A VPN protocol is a crucial element of your VPN connection. It’s a set of instructions or rules that determine how your information travels between your mobile device or PC to the VPN server.
One of the most popular protocols is WireGuard. It uses advanced technology to create robust VPN tunnels and transport your data safely. Many people consider it the best solution.
But what makes WireGuard so good? This article will provide the answer. We’ll discuss how the WireGuard VPN protocol works and if there are any better options.
- WireGuard is an open-source VPN protocol with advanced cryptography. The technology uses state-of-the-art features to connect smartphones and other devices to your VPN server.
- The WireGuard VPN protocol was developed in 2016. Many providers have adopted it due to its lean code, security, and high speed, which is why it’s considered one of the best VPN protocols.
- This VPN connection protocol was designed using the User Datagram Protocol (UDP). This transport layer provides seamless communication between clients and hosts.
How Does the WireGuard Protocol Work?
WireGuard is a cutting-edge VPN protocol, but it’s relatively easy to understand. The main reason is that it doesn’t contain cryptographic mobility (allowing users to choose between different hashing algorithms, key exchange forms, and encryption). Older VPN services relied on this method, resulting in unsafe deployments when combined with other technologies.
By contrast, the WireGuard configuration is comprised of select, thoroughly tested cryptographic primitives to provide robust default choices that can’t be changed or misconfigured. If WireGuard discovers any severe vulnerabilities, developers release a new version. Plus, they can negotiate the appropriate version with their peers.
WireGuard performs its symmetric encryption with the ChaCha20 algorithm. Message authentication is conducted through the Poly1305 code.
This combination is better than AES-based systems on most architectures that cannot accelerate cryptographic hardware.
Here are a few other important elements of the WireGuard client.
Curve 25519 for key agreement
BLAKE2 for hashing
1.5 Round Trip Time handshakes for forwarding secrecy
Built-in shields from key impersonation, replay attacks, and denial of service
Post-quantum crypto resistance
The WireGuard protocol is designed to identify peers with a short public key. This key is also integral in establishing the public IP address assigned to each client inside WireGuard tunnels. The process is a key part of a procedure called cryptokey routing.
Another reason many people rely on a WireGuard-based VPN provider is the protocol’s stealth nature. It doesn’t respond to unknown packets. If a third party scans the network for this protocol, it won’t detect it.
Peer WireGuard connections go silent if no data is exchanged. This limits the window cybercriminals have to access the network and spy on you.
The WireGuard VPN protocol has undergone numerous reviews by top-rated private security teams. It’s also been verified for various computational models.
As a result, the WireGuard project is perfectly compatible with all major operating systems. However, it’s primarily designed for Linux, where it appears as a kernel module. In other words, it was merged into the Linux kernel (the base component of this OS).
Unlike OpenVPN and some other providers with more than 90,000 lines of code, the WireGuard module is much simpler. It has just around 4,000 lines, including the built-in crypto code. This translates to a smaller surface attackers can target. And since it ignores unauthenticated packets, assaulting is virtually impossible.
What VPNs Support WireGuard?
WireGuard is compatible with several VPNs.
Surfshark – This is a popular VPN that implements next-gen features to provide secure services. They’ve taken their system to the next level by implementing WireGuard. If you download this app, you get your WireGuard protocol with dynamic addresses to ensure your privacy remains intact.
NordVPN – NordVPN is the first major VPN to enable WireGuard. They modified the protocol’s software to create NordLynx. This makes the platform specifically designed to enhance the WireGuard experience.
IPVanish – Offering WireGuard in a convenient interface, IPVanish is an excellent choice if you want to surf the web with an easy-to-use protocol. It integrated WireGuard relatively recently to address various issues. The platform has performed amazingly well since the upgrade.
Mullvad – Mullvad made an enormous financial contribution to the WireGuard project, supporting the protocol from its earliest stages. It’s also the go-to VPN for most people who want to test WireGuard. Private Internet Access is another VPN that stood behind WireGuard as it rose to prominence.
Is the WireGuard VPN Protocol the Best Protocol?
The only way to determine if WireGuard is the best VPN protocol is to compare it to other secure services. OpenVPN and IPsec are its fiercest competitors. Let’s find out whether you should still implement WireGuard after seeing how it fares against other solutions.
