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What is a VPN Protocol? And which are the best?

By Tibor Moes / September 2022

What is a VPN Protocol? And which are the best?

What is a VPN Protocol

VPN protocols can have a significant impact on the user experience. The download speed, the time it takes to connect, and the stability of the connection are all determined by it.

So what is a VPN protocol and which are the best ones?

Summary:

 

  • A VPN protocol determines how your device and the VPN server identify each other and how they transfer data back and forth.
  • This set of rules has a significant influence on how quickly the VPN connection is established, how fast the download and upload speeds are, and how stable and secure the connection is.
  • The most commonly applied VPN protocol is the open-source protocol OpenVPN. Although WireGuard is gaining momentum too, as it is leaner (fewer lines of code) and allows for faster connection speeds.

Tip: Don’t take risks online. Protect your devices against malware with antivirus software and safeguard your online privacy with a VPN.

What is a VPN Protocol and How Does it Work?

A VPN, or virtual private network, establishes a connection between internet-connected devices that goes through a third-party server. A VPN protocol is a well-defined list of instructions that dictate how devices interact and communicate with a VPN server.

Because there are many VPN protocols, they tend to work differently from each other. However, every protocol must provide traffic encryption and device authentication. Almost every VPN protocol performs these basic functions.

Authentication is necessary to ensure that devices communicate with trusted VPN servers. Traffic encryption ensures that communication between devices is unreadable to unauthorized third parties. Depending on the standards set for the encryption and authentication functions, protocols can support various connection speeds and layers of security.

Types of VPN Protocols

In the world of VPN protocols, VPN providers can use common types of protocols or customized protocols. Here are some VPN protocols explained and the most used types of protocols users should know.

Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol (L2TP)

The L2TP protocol is often used to deliver superior connection security, albeit at the expense of speed. It only does that when combined with another VPN protocol called IPsec.

As a standalone protocol, L2TP is nothing more than a simple tunneling protocol capable of establishing a connection without encryption or authentication functions. But using it with the IPsec protocol enables VPN providers to add AES-256 encryption to connections.

IPsec (Internet Protocol Security)

The IPsec protocol is specifically designed to authenticate and encrypt individual IP packets and data packets. Rarely used on its own, the IPsec protocol complements others, like the L2TP, and gives them more security, anonymity, and device authentication functionality.

OpenVPN

OpenVPN is arguably the most well-known VPN protocol because many providers rely on it to deliver a high-quality user experience. The most interesting aspect of the OpenVPN protocol is its flexibility and customizable nature.

It’s an open-source solution that can easily pass as regular internet traffic. This makes it difficult for various filters and firewalls to flag the traffic.

OpenVPN runs on two internet protocols called User Datagram Protocol (UDP) and Transmission Control Protocol (TCP). Many VPN applications allow users to switch freely between the two connection types.

· UDP enables users to transfer data faster but is less reliable, and often experiences data packet losses

· TCP sacrifices some speed to offer better security and more stable connections

Point to Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP)

While OpenVPN is overly popular, PPTP is one of the oldest VPN protocols. It dates back to 1999, when its first function was to allow tunneling for dial-up traffic.

Its age and primary purpose make it one of the weakest protocols offered by VPN service providers. PPTP has many security vulnerabilities but compensates with impressive speeds and a beginner-friendly setup.

Some VPN apps have discontinued support for PPTP because it only offers bare-minimum functionality. The popular NordVPN is a great example.

Internet Key Exchange Version 2 (IKEv2)

The IKEv2 protocol can create encrypted and authenticated connections. It’s the brainchild of a Microsoft and Cisco collaboration.

IKEv2 connections are stable, secure, and fast, with stability being its strongest selling point. Together with IPsec, IKEv2 delivers reliable tunneling for desktop and mobile devices. Unlike other protocols, like OpenVPN, IKEv2 doesn’t have a lot of compatibility with many systems.

Some operating systems, like Linux, don’t have native support, meaning the IKEv2 may require additional customization. These situations can be addressed by using open-source versions of IKEv2. One VPN provider that does this is ExpressVPN.

WireGuard

WireGuard is the VPN industry’s newest creation. The protocol resolves many inconsistencies and vulnerabilities found in IPsec and OpenVPN protocols.

Unlike many of its alternatives, WireGuard contains much fewer lines of code. Its simplistic design is highly efficient and enables easier patching and implementation. The protocol comes with Poly1305 authentication packages and ChaCha20 encryption.

WireGuard offers cross-platform functionality and works just as well on a desktop computer, smartphone, and backbone router. Its choice of features and efficient coding enable superior data transfer speeds and make it less resource-hungry.

Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol (SSTP)

Another Microsoft-developed protocol, SSTP, launched at the same time as Windows Vista. It’s been around for a few years and is one of the earliest encryption solutions for web page security.

SSTP has decent functionality but is limited in performance and scope. Users can’t configure much about the protocol, and other operating systems have a hard time implementing SSTP. Therefore, it’s not as widely available or popular.

ExpressVPN has dropped SSTP from its list of supported protocols.

