What is a VPN Protocol? Everything You Need to Know

By Tibor Moes / Updated: June 2023

What is a VPN Protocol? Everything You Need to Know (2023)

What is a VPN Protocol?

Are you concerned about your online privacy and security? Understanding what a VPN protocol is, can be crucial to ensure a safe and secure browsing experience. In this guide, we’ll delve into the world of VPN protocols, explore their functions, and compare the most common ones to help you make an informed decision when choosing a VPN service.

We will provide a comprehensive overview of various VPN protocols, compare their features, discuss security concerns, and offer guidance on selecting the right one for your needs. By the end of this blog post, you’ll have a better understanding of the role that VPN protocols play in establishing secure and private connections.

Summary

  • A VPN protocol determines the settings of your VPN connection, ensuring a secure and private connection between your device and the VPN server.

  • Each protocol is a compromise between speed, security, stability, and ease of setup. Some might focus on speed at the expense of security, while others try to balance them.

  • Modern protocols like WireGuard, OpenVPN, and IKEv2 are considered the top choices due to their security, speed, and lack of known vulnerabilities.

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Understanding VPN Protocols

A VPN protocol is a set of instructions that dictate how to establish a VPN connection, ensuring secure and private connections between devices and servers. Different VPN protocols have unique parameters, such as authentication techniques, error correction types, address formats, and data packet sizes. Knowing the most common VPN protocols and their functions is essential for setting up secure connections and maintaining your online privacy.

To better comprehend VPN protocols, let’s first explore what a VPN is and how these protocols work to create secure connections.

What is a VPN?

A VPN, or virtual private network, is a secure and private connection established over a public network to protect your online traffic from prying eyes. Considering the process, imagine you are sending a package via post in real life. Consider the important steps you might have taken to send the package. The package (your data) is wrapped securely to ensure its contents remain private and protected from unauthorized access during transit.

When it comes to VPN protocols, there’s a trade-off between security and speed. Encryption and verification can slow down data delivery. Therefore, protocols with less encryption and verification will be faster. However, this means your online traffic won’t be as secure.

How do VPN protocols work?

VPN protocols are responsible for establishing and maintaining secure connections between devices and servers. They handle two main tasks: authentication and encryption. The encryption standards and authentication methods used by VPNs determine the level of speed and security for users.

Different VPN protocols have unique rules for handling potential issues, which can influence their stability and reliability. With a solid understanding of VPNs and how their protocols work, let’s dive into the most common VPN protocols used today.

The Most Common VPN Protocols

There are several popular VPN protocols, including OpenVPN, IKEv2/IPsec, WireGuard, L2TP/IPSec, SSTP, and PPTP. Modern protocols like WireGuard, OpenVPN, and IKEv2 are considered the top choices due to their security, speed, and lack of known vulnerabilities. VPN providers, such as Surfshark, offer multiple protocols to ensure compatibility with various routers and operating systems.

Now, let’s examine the features, strengths, and weaknesses of these common VPN protocols in more detail.

OpenVPN

OpenVPN is the gold-industry standard of VPN protocols, known for its open-source nature and utilization of the OpenSSL library and other security technologies. OpenVPN offers top-notch security, fast connection speeds, and dependability, with the ability to work with routers. Being open-source allows experts worldwide to review it for security flaws and other issues.

However, OpenVPN requires a third-party app and can be more complicated to set up than other protocols like PPTP or L2TP. OpenVPN typically uses the strongest encryption available, such as AES encryption with a 128-bit block size, providing excellent security without performance issues.

IKEv2/IPsec

IKEv2/IPsec is a fast and secure VPN protocol, making it an excellent choice for mobile devices regardless of their platform. It is known for its stability, swiftness, and safety. However, IKEv2 lacks native support for Linux, and its strict licensing makes it difficult to audit.

Despite its limitations, IKEv2/IPsec is primarily geared toward mobile users who require a secure and private connection. Its MOBIKE support allows it to handle network changes and maintain the VPN connection.

WireGuard

WireGuard is a modern VPN protocol that offers impressive connection speeds with maximum security. It’s lightweight, easy to set up or update, and is still in the early stages of development, leaving room for improvement. WireGuard’s high performance and efficient encryption contribute to its speed.

However, WireGuard’s standard setup stores logs of your static IP address, posing a potential privacy issue for users. NordLynx, built around WireGuard, is an example of a proprietary VPN protocol that addresses this concern.

L2TP/IPSec

L2TP/IPSec is a VPN protocol combining Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol and Internet Protocol Security to create a secure tunnel and handle authentication. It is reliable and can be a great backup if other protocols fail. However, L2TP/IPSec is slower compared to other protocols due to its double encapsulation, and its use of fixed ports makes it easy to block.

Given these drawbacks, L2TP/IPSec is better suited for anonymization rather than security. Other protocols like OpenVPN provide stronger levels of security.

SSTP

SSTP, or Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol, is a Microsoft-developed protocol that offers strong encryption and can bypass firewalls. It is reliable and tailored for Windows users, providing better security than L2TP and PPTP. SSTP’s ability to run over port 443 allows it to easily bypass firewalls.