WireGuard vs. OpenVPN
Speed might be the strongest suit of WireGuard. After all, the protocol was designed to help you use the internet at lightning speeds. OpenVPN wasn’t, making it much slower than WireGuard.
The feature that allows WireGuard to outperform its counterpart is that it’s streamlined to run multiple cores simultaneously. It also has more robust encryption methods.
Many independent researchers have tested the speed of the two protocols and found that WireGuard is sometimes 4-5 times faster. The output speed is upwards of 1,000 Mbps, whereas OpenVPN stands at just over 250 Mbps.
Another reason WireGuard beats OpenVPN is that it establishes connections much more quickly. This is a critical factor because if your VPN tunnel collapses or you lose connection, you need your platform to reconnect as soon as possible. Otherwise, your privacy is jeopardized.
WireGuard is a perfect platform if low reconnection times are a priority. It takes basic and super computers alike just 100 milliseconds to reconnect to the VPN if they support WireGuard. Conversely, you may need as long as 7-8 seconds to reestablish a link with OpenVPN.
Encryption and Security
Both protocols do a great job protecting your network from intrusions.
OpenVPN enables users to set up a wide array of authentication algorithms and encryption ciphers. This provides an additional layer of security by safeguarding the system against a larger number of threats. You can quickly configure your VPN if you find a vulnerability so it doesn’t wreak havoc on your network.
WireGuard offers a simpler yet just as effective means of deterring cybercriminals. As previously mentioned, it has just around 4,000 lines of code, allowing open-source communities to audit the protocol for bugs and vulnerabilities faster.
The VPN protocol requires you to update all large and small embedded devices after recognizing a threat. The process can take some time, but it ensures no platform uses insecure code.
Another factor you should consider is trade-offs between safety and choice.
OpenVPN runs OpenSSL libraries for encryption. It was released more than 20 years ago and has been tested numerous times. The system is compatible with various encryption ciphers, such as ChaCha20, Blowfish, and AES, to deal with threats from countless sources.
Another consideration is that you can’t choose your encryption, key generation, key management, and other security features if you run the WireGuard VPN protocol. You’re forced to protect your system with Poly1305 and ChaCha20. Although it doesn’t combat as many threats as OpenVPN, it presents attackers with a smaller targetable surface.
Overall, the two VPN protocols are highly secure, despite taking different approaches to cybersecurity. Neither WireGuard nor OpenVPN exposes you to significant vulnerabilities.
Both WireGuard and OpenVPN are ideal VPN protocols for bypassing censorship. They help provide stable connections in most countries.
OpenVPN has a slight edge in resisting censorship because it enables users to utilize Transmission Control Protocol-based communications. It lets them circumvent stringent internet blocks since they feature port 443. You can find this port on most HTTPS websites, which are known for high security and privacy.
WireGuard’s 51820 UDP port is more efficient, stable, and faster inside VPN tunnels, but it’s easier to restrict if governments have the right technology.
You’re less likely to get blocked in Russia, China, and other oppressive countries if you have OpenVPN.
Your mobile devices often switch back and forth between Wi-Fi and mobile data. High-quality VPN protocols should help you make a seamless transition without compromising your privacy.
This is yet another aspect where WireGuard prevails over OpenVPN. It can handle sudden network changes without a hitch. It lets you reconnect in a heartbeat, minimizing the risk of data leaks.
Conversely, OpenVPN is notorious for sluggish network switches. The system malfunctions frequently, and sometimes takes seemingly forever to establish links.
Connecting to a VPN increases your data consumption. This is because the VPN provider requires you to send more information across the web, so you’ll need more GBs.
This data overhead can reflect in your VPN speed. You may reach data limits sooner or pay more money for your bills if you have a pay-as-you-go contract.
Many factors affect the increase in data usage, but the protocol used by your VPN provider matters most. WireGuard is once again a better option than OpenVPN. It consumes less data, allowing you to save money and surf the internet at higher speeds without reaching your limit too soon.
A critical feature of safe VPN services is that they don’t store any personal information. This extends to VPN protocols too.
