Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are a great way to improve digital privacy and security. They transmit your data to remote servers via a secure communication channel. The guideline that supports this communication is called the VPN protocol.
There are many VPN protocols available. Some are new, while others have been under constant development over many years. Understanding the various options available can help you choose the best protocol for your device.
If you aren’t yet familiar with VPNs, it’s best to read our VPN beginner’s guide first.
What Is A VPN Protocol?
OpenVPN is one of the best well-established VPN protocols. (Source: Surfshark
VPN protocols are the most vital ingredient in a VPN. These protocols include instructions that guide how your device communicates with VPN servers. The most fundamental function areas are encryption and authentication.
Because of its instrumental role, the best VPN protocol must be fast and secure. It also must be compatible with as many commonly-used devices as possible. Several types of VPN protocols are available today, each with its benefits and drawbacks.
“WireGuard speeds are incredible, but this protocol hasn’t yet proven its security.”
For those who may have heard of it and wondered, “What is WireGuard?” the news is exciting. WireGuard is the latest and, allegedly, the best VPN protocol of the new millennium. It aims to replace other protocols by being faster, simpler, and more secure. WireGuard is also supposed to be easier to audit than OpenVPN, potentially decreasing vulnerability.
While this sounds fantastic, WireGuard is also extremely new. It was considered an experimental protocol until 2020 before the first stable version was released. Since then, it has gained rapid adoption among many top-tier VPN providers, in part or whole.
For example, brands like Surfshark adopt WireGuard “as is,” while NordVPN modified it and uses the amended version as NordLynx.
When to use WireGuard
WireGuard is new and not completely accepted in the VPN community. However, its stunning performance and stability make it a top choice for almost any modern device – desktop or mobile.
Pros and cons of WireGuard
- ✓ Fast, stable performance across all platforms
- ✓ Highly secure
- ✓ Fast encryption and decryption
- ✓ Less taxing on system resources
- • Still very new
- • Some privacy concerns (potentially DNS leaks)
“OpenVPN is better for those still wary of new protocols like WireGuard.”
OpenVPN is a robust and highly flexible protocol that emerged in the early 2000s. James Yonan created the protocol in response to a need for a more secure and stable way to connect. It’s available to the public as an open-source development.
OpenVPN uses all the encryption, authentication, and certification features the OpenSSL library provides to create a secure private network connection. All devices connected over the secured connection pass traffic through the same encrypted tunnel.
This VPN protocol uses a custom version of SSL v3/TLS v1 for security. The SSL layer protects against tampering or message forgery during transport and ensures that all data passed between a client and server remains confidential.
When to use OpenVPN
OpenVPN is for those who want the best speed and stability on powerful devices. However, this is only true if you prefer a more mature protocol than WireGuard. If not, WireGuard is a much better choice.
Pros and cons of OpenVPN
- ✓ Excellent security
- ✓ Good community support
- ✓ Can bypass firewalls easily
- ✓ Can support various encryption algorithms
- • High device overhead
- • Blocked by some proxies
“Use IKEv2 if you want a reliable and fast protocol for mobile devices.”
IKEv2 is well-supported by mobile devices, and it’s also faster than other protocols. A large reason for this is less operational overhead compared to many other protocols. Before the introduction of WireGuard, IKEv2 was the most vital VPN protocol for smartphones, tablets, and other mobile-format devices.
Another strong reason for the popularity of IKEv2 is its relatively high level of security. It uses Diffie-Hellman key exchange and AES-256 encryption. However, this security is only valid if both ends of the VPN tunnel remain secure.
When to use IKEv2
The most obvious use case for IKEv2 is for mobile formats. However, it also works well for lightweight desktop environments like slower laptops or Chromebooks. Where possible you can consider WireGuard as an alternative.
Pros and cons of IKEv2
- ✓ Good performance
- ✓ Excellent security
- ✓ Low latency
- ✓ Extremely stable
- • Needs customization for older devices
- • Proprietary design (owned by Microsoft and Cisco)
- • Must use UDP port 500
“SSTP is not common with VPN providers skittish of using a proprietary development.”
