The virtual private network (VPN) is 24 years old. The concept—cryptographically secure tunnels used as virtual wires for networking—was created for a radically different Internet from the one we know today. As the Internet grew and changed, so did VPN users and applications. The VPN had an awkward adolescence in the Internet of the 2000s, interacting poorly with other widely popular abstractions such as multiuser operating systems. In the past decade the Internet has changed again, and this new Internet offers new uses for VPNs. The development of a radically new protocol, WireGuard, provides a technology on which to build these new VPNs.
This article is a narrative history of the VPN. All narratives necessarily generalize and cannot capture every nuance, but it is a good-faith effort to (critically) celebrate some of the recent technical history of networking and to capture the mood and attitudes of software engineers and network administrators toward the VPN.