OpenVPN edges out WireGuard in this regard. Unlike WireGuard, it doesn’t require you to store your IP address on the VPN server until it reboots.
This can compromise your privacy. If someone figures out the server configuration and hacks the network, they could trace the IP address back to you or your activity. As a result, the greatest advantage of using your VPN is gone.
You should be careful if you’re running a standard WireGuard configuration file and implementation. The technology may log your IP address throughout your session, exposing you to prying eyes.
The good news is that most VPN providers with WireGuard support have introduced solutions to reduce privacy risks. Here are a few examples.
IVPN – This VPN provider removes IP addresses after 2-3 minutes of inactivity. It randomly generates new addresses every day to prevent issues associated with using static IP addresses.
Mullvad – Mullvad offers WireGuard support and maximizes your privacy by deleting IP addresses from servers if you’re inactive for 10 minutes. The platform recommends routing traffic through at least two servers when using WireGuard.
NordVPN – This VPN couples WireGuard with cutting-edge Network Address Translation to set up NordLynx. Rather than store static IP addresses until the network reboots, the technology provides each tunnel with a dynamic address. This way, each session receives a unique IP address that only lasts until you terminate your session.
These workarounds should be fine for most people, but they may not suffice in oppressive regimes. If you live in a nation that may prosecute you for using a VPN, you’re better off with OpenVPN.
Almost all commercial VPN providers support OpenVPN. Most providers default to this protocol, especially for desktop clients.
Although OpenVPN is available for a larger number of devices, WireGuard isn’t too far behind. It’s become widely deployable, despite being just three years also. Many popular VPNs have integrated it into their system, be it for mobile or desktop apps.
Many providers have abandoned OpenVPN in favor of WireGuard. For instance, the default CyberGhost protocol on iOS and Android is now WireGuard.
The same goes for NordVPN’s NordLynx. It routes traffic through WireGuard by default on most of its applications.
You may need to opt for OpenVPN if you want to protect your router with a VPN. The only provider that supports WireGuard for routers is Mullvad.
The specifics of your VPN can determine the ease of use of your protocol. The less complex they are, the faster you’ll be able to configure the platform. Certain protocol-level properties dictate how deep you’ll need to dig to set up your technology.
OpenVPN is generally easy to use. Most people shouldn’t have difficulty setting it up, since more VPN providers natively support the protocol. You need only download your app, and your protocol will be automatically configured.
WireGuard is a better choice if you have to configure your protocol manually. The code is streamlined, and you don’t have to choose from numerous encryption configurations. This facilitates effortless setup and adjustment.
Another great thing about the WireGuard interface is that it’s perfect for small computers and embedded devices. For example, OVPN offers WireGuard support with an optimized command-line application to ensure seamless installation on Raspberry Pi single-board machines.
WireGuard vs. IPsec
WireGuard is miles ahead of IPsec in terms of speed. It enables you to surf the web seamlessly in most regions.
In contrast, you may have performance issues with IPsec. The platform offers about the same speed as OpenVPN. It works fine for most uses, but if lightning-fast performance is one of your priorities, nothing beats WireGuard.
Security and Encryption
IPsec is another highly secure protocol. IPsec-based VPNs provide a wide range of encryption options to help users eliminate threats from numerous sources. For instance, the protocol supports pre-shared keys for authentication and RSA algorithms.
These legacy methods are considered less secure than contemporary solutions, but IPsec lets users activate them if they want to incorporate legacy clients. The downside is that you’re more likely to misconfigure the system, particularly if you want to use it for a modern VPN.
IPsec has larger code than WireGuard due to its legacy protocol integration. You can combat more threats with this configuration, but auditing the protocol is more challenging.
For instance, OpenSwan has over 8 MB of coding in different languages. Each line contains about 80 bytes, amounting to 100,000 lines of code. Such a colossal code base is incredibly complex, so verifying it takes more time.
You won’t have this issue with WireGuard. The code is limited to modern encryption methods, where neither the server nor the client can specify their desired option. This approach guarantees the user relies on up-to-date standards.
There’s minimal legacy functionality with WireGuard’s code base. Renowned teams have verified the code, which can’t be said for IPsec.