SSTP (Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol) is a Microsoft-developed protocol that uses SSL to establish a secure, encrypted connection from your computer to the VPN server. Your traffic will be safe even on an unprotected network, such as free WiFi at an airport or coffee shop.
While SSTP is one of the most secure protocols, it does have its downsides. As with other older protocols like PPTP and L2TP/IPsec, it doesn’t support IPv6 address space or Universal Plug-and-Play.
When to use SSTP
If a mature security system is your priority, then SSTP is ideal. The good old “tried and true” model remains secure, albeit somewhat unwieldy.
Pros and cons of SSTP
- ✓ Reasonable performance
- ✓ Strong security
- ✓ Hard to detect and block
- • Less widely available
- • Proprietary design (owned by Microsoft)
- • Significant known issues
“While you may find L2TP/IPSec on some VPN providers today, it’s in the minority.”
L2TP/IPSec combines Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol (L2TP) and Internet Protocol Security (IPSec). L2TP acts as the tunneling protocol, while IPSec helps manage the security of the communication.
L2TP uses UDP ports 1701 or 500 for tunnel protection by default, but these ports are changeable if required. IPSec offers end-to-end encryption by encrypting each packet before sending it across your network or connecting it with another device.
When to use L2TP/IPSec
This combination also shows its age but can be applicable in specific scenarios. One example is mobile users who cannot adapt to other options due to a fixed environment.
Pros and cons of L2TP/IPSec
- ✓ Reasonable performance
- ✓ Strong security profile
- ✓ Native on Windows and macOS
- ✓ Easily portable to other systems
- • Taxing on system resources
- • Easily detected and blocked
- • Allegedly compromised by the NSA
“An industry stalwart standard, PPTP is now out of date and vogue.”
Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol, or PPTP, is one of the oldest VPN protocols. Developed by a consortium of technology companies, including Microsoft, PPTP first emerged in the late 1990s.
PPTP works by establishing a connection from your device to a VPN server via TCP port 1723. The VPN then uses that connection to maintain a “tunnel” for data transmission.
While this seems straightforward, the years have not been kind to PPTP. Decades of research scrutiny have revealed many security loopholes in PPTP. However, these shortcomings do come with unique benefits, such as the capability of supporting older, less secure systems.
When to use PPTP
PPTP is outdated and has glaring security flaws. It’s best to avoid this protocol unless you have an ancient device that won’t support anything else.
Pros and cons of PPTP
- ✓ Easy and cheap to implement
- ✓ Can support many older devices
- ✓ Well-established support system
- • Poor security
- • Not suitable for unstable connections
- • Easily detected and blocked
How To Choose The Right VPN Protocol
When it comes to choosing the best VPN protocol, there are a few things you need to keep in mind. These elements can heavily influence your choice;
Not all VPN protocols can sustain the same speeds. WireGuard, for example, is the fastest across almost all devices compared to other protocols.
Some VPN protocols don’t perform well when devices need to swap across multiple networks. In these cases, you need a more agile option like IKEv2 or WireGuard.
VPN brands won’t always offer all protocols available. For example, some, like ExpressVPN, adopt other less-common protocols. Others have yet to implement Wireguard, and some have phased out older protocols like PPTP.
New protocols often offer faster speeds, but this comes at the price of being relatively untested for vulnerabilities. A more established choice like OpenVPN is better if you need security assurance.
Final Thoughts – The Right Choice Depends On Your Needs
VPN protocols are, as you might expect, there to do one thing: protect your data. But they aren’t created equal, and from a technical standpoint, each protocol has its pros and cons. Because of that, the best protocol for VPN will largely depend on your main concerns.
If you’re looking for some level of privacy and security at blazing-fast speeds, then WireGuard is an excellent choice. For those with more security concerns than speed, OpenVPN has proven its mettle over the years.