VPN protocols explained the easy way (know which one is the best)
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Each passing day you read about data breaches. The need to stay secure online has moved up a notch, and the best way to mask your identity online is by using a VPN.
The primary function of a Virtual Private Network (VPN) is to hide your browsing data and several other things. The tool does its job by changing your IP address, encrypting your data, and ensuring that the data is undetectable.
All that becomes possible with the help of VPN protocols. Therefore, it’s always critical to check what protocols they offer whenever you’re selecting a VPN provider.
Now, that brings us to the question; do you know what a VPN protocol is? What are the types of VPN protocols? What sets each of them apart?
The truth is that there are a plethora of VPN protocols, with each of them suitable for specific types of activities online.
Fortunately for you, we’ve got your back covered. If you’re looking to dig deeper into the world of VPNs and understand how they work, then you’re in the right place.
Let’s get started with a detailed VPN protocols explanation and comparison.
What’s a VPN protocol?
First thing first, are you well-versed with VPN protocols meaning?
VPN protocols determine how your data gets routed via a VPN connection, meaning that it’s the one that determines communication between the VPN server and your computer.
Various protocols have different specifications that are based on unique benefits as well as the desired circumstances. For instance, some VPN protocols prioritize speed while others mainly focus on security and privacy.
Therefore, at its core, a VPN protocol is merely a mix of encryption standards and transmission protocols.
Major VPN protocols
Perhaps you could be asking yourself the question; which VPN protocol should I use?
Now, if that’s your question, you’re not alone. Besides, selecting a VPN protocol that suits your needs is not a walk in the park. You must weigh your needs and go only with the right one.
Therefore, you should be aware that there’re two kinds of VPN protocols. One category is excellent for security, while the other provides arguably the best streaming speeds. None offers the best of both worlds.
Here are the most common VPN protocols;
Each protocol that VPNs use poses its pros and cons, as we’re about to learn, but if you’re in a hurry, here’s a quick guide for you;
- OpenVPN will be ideal when the third-party app majorly handles the setup
- SSTP is an excellent option for Windows, assuming that you fully trust the proprietary tech from Microsoft
- L2TP/IPSec is widely used as it offers excellent security
- IKEv2 is the ideal alternative for mobile devices, whereby it’s fast and secure
- Wireguard promises speed and efficiency; however, it does have its privacy drawbacks
- PPTP should be your last resort if absolutely needed
Now let’s dive deep into what exactly each VPN protocol does and the VPN protocols comparison. And then we will talk about which VPN protocol is the best for you to consider.
Most of the early VPN protocols were merely developed by Microsoft engineers, together with other technology companies. However, over time, the open-source movement gained steam, which led to the developers turning attention to cybersecurity and resulting in OpenVPN.
OpenVPN was the first VPN protocol to function as an open-source. It’s highly configurable for several ports, as well as VPN protocols encryption types.
Usually, it’s utilized by third-party VPN clients as it’s not built into mobile devices and computers. In fact, it has now increasingly become the default VPN protocol that almost every paid VPN provider uses.
Its speed is not as much as that of PPTP, but equally good as L2TP. Please note speed also depends on your device as well as configuration.
It’s also secure as it uses a custom security protocol that heavily relies on OpenSSL, which is similar to encryption used on the HTTPs websites. The fact that it can be configured for any port means it disguises your VPN traffic as normal internet traffic, hence difficult to block.
Moreover, it supports a plethora of encryption algorithms with AES and Blowfish being the most common.
OpenVPN is available to every popular platform including macOS, Linux, Windows, Android, routers, iOS, and more.
In the past, the VPN protocol faced criticism due to its low speeds, but the recent implementations have boosted OpenVPN speed significantly.
Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol (SSTP) was initially built into the Windows Vista. That is why its popularity today is courtesy of integration with every Microsoft OS.
Most hardcore Windows come with SSTP inbuilt, meaning they’re the ones that mostly use the protocol. The truth is that it doesn’t pose superior advantages over OpenVPN. However, if you’re looking to get around firewalls without any complicated configuration, then it should be the one to go for, unlike L2TP.
Its speed is similar to that of OpenVPN, but is very much secure, assuming that you trust Microsoft. Also, SSTP gets configured using strong AES encryption.
The protocol is straightforward to set up manually, especially on Windows machines. Unfortunately, Mac users cannot and probably will never be able to use it because of its limited support for non-Windows machines. Other systems such as Linux, will also have a relatively hard time.
Also, given that it’s a Microsoft-developed protocol, nobody can entirely audit the underlying code.
