VPN Protocols Explained and Compared

vpn protocols

Table of Contents

Recommended VPN Protocols:

Introduction to VPN Protocols

A VPN protocol is the set of rules governing data transmission between your computer and a secure VPN server. There are a number of VPN protocols being used, each having its own distinct rules under which data is encrypted and sent.

The level of encryption, how much speed and security they offer are the main differences between VPN protocols. For example, a sophisticated protocol with a complex encryption level will protect your data more, but it will not be as fast as those with lower encryption levels.

Depending on the type of work you do, you can choose a VPN protocol that best serves your needs. Below we will discuss some features of VPN protocols to help you better understand what a VPN protocol is and why they matter so much.

Features of VPN Protocols

The main features that determine a VPN protocol’s quality are purpose, speed, security, and ease of use. The ideal protocol that fits someone’s needs with a mobile device will not be the same as a PC user. Same way, sometimes you prefer encryption over connection speed, and sometimes you will need connection speed over data encryption.

The protocols that use complex encryption will undoubtedly take a toll on the speed by which it sends the data. On the other hand, a protocol that is not equipped with advanced encryption will send information more quickly.

A number of features go into determining the optimal VPN protocol for a specific group, and it can be hard deciding what will be the best one for you. Here, we will discuss some of the most used VPN protocols to help you better understand them and decide which will offer the best options for you.

Review of Main VPN protocols

OpenVPN

OpenVPN is one of the most widely used VPN protocols. It can be configured to suit a number of ports and encryption types.

History

James Yonan developed OpenVPN in 2001. According to him, the reason for developing OpenVPN was to create something that provides both security and usability. It is a relatively old protocol, but it is still one of the most widely used VPN protocols since it is both free to use and open source. Because it is open source, it has a community that is continuously looking for vulnerabilities.

Purpose

As OpenVPN is not built into devices, third-party VPN clients often utilize OpenVPN protocol. It is very good for creating Site-to-Site and Point-to-Point connections. This protocol easily merges with HTTPS/SSL connections, so firewalls do not easily block it.

Speed

OpenVPN is not as fast as the PPTP. Its connection speed is about the same as L2TP. But OpenVPN can use TCP and UDP for data transfer, so by configuring it to UDP protocol, faster connection speeds can be achieved. A downside for opting for UDP will be a less reliable connection, whereas TCP will provide a reliable and more secure connection.

Security

OpenVPN is very secure, as one of the main reasons behind its creation was security and privacy. OpenVPN has a custom security protocol that relies on OpenSSL. Its encryption is similar to the one HTTP websites use. As OpenVPN can be configured to use almost any port, it can be easily disguised as regular internet traffic and is therefore very hard to block by firewalls.

The most common encryption algorithms used by OpenVPN are Blowfish and AES.

User-friendliness

Since it is not natively integrated into any operating system, OpenVPN requires third-party software to run, so setting up OpenVPN manually can be challenging. However, average VPN clients can navigate to a solution easily seeking out third-party software. The programs are straightforward and simple to run, which makes it easier to open and install OpenVPN.

L2TP/IPSec

Layer 2 Tunnel Protocol is an encryption protocol that pairs with IPSec for security. Instead of just encrypting the data, it protects the whole network.

History

Microsoft and Cisco developed L2TP in the 1990s. It was designed as a sort of next version of PPTP.

Purpose

L2TP/IPSec is used when security and privacy are your main concerns while browsing the internet.

Speed

L2TP is slower than PPTP and somewhat slower than OpenVPN. As it uses double encryption to provide an extra layer of security, it takes a toll on the connection speed. The average user may not even feel the difference between the connection speed of an L2TP and an OpenVPN protocol.

Security

The protocol is fairly secure. It first provides a secure channel for connection and then encrypts the data it is going to send. This provides us with two levels of security. Though L2TP can’t encrypt the data on its own, that is why it is usually paired with a security protocol IPSec. There are no major known vulnerabilities of this protocol.

User-friendliness

L2TP/IPSec is easy to configure, but a problem with it is that the port L2TP uses is easily blocked by firewalls, so if you want to work your way around it, you will have to forward the port, which will require much more complex configuration.

PPTP

PPTP stands for point-to-point tunneling protocol, and it is one of the most widely used VPN protocols. It is an insecure protocol and should not be used if security is one of your major concerns online.

