VPN vs. APN in IoT Security: What’s the difference?

Having the right APN or VPN solution will ensure higher network security between devices. Learn more here.
Paige Bates
September 20, 2022
Two manufacturing team members review data on computer screens

Whether you’re browsing the internet on a personal computer or gathering data via an IoT sensor, security is often top of mind when it comes to connected devices. These days, it’s common to hear acronyms like APN and VPN as it relates to cyber security. But what do these terms mean, and how do these facets work together — especially for IoT deployments that are managing hundreds to thousands of devices at once? How do you know what solution is best for your use case? In this article, we’ll break down all of this and more.

The importance of IoT security

Every device connected to the internet creates an opening in a network. Unfortunately, hackers can try to take advantage of these openings and cause very real damage.

In 2021, there was a 34% increase in security vulnerabilities for IoT, IT, and medical devices as the information transmitted by these types of devices is often very valuable. Consequences can range from a manufacturing company’s productivity grinding to a halt to patients’ personal health information falling into the wrong hands.

In short, when building an IoT solution, security should be top of mind — and finding the best APN and VPN solution for your specific use case plays a key role.

Recommended reading: 20 IoT security solutions for 2022 and beyond

What is an APN?

Think of an Access Point Name, or APN, as a doorway that allows a connection to the internet through a carrier network. It can also help separate traffic from other networks. The APN defines what type of network access a device has as well as certain security measures. All cellular connected devices utilize an APN of some kind.

This doorway between your device and the wider network can be either public or private — both of which have particular considerations to keep in mind.

Recommended reading: Access Point Names: What is an APN?

Public APN

A public APN is traditionally offered by mobile network operators (MNOs) with a set of configurations designed for most routine tasks. Devices share the same APN and traffic isn’t always separated. A public APN doesn’t require additional set up.

Private APN

A private APN provides the ability to tailor this doorway to suit specific needs. Typically, a private APN requires additional set-up to meet the requirements of the specific use case.

Benefits of using a private APN for IoT devices

Private APNs are best suited for use cases that require additional customization beyond what is provided by a standard APN offering. This option could provide the ability to mask the connectivity provider or implement a static IP address. In some use cases, there may be a need to access a specific point of presence. In this case, a private APN would be implemented.

A private APN may also be needed to establish a virtual private network, or VPN.

What is a VPN?

A VPN creates an encrypted tunnel between data centers and their encrypted devices.

Today, it’s common to hear about private VPNs for personal or work-related use. Many companies offer a type of encrypted connection that protects users’ data and browsing history from the wider internet. For IoT devices, the idea is similar — data travels through this encrypted tunnel and is separated from the wider network.

VPNs are often set up with Internet Protocol security (IPSec) in mind. This set of protocols provide data authentication, integrity, encryption, decryption, and confidentiality between two points on a network.

Recommended reading: What is IPSec? Internet Protocol Security and cellular IoT

Benefits of using a VPN for IoT devices

Whether a VPN is needed really depends on the specific IoT use case. VPNs can be complex to implement and increase the total cost of ownership for deployments. In some instances, VPNs can also limit flexibility.

However, VPNs offer a few key benefits for use cases that are in heavily regulated industries or handle sensitive information, like patient data.

Secure channel

A VPN creates an encrypted tunnel between your devices and the larger network. It also obscures each devices’ IP address, which can prevent devices from being tracked.

Data security

With a VPN, devices send data through a private and encrypted tunnel that only the device and the application endpoint have the keys to decrypt. This protects that data from listeners outside of the VPN tunnel to ensure it isn't intercepted or manipulated.

Confidentiality and privacy

Because data is only sent through this specific channel, the likelihood that any information sent by devices is intercepted by bad actors is lowered. It provides similar benefits to using an internal private network, despite using the public internet. For medical devices, this can be crucial for maintaining privacy rules and regulations.

How a private APN and VPN work together in IoT

To continue the doorways and tunnels analogy, all cellular connected IoT devices must be provided with an address (or APN) that directs them to connect to a specific internet-connected network access point. While all devices must use an APN to connect to the internet, not all devices need to route their data through a private, separately-secured tunnel (or VPN).  In most cases, a private APN is required to access a private VPN — or a new doorway is required to access a private tunnel.

To find the best solution for your IoT deployment, it’s important to identify your specific needs. Your connectivity provider should be able to walk you through all options and help you arrive at the right choice for your deployment.

Connect your devices securely with Hologram

Hologram matches seamless IoT connectivity with best-in-class security. Our IoT experts are here to help you find the best APN and VPN solution for your IoT deployment. With Hologram, a secure, plug-and-play APN solution comes standard. For use cases where additional customization is needed, our team can walk you through whether a private APN or VPN may suit your deployment needs. Paired with the stolen SIM prevention and behavior detection features of our global IoT SIM card, you can trust that your devices will connect securely.

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