One of the very frequent questions I get is about connecting two or more machines, or even networks, across the internet. The most common scenario is when traveling … you’re on the road, and you need to get at that one file that you left at home or at work, on a different computer.
Enter “VPN”s, or Virtual Private Networks.
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VPNs are exactly what the name implies: a virtual network of one or more achines on top of a public network like the internet. When two machines join the same VPN, it’s nearly as if they were next to each other. File and printer sharing, as well as other applications such as remote desktop, work like they would on a local area network – except the machines are separated, and connected only over the internet.
I’ve talked about Hamachi before, in my podcast. Now, after actively using it for several weeks, I’m recommending it as a simple, quick, lightweight, and free VPN solution.
To use Hamachi, you download and run a small client application from the Hamachi website. When this client runs, it implements a virtual network adapter, and you’re given an additional IP address that identifies you on any virtual network you join. You then create a virtual a virtual network by name, assigning it a password. Now anyone running the Hamachi client can join your network by connecting to it by name and supplying the password.
It really is that easy.
I now have the Hamachi client automatically starting on several machines, so that regardless of where in the world I am, if I’m connected to the internet those machines appear on my virtual local network.
As an example, I frequently print things on a printer at my wife’s business from home. In the past that’s involved transferring the file to a mutually accessible location on the internet, then using remote desktop to connect to the remote computer, downloading the file, firing up the appropriate application and finally hitting print in that application.
With both machines on the VPN, I simply print directly to the remote printer at my wife’s business from the computer on my desk at home.
What I’ll call my acid test was a recent trip in my RV. The RV park has free WiFi, so naturally I connect up and do a fair amount of work when I can. This time, after booting up my laptop and connecting to the internet, I was automatically connected to my machines at home and the machine at my wife’s business. I was able to remote desktop to a machine at home, copy files
from a second machine there, and once again print directly to the business machine. All transparently.
The VPN connection is encrypted for security. Aside from contacting the Hamachi server initially, to locate the members of your VPN, all actual network activity is directly peer-to-peer. In fact, if the Hamachi mediation server goes down, you remain connected, and can continue to use your VPN without a problem.
Hamachi works across NAT routers, even if there are NAT routers at both ends of the connection. In nearly all cases it doesn’t require any reconfiguring of the routers – no port-forwarding required. All machines running the Hamachi client are simply and individually visible, even if they are all behind the same router.
So far I’ve run into one drawback to Hamachi.
It does rely on that mediation server to establish network connections. That means if the server is down, while existing networks and connections will continue to work, new clients cannot join a VPN, and new VPNs cannot be created. For example, if you reboot while the mediation server is down, you’ll not be able to reconnect to your VPN until it comes back up. Fortunately, this happens infrequently, and planned outages are announced in advance.
But for simple, inexpensive, and basic connectivity, Hamachi is working well for me, and I encourage you to give it a try. I’ve played with Hamachi exclusively on Windows, but versions for OSX and Linux are also available.