Custom VPN Protocol Example

As stated above, some VPN providers come up with custom solutions for VPN apps. Lightway, by ExpressVPN, is an excellent example.

Lightway is a modern VPN protocol that ditches obsolete features and functions to focus on creating smooth and secure connections. This protocol has an interesting feature that enables devices to remain connected to a VPN when bouncing between networks.

Like WireGuard, Lightway consumes fewer resources, making it a great choice for mobile devices and laptops. Its ability to establish connections faster than any other protocol is one of the main benefits.

To secure connections, Lightway relies on the cryptography library of wolfSSL. Developers can access the Lightway open-source code on GitHub and customize it for UDP and TCP connections and various unique applications.

Other Proprietary VPN Protocols to Consider

Although Lightway is transparent, not all custom VPN protocols are the same. For example, NordVPN created a tunneling protocol called NordLynx. This proprietary protocol has impressive speed, good security, and many firewall-bypassing capabilities. Another proprietary protocol is Catapult Hydra from Hotspot Shield.

The biggest difference between these and other custom protocols is the level of transparency. NordLynx and Catapult Hydra aren’t open-source. It means they’re not easy to review and audit.

This shouldn’t make them less trusted as viable solutions for connection encryption and online privacy. But it does make them harder to compare to common tunneling protocols.

Who Gets the Title of Most Secure VPN Protocol?

Different VPN protocols can offer varying layers of security and reliability. Between the underlying code and select cryptography libraries, some VPN protocols simply outclass others.

Four protocols come to mind when discussing high-level security.

· OpenVPN

· IKEv2

· L2TP

· Lightway

Each of these protocols offers decent security and encryption, and can do a good job of protecting data packets and providing anonymous browsing. However, Lightway is viewed by many as the top choice for users with extra security concerns.

Thanks to the wolfSSL encryption and rigorous underlying code auditing, Lightway is the most transparent and security-focused VPN protocol.

OpenVPN probably comes in second place due to its customization possibilities and thorough vetting conducted over the years.

The Fastest VPN Protocol

It may surprise some users to know that PPTP is easily the fastest VPN protocol by a large margin. But that doesn’t make it a terrific choice. PPTP has plenty of vulnerabilities and lacks compatibility with many popular operating systems.

The fastest VPN protocol that enjoys broad adoption could be WireGuard. Lightway and OpenVPN are close in terms of performance. And, of course, every VPN provider probably dubs its custom protocol as superior to others.

Despite some industry bias, WireGuard, OpenVPN, and Lightway are excellent choices for users who want speed.

VPN Protocols for Streaming

Certain streaming applications may require using different VPN protocols. For instance, WireGuard offers amazing performance when watching streaming platforms. But bypassing geo-restrictions and firewalls might be easier with IKEv2 or OpenVPN set to the UDP mode.

VPN Protocols for Downloading

Peer-to-peer (P2P) downloads depend on connection stability and bandwidth. And since most, if not all, VPN apps limit the speed to some degree, some protocols are preferable to others.

Downloading with an OpenVPN UDP tunneling protocol is a great idea. The same goes for WireGuard, thanks to its renowned speed superiority.

VPN Protocols for Privacy

OpenVPN, WireGuard, and Lightway are among the most popular choices for maintaining anonymity and masking digital footprints. But the protocol is only as good as the VPN app that implements it.

Although OpenVPN is highly customizable in this regard, WireGuard might be the better default option to bypass firewalls, hide from internet service providers (ISPs,) and communicate freely over the internet.

Experiment to Find the Fit for Your Needs

Switching between different VPN protocols doesn’t hurt. Keep in mind that reviews and comparisons can include bias. Not everyone has the same requirements or uses a VPN for the same purpose. Therefore, users can benefit from trying more than one tunneling protocol.

It’s also important to remember that not all operating systems and devices support all protocols. Even if a VPN app supports multiple protocols, it doesn’t mean all of them can establish secure and stable connections. Testing different configurations helps users find the best fit for various online applications, like hiding from ISPs, encrypting communications, and bypassing firewalls.

Resources

 

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the latest vpn protocol?

WireGuard is the latest VPN protocol developed and has already gained a massive loyal following. NordVPN has even created a proprietary protocol based on WireGuard, called Nordlynx.

What is the best vpn protocol to use?

Due to being reliable for years and thanks to its transparency, OpenVPN is arguably the best VPN protocol users can select when launching a VPN app.

What is the most stable vpn protocol?

Many users, VPN service providers, and developers agree that IKEv2/IPsec offers the strongest connection stability. It could be the most reliable protocol when connection uptime is more important than everything else.

Author: Tibor Moes

Author: Tibor Moes

Founder & Chief Editor at SoftwareLab

Tibor is a Dutch engineer and entrepreneur. He has tested security software since 2014.

Over the years, he has tested most leading antivirus software for Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS, as well as many VPN providers.

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

This website is hosted on a Digital Ocean server via Cloudways and is built with DIVI on WordPress.

You can find him on LinkedIn or contact him here.

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