Here you might be wondering when and why can I use SSTP? Good question. Below are some situations where we can recommend you to use SSTP:
- You need to get past firewalls reliably.
- You require to use a VPN on the MS Windows machine.
- If you trust Microsoft for keeping your data safe despite its known security shockers.
- When you do not need to use your VPN for torrenting, gaming, or streaming (or other bandwidth-heavy activities).
There’s no denying that you may be skeptical about SSTP. And, there’s no despair as OpenVPN can offer similar benefits without Microsoft baggage.
Generally, L2TP/IPSec is considered an extension and improvement of the PPTP protocol. However, the difference is that it uses double encapsulation: one that sets up a PPTP connection, and the other is having actual IPSec encryption.
There’s no doubt that the double encapsulation makes this protocol more secure. However, it can make it slower than PPTP as traffic first gets converted into L2TP, and then the extra layer of encryption occurs.
It should be noted that L2TP doesn’t provide any encryption on its own, and that’s why it’s paired with IPSec.
Like most other VPN protocols, L2TP/IPSec is straightforward to configure, and it’s usually already built into most of the modern platforms available today. That is why several VPN providers offer access to it.
However, some will go the extra mile by configuring it to ensure that it’s not blocked by NAT firewalls, making it difficult to be exploited by man-in-the-middle attacks.
Therefore, it won’t be wrong to say that L2TP/IPSec is one of the most secure protocols available. The fact that it uses AES-256 bit encryption means that there are no known vulnerabilities even with claims that the NSA Prism Program compromised it as that goes with any proof.
Its only disadvantage is the fact that it defaults to use UDP on port 500. That makes spotting and blocking traffic easier.
So, when and why can you use L2TP/IPSec?
Generally, the L2TP/IPSec protocol is ideal for any average internet user looking for an excellent security level without a lot of time to spend struggling with compatibility.
Point-to-point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP) is another older VPN protocol and has now found its world in folks looking to stream geo-blocked content. All thanks to its high speeds.
The protocol is seamless to configure, and most importantly, it’s already built into several VPN-capable devices and platforms.
Essentially, it’s used for connecting to the internet and the intranet, accessing the corporate office building’s network.
PPTP is one of the fastest VPN protocols given that it features a lower encryption standard. However, as it was initially designed to work with the dial-up connections, and now with technological progress, PPTP doesn’t offer guaranteed security.
It all depends on your needs when you want to use the PPTP protocol. For instance, it has arguably the best connection speed (as it lacks most security features), which makes it a go-to choice when you want to unblock TikTok and other such services and platforms.
Another excellent VPN protocol is Internet Key Exchange Version 2 developed by Cisco and Microsoft. On its own, IKEv2 is merely a tunneling protocol that only provides a secure key exchange session. However, when paired with IPSec, it provides stealthy encryption and authentication.
It’s the best protocol when re-establishing a link after a temporal connection loss. Moreover, it’s an excellent option for switching connections across the network types, such as from WiFi to cellular.
It works best for mobile devices as the protocol reconnects seamlessly whenever a connection drops out. IKEv2 is arguably the fastest VPN protocol that you can consider.
It’s also very secure as it supports many levels of AES encryption. Moreover, similar to L2TP, it uses the IPSec encryption suite. If you want to get away from Microsoft’s proprietary version, open-source versions are available.
Given that it’s the most modern as well as advanced VPN protocol, IKEv2 is very stable and straightforward to setup.
It boasts native support for Windows, Blackberry, and iOS devices. Since IKEv2 is a relatively new entry in the VPN protocols, it supports limited devices compared to others alongside minimum compatibility with older platforms.
Also, as much as it presents itself as a fast protocol, VPN providers are cagey about supporting it due to some practical reasons. For one, it has limited platform support. Secondly, it’s a closed system with corporate interests.
Wireguard is a new VPN protocol that looks to be more secure and faster to set up than all other protocols (even IKv2).
It boasts a smaller and simpler code base while offering all technical advantages. For instance, it provides up-to-date encryption, greater reliability, faster connection times, and exceptionally quicker speeds. All with smaller code-base than the rest of the VPN protocols.
Moreover, given that Wireguard is open-source and uses only a single cryptographic suite, fewer chances for security holes exist in it.
It’s the best option for portable devices. Especially for small embedded devices such as smartphones and the fully-loaded backbone routers alike.
Also, it’s worth noting that with Wireguard your battery life will last longer compared to the other VPN protocols. That is because of the ChaCha20 encryption algorithm that it employs.
The protocol is compatible with most operating systems today. However, since Wireguard is still under the development stage, it doesn’t have much cross-platform compatibility.