Both WireGuard and IPsec are UDP port-based protocols. This doesn’t make them suitable for avoiding censorship in strict regimes. Protocols with port 433, such as OpenVPN, are superior in this regard.
Another problem with IPsec is that it’s a closed-source protocol. Consequently, inspecting the system for bugs is much harder. Developers need more time to patch up privacy vulnerabilities, which is a huge problem if you live in countries that forbid VPNs.
WireGuard is head and shoulders above IPsec when it comes to mobility. You can transition from Wi-Fi networks to mobile data effortlessly.
The shift is more problematic with IPsec. The larger code prevents the system from adapting to new environments as fast as WireGuard.
WireGuard goes easy on your system and helps keep your budget intact. It consumes less data than IPsec, enabling you to use your VPN without skyrocketing your monthly bills.
If you want to set up IPsec, consider doing so on Wi-Fi connections only. Otherwise, you may burn through your mobile data before you know it.
We’ve already established that WireGuard has some issues regarding data storage. Namely, you need to keep your IP address on your VPN server until the next reboot, jeopardizing your privacy.
You shouldn’t have this problem if you switch to IPsec. The protocol supposedly doesn’t contain any personal information. The only data stored on the server is about successful connections, error messages, and dead peer detection.
IPsec-based implementations exist on all major routers, including Juniper and Cisco. Some devices even accelerate your traffic through robust chips, such as NVIDIA’s digital processing. The result is faster performance supported by numerous simultaneous connections.
You should be able to find IPsec support for your IoT device too. The protocol is compatible with most major brands.
Availability is still limited with WireGuard. It’s part of Linux and other major platforms, but iOS and Android don’t support WireGuard natively. Fortunately, you can utilize the protocol on your smartphones through appropriate apps.
Keep in mind that connecting to WireGuard through Android and iOS may require more energy. In turn, this can lower your network’s performance.
Unlike IPsec, WireGuard doesn’t have open tunnels or connections. Instead, it sends UDP-encapsulated packets directly to target IP addresses without performing active link management.
Due to this connectionless method, using a WireGuard-based VPN lowers the number of disconnects and lets you reestablish a link in no time.
The same goes if you face roaming (change of IP address). You’ll be able to surf the internet with minimal disruptions. If you’re a remote worker, you’ll be able to access your VPN at cafes, in your office, or at home without overhauling your system.
WireGuard’s roaming features also enhance the mobile experience if your IP address changes when connecting to a different cell tower. You don’t need to be tech-savvy to set up your device in this case. The process is largely intuitive.
While IPsec isn’t too hard to use either, resolving certain issues requires a bit more knowledge. As discussed above, the code is intricate, so adapting it to changing addresses can be challenging.
What About Other VPN Protocols?
OpenVPN and IPsec aren’t the only two competitors of WireGuard. Here’s a quick overview of a few other protocols and their main features.
IKEv2 is a standardized tunneling protocol developed jointly by Microsoft and Cisco. To maximize security, the developers paired this system with IPsec.
The original version was launched in 1998, and immediately made a world of difference regarding cybersecurity. Nowadays, it offers excellent encryption, stability, data usage, speed, and stability. It’s a great option if your device is incompatible with WireGuard.
Setting up IKEv2/IPsec is fast and easy. You need to import your configuration file from the VPN provider, whether you use a Windows PC or a Mac. The protocol is also supported on some iOS and Android smartphones. You can use the “always on” feature on certain devices, forcing your internet traffic to pass through the corresponding tunnel and preventing data leaks.
As for encryption, this protocol uses a wide selection of algorithms, including 3DES, Camellia, Blowfish, and AES. The only downside is that it’s a closed-source system, and the developers (Microsoft and Cisco) have been accused of breaching their clients’ privacy.
On a more positive note, IKEv2 is one of the fastest protocols on the market. Many VPN providers rely on it to ensure a high-performing network. It’s quicker than OpenVPN because it doesn’t strain your CPU as much. It’s also a good option for mobile users, since it reestablishes connections super-fast when switching from mobile data to Wi-Fi or vice versa.
WireGuard still reigns supreme in terms of speed, data usage, and convenience.
IKEv2 utilizes initial key exchanges with the UDP 500 port and performs network address translation (NAT) traversal with UDP 4500.