History

Point-to-Point Protocol was developed for dial-up networks back in the 90s by Microsoft engineer Gurdeep Singh-Pall.

Purpose

Initially, it was developed for dial-up networks. These days it is mostly used by streamers looking to gain access to geo-restricted content. It is used to connect to both the internet and the intranet.

Speed

The levels of encryption used in PPTP are shallow, and because of this, it is one of the fastest VPN protocols. It keeps encryption to a minimum to provide better speeds, which is why it is favored in conditions where privacy is the least of your concerns.

Security

PPTP is not secure at all. It barely offers any real security. Many security vulnerabilities have been identified over the years. Another reason for ranking low on security is that most firewalls can easily block PPTP.

User-friendliness

PPTP is one of the easiest to configure. Most of the mobile devices and computers come with built-in PPTP.

SSTP

SSTP stands for Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol. SSTP provides more secure connections as compared to PPTP.

History

Microsoft developed SSTP for Windows Vista. This has turned it into a popular choice as it is fully integrated into Microsoft operating system.

Purpose

It is better to get around firewalls, but you will need to do a complex configuration for that. It is rarely used as it is owned by Windows and is not an open-source protocol. Its features are almost the same as OpenVPN, making it the 2nd choice compared to the open-source OpenVPN.

Speed

Like OpenVPN, SSTP also used TCP network protocol, so it is almost as fast as OpenVPN. OpenVPN can also be configured to use UDP, which is reasonably fast, but this configuration is not possible with SSTP, making it slower in the case of TCP meltdown. TCP must wait for confirmation after sending a packet, and if, for some reason, it does not get confirmation from the targeted node in the network, it will not send the next packet. This can take a great toll on the connection speed.

Security

SSTP is usually configured using strong AES encryption, so it will be safe to assume that it is secure. It also uses SSL keys and 2048-bit TLS/SSL certificates for authentications. It is extremely good at side-stepping attempts to block it.

User-friendliness

As it is developed by Microsoft, it is relatively easy to manually set up on Windows machines. You can configure it on Linux and a few other systems, but the configuration is not easy on non-Windows operating systems.

IKEv2

Internet Key Exchange version 2 is not exactly a VPN protocol, but it can be treated as such. It is used to set up a security association in the IPSec protocol suite.

History

IKEv2 was based on IPSec. Microsoft and Cisco developed it in 1998.

Purpose

As it is good at reconnecting when the connection drops out, IKEv2 is mainly used for mobile devices on 3G or 4G. For example, when you need to switch from a mobile network to Wi-Fi, your connection will drop out for a moment. IKEv2 is an ideal choice for these situations.

Speed

IKEv2 is among the fastest VPN protocols. If your main concern is connection speed, then this is for you.

Security

IKEv2 is secure as well as fast. It supports several levels of AES encryption and also uses the IPSec encryption suite. If you would rather not use a product by Microsoft, then some open-source versions are also available.

User-friendliness

IKEv2 is not widely supported. But for the devices that do support it, it is quite easy to use on them. Many BlackBerry devices come with built-in IKEv2.

IPSec

IPSec stands for Internet Protocol Security. It is mainly used to encrypt data packets that need to be sent over an IP network.

History

The IPSec protocols were defined in RFC 1825, which was published in 1995.

Purpose

IPSec is often combined with other VPN protocols to provide encryption, such as L2TP, but it can also be used on its own. It is frequently used for site-to-site VPNs, and instead of OpenVPN or some other protocol, many iOS VPN apps also use IPSec.

Speed

Generally, IPSec is considered faster than SSL, but your connection speed can vary depending upon the configuration and intended use.

Security

The main reason for the popularity of IPSec is its security. It uses Authentication Header and Encapsulating Security Payload mechanisms to ensure the secure transfer of data.

User-friendliness

Configuring an IPSec VPN can be complicated, depending on what you intend to use it for. It should not be a challenge for the regular user with an iPhone trying to connect to their VPN provider’s servers.

SSL/TLS

Secure Socket Layer (SSL) and Transport Security Layer (TSL) are the most widely used cryptographic protocols used today. SSL secures your connection to a server if you connect to an HTTPS website. It is used in some VPN protocols but is not a VPN protocol in itself.

