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What is a VPN Tunnel? And how does it work?

By Tibor Moes / September 2022

What is a VPN Tunnel? And how does it work?

VPN Tunnel

VPNs, or virtual private networks, are among the most advertised privacy services available to consumers. People use both free browser extensions and paid subscription to tunnel data through secure connections.

But what is a VPN tunnel, and why is it important? The answer is less confusing than you might think.

Summary:

 

  • The connection between a device and a VPN server is called a VPN tunnel. The purpose of the tunnel is to encrypt the data that’s transmitted and to hide to real IP address of the device.
  • The VPN allows users to remain anonymous while browsing the web and prevents the tracking of their digital footprint by internet service providers (ISPs), government agencies, marketers, and others.

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

What is a VPN Tunnel?

A VPN tunnel, also known as a virtual private network tunnel, is a method used to mask online activities. Essentially, it’s the encrypted link shared by a device and a third-party network.

How VPN Tunnels Work

Using VPN tunneling or using a VPN are interchangeable expressions. When you use a VPN, you’re using VPN tunneling to connect to a device, server, or network.

This activity-masking process requires registering with a VPN service provider or installing a VPN app. Once users launch the app, they can visit websites without showing their real IP address.

That’s because VPN tunneling routes connections through one or more VPN servers. Although online activities can still be monitored, third parties won’t know the real location of the IP address that initiated a specific online action.

Industry experts sometimes call this data encapsulation and encryption that enables carrying data packets safely, even through non-secured environments. Data packets are insulated from each other even when sharing the same network. Adding encryption on top makes the insulated data packets invisible or unreadable.

The Split Tunneling Alternative

VPN tunneling has many benefits regarding privacy and data security. But in reality, not every connection must go through a virtual private network. Tunneling has plenty of drawbacks, depending on the VPN app’s coding, the protocols used, and other factors.

For example, VPNs may add significant lag to some connections or limit users’ download and upload speeds. Websites and internet services, like banking apps, may flag VPN tunneling.

Changing someone’s location to appear as if they’re in another country can raise geo-restriction issues. Local web services and local search engine results are also affected by VPN tunneling. Multitaskers may find it inefficient to switch VPN tunneling on and off every few minutes.

But VPN service providers do a great job of resolving these issues. The answer is split tunneling.

This process enables users to customize the tunneling process. Instead of all online activities receiving the VPN treatment, only chosen ones go through the tunnel. For instance, users can connect to a foreign Netflix library in their browser while still playing a video game on a local server or downloading torrents freely using their standard ISP connection.

Split tunneling is in great demand due to the higher level of tunneling customization users can implement in their VPN apps. Split tunneling is preferred unless absolutely necessary because regular tunneling can significantly bottleneck internet connections.

VPN Tunnels Have Different Protocols

Contrary to popular belief, VPN tunnels can vary and offer different performance levels. Each VPN provider works on distinguishing its tunneling process to create a unique user experience.

But VPN tunnels couldn’t work without having clear protocols that dictate how to create, encrypt, and authenticate connections. The difference between VPN tunneling experiences is given by the VPN tunneling protocol behind them.

Types of VPN Protocols

Each protocol has specific instructions or rules determining how data is transmitted and encrypted during VPN tunneling. The most popular tunneling protocols include the following.

· OpenVPN

· IPSec

· PPTP

· L2TP

· IKEv2

· SSTP

OpenVPN Protocol

The OpenVPN protocol is the most widely used of all. Aside from its flexibility and stability, this protocol is open-source and transparent. This is why it’s versatile and trusted among users, providers, and developers.

Tunneling using OpenVPN means using either UDP (User Datagram Protocol) or TCP (Transmission Control Protocol) to set the rules of connection security and data packets transfer encryption. A UDP connection enables higher transfer speeds at the cost of less stability. TCP connections are slower but provide better security and reliable connection uptime.

IPSec or Internet Protocol Security

Designed for top-level authentication and encryption, IPSec enables VPN software to insulate individual IP packets. But unlike other protocols, IPSec isn’t a standalone solution and is often used in combination with other protocols for a better VPN tunneling experience.

PPTP or Point to Point Tunneling Protocol

In 1999, the world received its first VPN tunneling protocol called PPTP. Back then, its main use was setting the rules for tunneling dial-up internet traffic.

PPTP is lightning-fast but has serious security vulnerabilities and little to no encryption potential. Although some VPN providers still offer PPTP support, many dropped it due to its limitations.

L2TP or Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol

L2TP is a popular tunneling protocol that can create connections without having to encrypt data packets or authenticate devices. When used alone, it offers very few benefits, considering the reasons people use VPN tunneling in the first place.

However, it can work with IPSec. L2TP/IPSec protocols allow decent transfer speeds and feature AES-256 encryption to protect connections.

It’s important to note that L2TP/IPSec relies on fixed ports. This choice makes connections vulnerable to VPN-blocking software used by streaming platforms and other websites. Therefore, its list of applications isn’t very long.

IKEv2 or Internet Key Exchange Version 2

IKEv2 is a tunneling protocol and the natural successor to the original Internet Key Exchange, an old protocol used in communication channel security.

