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. Although these terms are often used interchangeably, APNs and VPNs are not the same thing. So, what's the difference? 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.

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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 cellular network. It can also help separate traffic from other networks. The APN defines the set of connectivity rules 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 it typically doesn’t require additional set up. It can be easy to think of public APNs in terms of consumer cellular devices. Every phone accesses the internet through the same APN that is pre-defined by their MNO cellular provider.

Private APN

A private APN separates device traffic from the wider network. It can also provide the ability to tailor this doorway with additional customizations.

Things to consider when choosing a private APN for IoT devices

Teams typically seek a private APN option to protect their devices from the wider network. Think back to our MNO example — all mobile phones on the network likely utilize the same public APN. That may work for consumer devices, but IoT use cases can often have different needs.

Private APNs can also be customized to tailor connectivity rules to specific use case needs. A custom private APN 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 custom private APN would be implemented. There are typically higher costs associated with setting up a custom private APN.

What is a VPN?

A virtual private network, or 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

Things to consider when choosing 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). 

If needed, there are a few ways to implement a VPN for an IoT deployment. The first is through implementing software at the device level. This option would provide end-to-end coverage. In some cases, a VPN could also be established at the gateway layer to a team’s server. In that instance, a custom private APN may need to first be established.

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. We created our secure, plug-and-play private APN solution specifically with IoT innovators needs in mind. It’s configured to meet security best practices, including device separation — and it comes standard. For use cases where additional customization is needed, our team can walk you through whether a custom private APN or VPN solution may suit your deployment needs. Paired with the stolen SIM prevention and behavior detection features that comes standard with our global IoT SIM card, you can trust that your devices will connect securely.

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