History

TSL was designed as an upgrade for the SSL v3 in 1999.

Purpose

SSL is also used to produce HTTPS proxies, which some organizations pass off as VPNs. These are mostly sold as browser-based VPNs that run as extensions to Chrome or Firefox and do not have the full security features of a true VPN. Online shopping websites and service providers use it.

Speed

The speed depends on the level of encryption and the VPN protocol being used.

Security

Security is always favored in TLS. The newer TLS is more secure and protects against attacks better than the SSL.

User-friendliness

SSL VPNs are generally considered easy to configure. Web browsers switch to SSL easily and almost without user action, as web browsers are integrated with SSL and TLSS.

WireGuard

WireGuard is one of the newest VPN protocols. WireGuard solves a lot of problems that were consistently present in the previously built VPN protocols.

History

Jason A. Donenfeld developed WireGuard, and it was initially released in December 2016.

Purpose

WireGuard is still in development, but for many platforms, it’s available. It is compact enough to run on embedded interfaces, but it is also suitable all the way up to high-performance computers and networks for containers like Docker. That being said, finding WireGuard in a consumer VPN app is still pretty rare.

Speed

WireGuard is one of the fastest VPN protocols ever. WireGuard eliminates a lot of the bloat contained in other protocols to increase speed and runs from the Linux kernel.

Security

Even though it is still in development, it is fairly secure if we compare it to the other options. Instead of complex firewall regulations, WireGuard uses complex cryptography, can be easily evaluated, and utilizes a concept called “cryptokey routing” to manage network control and access control.

However, some user data needs to be stored on the server as it assigns IP addresses statically and not dynamically.

User-friendliness

WireGuard is fairly easy to set up. WireGuard is very likely to be the future of VPNs, but it is now supported by just a handful of providers.

Custom VPN Protocols

Now we are going to discuss some of the most widely known custom VPN protocols.

NordVPN NordLynx

nordvpn

NordVPN is a VPN provider that provides services across all platforms. It has desktop applications for Windows, macOS, and Linux, mobile applications for Android and iOS. It has an application for Android TV. It can also be manually set up for Wi-Fi routers and IoT devices.

History

WireGuard outshined all the existing VPN protocols. It promised great speed, even though it is still in development. But a concern that was still present was user privacy. NordVPN saw this opportunity and took it.

WireGuard has already beaten everyone in fields of speed and deployment etc. All that was left was security. NordVPN needed to find a way that the WireGuard protocol could work without posing a risk to user privacy, and that is how NordLynx was created.

Features

A double Network Address Translation (NAT) was developed. For each user, the Double NAT system produces two local network interfaces. The first interface assigns all the users connected to a server to a local IP address. Each user gets the same IP address, unlike in the original WireGuard protocol.

The second network interface with a dynamic NAT system kicks in once a VPN tunnel is formed. For each tunnel, the device assigns a specific IP address. This way, without getting mixed up, internet packets will pass between the user and their desired destination.

NordLynx comes with all the positives of WireGuard. A plus it has over it is that it will not compromise on user security. NordLynx was released to the public in 2018.

Hotspot Shield Hydra Protocol

hotspotshield

Hotspot Shield operates over a number of operating systems like Windows, Linux, macOS, iOS, and Windows phone. The service protects its users’ traffic from prying eyes by maintaining an encrypted link with the Hotspot Shield server.

History

Most of the secure VPN protocols suffer from high latency. So far, any VPN protocol that came with high security was low on connection speed, and the ones that did offer high connection speed were not as secure.

The challenge was to find a perfect balance between connection speed and security. After a lengthy period of real-world testing and optimization, Hotspot Shield developed Hydra VPN.

Features

The Hydra VPN protocol operates on almost all major platforms. And apart from being secure to ensure privacy, it is also fast. Its connections are 2.4 times faster than that of OpenVPN, over long distances.

Protocols to Bypass Censorship

Now we are going to discuss some of the VPN protocols that were specifically designed to by-pass censorship.

ShadowSocks by Surfshark

surfshark

ShadowSocks is a rare entity, half VPN and half shadow that goes unseen in cyberspace. In that it is not meant to protect your privacy or to grant you anonymity when surfing, ShadowSocks varies from a VPN.

