming from weak user credentials and access controls.