L2TP is often coupled with IPsec to optimize speed and security. Most operating systems support it natively. The system provides exceptional authentication, integrity, and confidentiality.
Setting up this protocol isn’t as easy as activating WireGuard, but it’s still mostly a hassle-free process. Whether you use it on Windows, Mac, or Android, you’ll need minimal knowledge to enable the protocol. The procedure boils down to transporting configuration files from the VPN provider.
As for encryption and safety, this protocol safeguards your data with standard IP protection. The network is typically safe, so the users rarely face issues. But like IKEv2, the protocol was launched by Microsoft and Cisco, raising questions about confidentiality. WireGuard users don’t face this problem.
The performance of the protocol varies drastically. On the one hand, the encryption and decryption process supports multithreading and takes place in kernels to improve speed. On the other hand, the system double-encapsulates your data, which can bring down the performance.
Keys are initially exchanged through the UDP 500 ports. Two more types of ports are involved.
NAT traversal via UDP 4500
Initial configuration via UDP 1701
Due to this over-reliance on fixed ports, governments can block the protocol more easily than WireGuard.
Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP) is an outdated VPN protocol that some providers still use today. Initially launched by Microsoft, it uses a TCP port to establish network connections.
There’s no reason to risk compromising your privacy with this protocol, with WireGuard readily available on most platforms. PPTP is essentially obsolete because it has significant vulnerabilities. It can often expose you to data leaks, allowing governments to block you and cybercriminals to steal your information.
All Windows versions are natively compatible with PPTP. The same goes for most other operating systems.
The protocol can reach high speeds, but it’s not as dependable as WireGuard. In other words, the performance fluctuates, and the protocol can’t recover from dropped connections as quickly as WireGuard.
Overall, you shouldn’t use PPTP when privacy and security are imperative. It might not be a bad option if you only need your VPN to access restricted content. But other than that, stick to WireGuard or other protocols.
Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol (SSTP) is rarely implemented in the VPN industry. But unlike the previous protocol, it doesn’t face massive security issues.
Only Windows users can activate this Microsoft product. Its closed-source nature is a huge disadvantage, mainly since Microsoft often encounters security problems.
The protocol routes traffic using SSL and port 443. It’s a perfect solution for China, Russia, and other countries with restrictive networks. It can also be manually configured for multiple OS platforms, but few people do so.
Regarding performance, SSTP is a decent option. It’s relatively secure, stable, and fast. The downside is that few providers are compatible with this protocol. For this reason, consider more prevalent solutions, such as WireGuard and OpenVPN.
The only situation where you should consider installing SSTP is if mainstream protocols are completely blocked in your area.
While most VPNs have been trying to incorporate WireGuard, ExpressVPN takes an alternate route. Rather than integrating with a protocol, the developers have come up with a protocol of their own – Lightway.
WireGuard and Lightway are similar in many ways. They’re both based on modern cryptography and offer excellent readability. But while Lightway is faster than IPsec and OpenVPN, it can’t catch up to WireGuard.
Setting up your Lightway with ExpressVPN is straightforward. You need only go to your settings and choose the protocol. The app should take care of the rest.
As of today, ExpressVPN is the only provider that uses Lightway. Although it’s an open-source protocol that’s passed several security audits, WireGuard is still more popular due to its higher performance.
What’s the Verdict? Should You Go with WireGuard?
Without a doubt, WireGuard stands at the top of VPN protocols. It offers an unmatched blend of speed, security, encryption, convenience, and minimal data usage. It has some flaws, but it still outperforms other protocols by a wide margin.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is OpenVPN better than WireGuard?
No, OpenVPN isn’t better than WireGuard. It uses safer ports, but WireGuard is faster and simpler. Just make sure your device is WireGuard-compatible.
Does WireGuard have multithreading?
Yes, WireGuard supports multithreading to accelerate connections. In other words, the protocol utilizes multiple cores for better performance.
Can you use WireGuard to download torrent files?
You can safely use WireGuard for torrenting files. However, always use a kill switch and other safety measures to avoid privacy concerns.
Author: Tibor Moes
Founder & Chief Editor at SoftwareLab
Tibor is a Dutch engineer and entrepreneur. He has tested security software since 2014.
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