Split Tunneling is an advanced feature that helps manage the flow of data on your device, allowing you the choice of what exactly gets routed through the VPN service. The remainder goes through a separate tunnel on the open network.
How Split Tunneling Works
In general, VPNs secure your entire connection. Be it masking your IP, encrypting the data you’re transmitting, or anything else, the basic concept is total protection. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always work so well.
Even if it does, there may be times when you simply don’t want some data to pass through the VPN tunnel for some reason. That’s where Split Tunneling comes in. This feature is commonly implemented by VPN service providers to give users greater control.
With Split Tunneling, you get to choose what goes through the encrypted VPN tunnel and what does not. While Split Tunneling is typically not difficult to use, it does involve some level of manual configuration on your part.
Different VPN software will handle the setup of this feature differently. On the whole, there are several ways in which Split Tunneling can be implemented.
These various approaches to Split Tunneling include:
Some VPN services give you the option of selecting the specific applications you want to connect through the secure connection. Only those selected will be routed through the VPN. Anything else bypasses the secure tunnel and travels through the open network.
Another popular method of implementing Split Tunneling is by specifying website URLs. It is similar to the app-based approach, except that instead of specifying applications, you define the URLs you wish to access via the encrypted VPN link. This approach is normally used for VPN browser extensions.
Inverse Split Tunneling
This method of implementation is the direct opposite of the above two. Instead of specifying which apps or URLs are routed through the secure tunnel, you specify which are not. This means by default, it is the more secure method.
Benefits of Split Tunneling
One advantage is that Split Tunneling reduces traffic volume on the secure portion of your connection. This can help increase speed and lower latency for certain tasks. At the same time, critical operations will still benefit from VPN security.
On another level, given how many applications today try to establish their own connections independently, there is a greater chance of conflict with VPN services. When that arises, the app may not perform as intended.
In situations like this where resolution may not be possible in short times, Split Tunneling can be used as a stopgap measure and allow the conflicting app to perform as usual.
Downsides to Split Tunneling
Since Split Tunneling moves part of your data traffic away from the secure tunnel, the natural drawback is the potential security risk. Anything that’s not passing through the VPN tunnel may be traced back to its point of origin – your device.
This is why it is typically recommended that Split Tunneling is used with caution. If not set up and configured correctly, you may be leaving large, unintended gaps in your security.
When to Use Split Tunneling?
If you’re encountering bandwidth issues on your VPN service, making use of Split Tunneling would make sense. However, understanding in depth on this technology is essential to ensure you reduce associated risks.
If you’re facing compatibility issues with certain applications, Split tunneling may come in useful as well. For example, modern versions of Microsoft Office applications need a signed-in Microsoft account to function optimally. This clashes with some VPN service providers, so Split Tunneling can be useful.
Some users have also reported that when working on a Local Area Network (LAN), VPN services may sometimes block access to connected devices. For example, you may lose access to your printer. Enabling Split Tunneling in such cases could likely resolve this.
Many sites which handle highly regulated activities such as banking or the processing of financial information are often sensitive to VPN connections. If you aren’t able to access those services with your VPN on, Split Tunneling can help as well.
Is It Safe to Use Split Tunneling?
It cannot be denied that Split Tunneling lowers your overall security profile. However, due to the many interacting and connected applications on most devices, it seems to have become a necessary evil.
The potential danger of allowing access outside of the VPN tunnel needs to be weighed against potential benefits. In most cases, unless strictly necessary, it is inadvisable to permanently allow any access outside of the VPN connection.
Split Tunneling does make a difference in the overall user experience for most VPNs. It is highly unlikely that you will get a VPN service that works seamlessly with every application or URL that exists.
When the situation does arise, it’s a simple feature to exercise and one which could save you countless hours of frustration. Even with the potential risk, being unable to use a site or service because of a VPN would be tragic.