Friday, July 24, 2009

Testing the Cloakbox VPN router from Witopia

The internet is a chaotic place, where packets of information swim all over the world, ready to be scooped up, peered at, or blocked by anyone (or any government).  To be truly secure, and to own your own channel in that ocean of data, you need a Virtual Private Network (VPN) that encrypts everything and ensures that the rest of the internet will see only what you want them to see.  Companies operate VPNs all the time, but consumers have the same ability thanks to a plethora of services from companies like Witopia, who I chose for the VPN I set up this week at home.

The Witopia Cloakbox costs $199, a lot more than the $50 or so you’ll pay for a Linksys, but it includes one year of VPN service. On the outside it looks just like a regular Cisco Linksys router. In fact, the model number (WRT54GL) is the same as the Wireless-G router I’ve been using at home for years. Everything is so similar that at first I wondered if there’d been a mistake. The photos on the web site made me think the box would look distinctive somehow—maybe bright orange—but it’s not.

Setting up was trivial. I plugged it in and it just worked. I just substituted the plugs and cables from my previous router, and everything swapped over without change. Then I turned it on and it all worked.  The wireless features are disabled by default, but Witopia operates a Wiki site with easy-to-understand instructions for how to get that going, and I had my household wireless network running minutes after opening the box.

Upon starting up, I checked my IP address and (cool!) it thought I was in Kansas!  This is convenient because (1) it means I can access web sites (like iTunes) that restrict non-US users, and (2) any government-run site-blocking service won’t work because as far as the internet is concerned, I’m located in the United States.

Next, I checked my access speed. This was a little disappointing.  All that hopping around causes an exceptionally long ping time.  Here’s what my speed test shows when I run my computer using my regular (non-VPN) router from my home near Seattle:


And here’s what it looks like with the Cloakbox:


The results change slightly each time I run the test, but these were the best times I was able to get for each version.  As you can see, the Clockbox VPN gives me about 1Mbps slower download speed, and a much longer ping time (160-300ms versus 40-70).

Overall I’m very pleased at how easy it was to set up.  Although the speeds are slower, I think it will be manageable, and of course nothing can beat the convenience of being able to surf the internet securely and without restrictions.

But how well does it really work?  For that you’ll have to wait for future posts from this blog.  In a few days, I’ll be living in China, but if the internet thinks I’m in Kansas, you’ll know it’s working.