While Wireguard supports all other major devices, it works best with Linux currently. More testing is still underway with most VPN providers as they wait for the open-source project to release a more stable version.
What VPN protocol should I use?
Now, that sounds like an easy question, right?
Unfortunately, it can be a complicated question to answer because when it comes to “best VPN protocol,” it solely depends on what you’re looking to do online. It means that what another person considers as the best VPN protocol might be a below-par encryption protocol to others.
However, if you want to have a balance of speed and security, OpenVPN protocol stands out as the best VPN protocol to always consider.
It’s the most recommended VPN protocol, given its array of performance benefits. In fact, the best VPNs, such as ExpressVPN, use OpenVPN as a default protocol.
What makes OpenVPN protocol stand out is that it can bypass several firewalls, offers the highest possible security levels, and is open-source. It also boasts several encryption methods and supports a plethora of cryptic algorithms.
It doesn’t mean that the other VPN protocols are not worth considering; they all are good , too (that is why they sill exist). But again, depending on your needs.
For instance, you can consider PPTP when all you’re looking for is speed, especially when you wish to unblock Netflix and other streaming services.
L2TP/IPSec VPN protocol will be an ideal choice to use when you want to download torrents safely, browse anonymously, access geo-blocked content, and when you won’t mind the drop in the connection speeds.
If you’re using your mobile device, IKEv2 will make an excellent option (especially if you have a BlackBerry device). Also, it’s best when securing online traffic.
For Windows users, SSTP should make a good option as it offers decent online security and speed without the VPN protocol taking much of your CPU power.
Wireguard best fits Linux users, and it’s the option if you’re looking to experiment with a VPN protocol that delivers a great online experience.
Yet, as we noted already, OpenVPN is the best VPN protocol overall. It ticks almost every box from speed, security, and everything you might be looking for in a good VPN protocol.
Is TCP or UDP better for VPN?
Your data transmission depends on the type of network protocol you use. There’re two types of network protocols; Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and User Datagram Protocol (UDP). Both network protocols do the same job only that one is reliable, and the other is faster.
Both are used to transfer data over the internet to a web server from your device.
But which is better – TCP or UDP?
Fortunately, that will depend on what you want to do. For instance, if you’re after faster and constant data transmission, then you should go with UDP as your companion. TCP is only a reliable and stable protocol that you can use to transfer data, while not losing any along the way.
Now, are they compatible with the VPN services available today?
I fact, both work great with OpenVPN. This VPN protocol runs on both UDP and TCP, and both provide privacy and security of the highest level.
Also, here again, choosing the best depends on what you want to use your VPN for. For instance, if you’re a gamer, use VoIP services, or you like streaming, then UDP is the best alternative to TCP. As much as it may lose some packets needed for optimum security, it won’t impact the overall connection much.
On the other hand, if used in such scenarios, TCP may lead to lags that you will definitely not like. Therefore, it’s easy to say that OpenVPN through TCP is ideal for uses like web browsing, emailing, and file transfer.
Is IKEv2 faster than OpenVPN?
It should be noted that IKEv2 can’t be used alone; that’s why it’s always paired with IPSec. It handles the request as well as response actions.
Basically, it ensures that traffic gets secured by merely establishing and handling the security association (SA) within the authentication suite.
IKEv2 offers excellent speeds, all thanks to its improved architecture and efficient response process. Moreover, it boasts MOBIKE, meaning its speeds won’t slow down or even get interrupted whenever you change networks.
Now, the million-dollar question; is IKEv2 faster than OpenVPN?
As you might have guessed with the explanations right above, IKEv2 is faster than OpenVPN. That’s even true when OpenVPN uses the UDP network transmission protocol.
If you’re looking for security online, then choosing the best VPN is a no brainer. And, when choosing a VPN, going only with VPNs that support the protocol you aspire should be your top priority.
Generally, OpenVPN is the ideal protocol if you want to enjoy a smooth, stable, and fast online experience. SSTP and IKEv2 are the other good options if you may not want to consider OpenVPN. Remember only to use PPTP when you need fast connection speeds and that you’re sure there’s no danger to your privacy.
Nevertheless, as much as you know the best VPN protocol for your needs now, it won’t matter if you fail to choose a service supporting it. Pick wisely.
About the author
Douglas is a freelance writer with over six years of experience in article and blog writing who has written in almost every industry with cybersecurity being his primary interest. Mabiria is an advocate for internet privacy, sustainable development, and a green environment. He is very social and enjoys trying new sports as well as implementing new ideas.