If you’re trying to find out more about VPNs—whether you’re shopping for the best VPN or simply just curious—you’ll have come across the term “VPN server,” usually just called a “server” when VPNs are being talked about. What are these servers, and what do they have to do with VPNs?
What Is a Server?
To figure out what a VPN server is, we first need to take a look at regular servers. A server is a computer that is connected to a network and provides information to it. Right now, for example, you’ve made a connection from your computer to How-to Geek’s web server: your computer requested this exact page, the server looked around its files and then came up with this page.
In reality, it’s a little more complicated than this—check out our article on how the internet works for more—but, for our purposes, it will do.
This kind of server, usually called a file or a web server, is just one kind, there are plenty more. Servers can also be used to route internet traffic. In the above example, for instance, you connected from your router at home to a server operated by your internet service provider (ISP), which then sent you to our site and its server.
In this exchange, both your ISP and the site you’re visiting can see who you are and, to a certain extent, what you’re doing. To prevent at least some of this, you need to add a new kind of server to the chain, a VPN server. To see how they fit in, let’s go over some VPN basics, first.
What a VPN Does
When you use a VPN, you’re changing the route your connection takes. Instead of going from your ISP to the site, you’re taking a detour via a server operated by the VPN provider. The way this server is set up allows it to pretend like your connection originates from it rather than your ISP’s server. This changes your IP address and makes it appear like you’re in another location entirely to the site you’re visiting.
At the same time, your connection is encrypted in a so-called VPN tunnel, making it hard to figure out where the original signal came from and making it impossible for your ISP to see what sites you’re visiting. This is a VPN’s strength: it covers you on both ends of your connection.
What a VPN Server Does
In this whole process, the VPN server is where the magic happens. It’s where the unencrypted connection via your ISP comes in and leaves, encrypted and with a new IP address. It does so through a combination of hardware and software. The hardware generally determines the throughput and capacity of the server—pretty much how much data it can handle at any given time—while the software determines the encryption of the connection.
The hardware is what sets good VPNs apart from mediocre ones: a high-end service like ExpressVPN has really good servers that can handle tons of throughput, giving them much better speeds than a service like PrivadoVPN, which is much more unpredictable. When the network is busy, you get worse performance.
VPN server software is a bit more complicated. In short, it’s the protocols the server supports. A VPN protocol is the set of rules with which the VPN server “talks” to an ISP’s server as well as the site you’re visiting. The protocol determines both the speed and security of a connection and is incredibly important.
For example, a mediocre server using one of the best VPN protocols can outperform a top-of-the-line one using an outdated protocol—though other variables can change this. For most people, most of the time, the popular OpenVPN protocol is the best option and you may want to check whether your VPN of choice supports it.
Most VPN servers are advertised as locations, so for example when using ExpressVPN for the first time you’ll see a list of all the places you can connect to, and thus assume that IP address. This means that the VPN in question has at least one server, though usually a cluster of them, in that location.
Usually, each location has its own IP address. If you want a different IP—usually because the current one has been flagged, something that happens a lot when you try to use a VPN with Netflix—you’ll need to connect to a different server in the same location.
How to Know You’re Using a Good Server
Not all servers are created equal, and generally speaking, a VPN service using good servers will of course give you better results than one with worse servers. However, the annoying thing is that there’s no good way to test a VPN provider’s servers, at least not with the tools we use for other kinds of VPN testing.
As a result, the only way to tell whether or not you picked a VPN with good servers is to, well, use it. If speeds are erratic or you have trouble connecting on a regular basis, it may be time to find a VPN that invests a little more in its infrastructure.