History

The primary aim of ShadowSocks’ functionality is to circumvent censorship. As such, it was designed with one objective in mind: to find a way around the complicated censorship laws that are the fundamental bricks in China’s Great Firewall.

Features

ShadowSocks is highly customizable. ShadowSocks uses HTTPS to mask your online movements. This program does not encrypt your traffic like a VPN or transfer all your traffic through a particular server. Instead, it deals with a variety of different TCP connections, making it much faster than its competitors and much more difficult to identify.

Some of ShadowSocks’ advantages are that it is a free and open source with an extensive community committed to providing continuous support. It supports UDP delay and server auto-switching.

Stealth VPN by Astrill

astrill

Stealth VPN was developed by Astrill. It was inspired by OpenVPN and carries out an additional traffic obfuscation that makes it undetectable for automated firewall systems.

History

Stealth VPN was developed for the same reason as all the other VPN protocols on this list and that is to bypass censorship. Some countries have built automated firewalls that can conduct on-the-fly deep packet inspection (DPI). This allows them to limit access in real-time to well-known VPN protocols, such as IPSec or OpenVPN, without the need to block huge VPN IP databases. This is why the need for stealth VPN was felt.

Features

All traffic on your computer is tunneled through secure VPN tunnels when linked to StealthVPN. When the link drops, StealthVPN will automatically reconnect. For authentication, StealthVPN uses RSA-2048 certificates and AES-256 for encryption. These are well-known sector requirements on which even the military relies.

Chameleon by VyprVPN

vyprvpn

Chameleon is developed by VyprVPN. The purpose of its creation was also to bypass heavy censorship.

History

There is growing worldwide concern about the inspection, restriction, and blocking of VPN protocols by governments, companies, and ISPs through deep packet inspection (DPI). In response, Chameleon was introduced by VyprVPN as a way to by-pass censorship imposed by governments.

Features

Chameleon has been shown to help avoid the blocking of users who live in or fly to countries with high censorship. It is also suitable for users around the world who encounter VPN blocking issues and lower speeds because of bandwidth throttling.

GhostBear by TunnelBear

GhostBear was developed by TunnelBear VPN providers. GhostBear makes VPN traffic less detectable on your network, thus making it harder to block. GhostBear is currently available on most desktop and mobile operating systems.

History

The main reason behind the development of GhostBear is the same as every other VPN protocol, and that is to bypass heavy censorship imposed by governments or companies.

Features

It makes your encrypted data less detectable to ISPs or governments. It helps you bypass the firewalls but at the cost of connection speed. GhostBear is available on Windows, macOS, and Android apps.

What Protocols Do the Best VPNs Prefer?

The VPN protocol that is used by most VPN providers is the OpenVPN protocol. One edge it has over other VPN protocols is that it is both fast and secure. A lot of VPNs also favors L2TP/IPSec because of its enhanced security.

IKEv2 is another protocol that is popular among VPNs because of its diverse platform range. VPNs that offer their services on mobile devices prefer this protocol. SSTP is another VPN protocol that is preferred by notable VPNs. SSTP is considered secure, and Microsoft computers come with a built-in VPN.

WireGuard is the fastest VPN protocol, and that made a lot of VPNs opt for using it. The only downside is its lesser security. But since it is still under development, we will surely see a day when this problem is fixed. At that time, WireGuard will become the most commonly used VPN protocol.

Summary

Now that you know about different VPN protocols, we hope that you are able to get the best out of your VPN application. OpenVPN will be the ideal choice for most users as it is fast and secure. It is also open source, so if you happen to be a developer, you can download configuration files and tweak them to your liking.

The other solutions have their benefits, but they have drawbacks as well. SSTP fixes the issue of the firewall but can eventually succumb to the meltdown of TCP. L2TP, on the other hand, is fast and secure but is blocked easily by firewalls. The only exception will be IKEv2, which has a lot of upside for smartphone users, though potentially inferior to OpenVPN.

So the final choice rests with you. By knowing your needs, you can opt for the best VPN protocol for yourself.

Tim Robinson

Tim Robinson

I research, write, and publish about VPN and other privacy tools.

My first VPN setup was over ten years ago, and since then, it is an essential part of my internet experience. I surf the internet, stream, and work with a VPN.