Microsoft developed it in collaboration with Cisco and has shown incredible connection stability. IKEv2 is reliable in business applications where uptime is of utmost importance. The protocol works on mobile devices and desktop computers.

IKEv2 isn’t compatible with many operating systems. As a Microsoft-developed protocol, Linux-based systems don’t work with standard IKEv2. VPN providers address this issue by customizing the code in various applications and using an open-source IKEv2.

SSTP or Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol

SSTP was introduced to the public with Windows Vista. Microsoft’s protocol saw broad implementation in early web page security measures. Unfortunately, it’s not a flexible VPN tunneling solution due to its limited adjustability.

This design issue also makes it less effective on operating systems other than Windows. Although it still exists and can be selected in various VPN apps, it’s not nearly as popular as most of its alternatives. Some VPN providers, like ExpressVPN, even discontinued their support for SSTP tunneling.

What VPN Tunneling Features are Important, and When?

VPN tunneling can be used for everything or just highly specific applications. The most common uses include the following.

  • Streaming
  • Bypassing content restrictions
  • Masking VoIP calls
  • Using Public Wi-Fi
  • Peer-to-peer (P2P) file transfers
  • Overcoming ISP bandwidth throttling
  • Multitasking with local and remote internet access
  • Terminating connections and sensitive apps

VPN tunneling protocols must meet certain requirements and possess key features based on these uses.

Streaming

Excellent speed and masking capabilities are the most essential when choosing a VPN for online streaming. The more speed the protocol allows, the less buffering users experience. In addition, strong authentication clocking makes it easier to bypass content access restrictions.

Bypassing Content Restrictions

Not all people use VPN tunneling to unlock foreign content libraries on streaming platforms. VPNs are also helpful in granting access to various censored or banned websites. In these situations, the strongest encryption protocols are preferred. Secure connections are hard to monitor and track, and can pass undetected by VPN surveillance software.

Masking VoIP Calls

Again, top-notch security is the main requirement to ensure users can clock their VoIP calls. The stronger the encryption, the more futile surveillance methods become.

Using Public Wi-Fi

Tunneling security and privacy features are crucial when using a VPN to connect to public Wi-Fi networks. Wi-Fi networks rarely have good security in place. Therefore, every connected device is responsible for its own security.

A reliable VPN protocol with high-end security features and strong encryption helps protect user data and communications on the shared Wi-Fi network.

Peer-to-Peer (P2P) File Transfers

Downloading files from torrents and other similar P2P platforms can leave users vulnerable to ISP surveillance. Security and privacy should be top priorities when choosing a tunneling protocol.

Overcoming ISP Bandwidth Throttling

ISP bandwidth throttling is common all over the world. Many users don’t even realize it’s an issue.

The practice involves intentionally slowing the speed of various internet services to regulate network traffic. While ISPs claim this reduces bandwidth congestion and optimizes network communications, this isn’t always the case. Users might be unaware that they’re not using their connection to its fullest potential.

Since VPN tunneling can hide people’s online activities even from ISPs, the right protocol features and configuration will mask who uses certain services and from where. Hence, throttling no longer affects users.

Multitasking With Local and Remote Internet Access

A user might want to stream a movie on their favorite platform and access certain geo-restricted websites simultaneously. In this scenario, using a VPN to protect all connections might force users to connect to a different content library.

Conducting Google searches may yield entirely different local results. People’s gaming experience can suffer. There are many reasons why keeping VPNs turned on at all times isn’t a good idea.

Multitaskers may need a specific feature called split tunneling. It enables customizing the list of internet services that pass through the tunnel and which generally connect through the ISP connection.

Terminating Connections and Sensitive Apps

No VPN tunneling can guarantee 100% uptime on a connection’s encryption and security. Like all other servers, VPN servers may go down. When that happens, users may remain connected to the internet service but automatically lose their VPN-granted privacy privileges.

In other words, third parties can monitor and log the user’s online activity.

Avoiding these situations requires a specific feature called a kill switch. This tunneling feature enables the VPN app to control devices or apps when a set of conditions apply. Disconnecting from the VPN server can trigger several actions, from disconnecting the user’s internet connection to closing the app.

Stopping data activity at the moment of the VPN server disconnection stops traffic and doesn’t allow ISPs, government agencies, and other entities to see what the user is doing.

Optimize Your VPN Tunneling

Reaching your goals with VPN tunneling requires two elements. First, you want a reliable VPN app that can take advantage of various protocols and access numerous servers. Secondly, you want to pick the correct tunneling protocol for the task at hand. Configuring your VPN every now and then is recommended.

Resources

 

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a VPN connection?

A VPN connection is a type of encrypted connection that gets routed through one or more proxy servers before the user reaches their destination.

What is the difference between a VPN and a VPN tunnel?

A VPN is a virtual private network. A tunnel is the process of transmitting VPN data packets through a secured connection.

Can you be tracked with a vpn?

VPN connection encryption differs between tunneling protocols and VPN software. Tracking can still be possible if the VPN doesn’t have good security.

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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