However, SSTP is not open-source, raising concerns about potential backdoors due to Microsoft’s work with law enforcement.

PPTP

PPTP, or Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol, is an older VPN protocol known for its compatibility and speed. However, PPTP has potential security vulnerabilities due to an exploit on MS-CHAP v2, making it unsuitable for privacy and security.

Given its outdated nature, PPTP is not recommended for use today, as other VPN protocols offer better security and privacy features.

Comparing VPN Protocols

When comparing VPN protocols, consider factors like speed, security, stability, and ease of setup. Some of the fastest VPN protocols include Lightway, OpenVPN, IKEv2, and WireGuard, while PPTP is the quickest without encryption, but not advisable.

OpenVPN and IKEv2 are considered the most secure options, with OpenVPN TCP being the most stable. Understanding the differences between VPN protocols helps in selecting the most suitable one for your needs.

Choosing the Right VPN Protocol for Your Needs

Selecting the right VPN protocol depends on your use case, operating system, and any restrictions you may face. Surfshark, for example, recommends WireGuard or IKEv2 for general use and OpenVPN for setting up a VPN on your router.

For specific use cases, Lightway is easy to use, while OpenVPN, IKEv2/IPsec, and WireGuard are ideal for privacy. Speed seekers should consider NordLynx (built around Wireguard) and IKEv2.

For streaming media, IKEv2, L2TP/IPSec, and OpenVPN in UDP mode are suitable choices. Gamers can opt for IKEv2 or WireGuard, and torrenters are best served by OpenVPN.

Proprietary VPN Protocols

Proprietary VPN protocols are specially designed and owned by VPN providers for their services. These protocols offer benefits like a light code base, strong cryptography with Perfect Forward Secrecy, support for both UDP and TCP, stability, performance, and more.

However, proprietary protocols are not open-source, meaning only the providers know what’s happening under the hood. While this may raise concerns for some users, proprietary protocols typically do not pose a significant risk and can offer unique advantages.

VPN Protocol Security Concerns

VPN protocols may have potential vulnerabilities that could affect your security and privacy. PPTP, for example, was cracked quickly due to an exploit on MS-CHAP v2, making it unsuitable for privacy and security. Edward Snowden and John Gilmore have suggested that IPSec encryption, used by L2TP/IPsec, may have been deliberately weakened by the NSA.

When considering different VPN protocols, it’s essential to be aware of these security issues and choose a protocol that offers robust encryption and authentication to protect your online privacy and security.

Summary

Understanding VPN protocols is crucial for maintaining online privacy and security. In this guide, we’ve explored the most common VPN protocols, their features, strengths, and weaknesses, and provided guidance on selecting the right one for your needs. OpenVPN, IKEv2/IPsec, and WireGuard are among the most secure and reliable options, while proprietary VPN protocols can offer unique advantages.

Now that you have a better understanding of VPN protocols, you can make informed decisions when choosing a VPN service, ensuring that your online activities remain private, secure, and optimized for performance. Stay safe and happy browsing!

How to stay safe online:

  • Practice Strong Password Hygiene: Use a unique and complex password for each account. A password manager can help generate and store them. In addition, enable two-factor authentication (2FA) whenever available.
  • Invest in Your Safety: Buying the best antivirus for Windows 11 is key for your online security. A high-quality antivirus like Norton, McAfee, or Bitdefender will safeguard your PC from various online threats, including malware, ransomware, and spyware.
  • Be Wary of Phishing Attempts: Be cautious when receiving suspicious communications that ask for personal information. Legitimate businesses will never ask for sensitive details via email or text. Before clicking on any links, ensure the sender's authenticity.
  • Stay Informed. We cover a wide range of cybersecurity topics on our blog. And there are several credible sources offering threat reports and recommendations, such as NIST, CISA, FBI, ENISA, Symantec, Verizon, Cisco, Crowdstrike, and many more.

Happy surfing!

Frequently Asked Questions

Below are the most frequently asked questions.

What are the 3 most common VPN protocols?

The most commonly used VPN protocols are IKEv2/IPsec, OpenVPN, and WireGuard. These protocols are considered the top choices due to their security, speed, and lack of known vulnerabilities.

What does changing the VPN protocol do?

Changing the VPN protocol can make a big difference to your connection speed, security, and even access to certain services. Different protocols offer different levels of encryption and provide various features that may be necessary in order to make the most of your connection.

Choosing the right protocol for your needs can be key to getting the best out of your VPN.

Which VPN protocol is best for torrenting?

The best VPN protocol for torrenting appears to be the open-source protocol OpenVPN. It’s known to provide a secure connection and gives users access to high speeds. This is the preferred option for most users looking for a reliable and safe way to download large files.

Author: Tibor Moes

Author: Tibor Moes

Founder & Chief Editor at SoftwareLab

Tibor has tested 39 antivirus programs and 30 VPN services, and holds a Cybersecurity Graduate Certificate from Stanford University.

He uses Norton to protect his devices, CyberGhost for his privacy, and Dashlane for his passwords.

You can find him on LinkedIn or contact him here.