WireGuard vs OpenVPN
To create a secure and anonymous internet connection, every Virtual Private Network (VPN) uses VPN protocol. Think of it as the rules that describe how information is to be transferred between your device and the VPN server.
The OpenVPN protocol was considered the industry standard for many years. But in 2019, WireGuard came out, threatening to dethrone it.
So, who wins the WireGuard vs OpenVPN battle? There’s no simple answer here. Both WireGuard and OpenVPN protocols have a lot to offer.
In this article, you’ll see the two protocols go head-to-head in the most impactful aspects of VPN protocols, such as speed, encryption, and privacy.
- OpenVPN is the protocol to beat. It is the gold standard. Thanks to its open-source code, it has been perfect over the years. Today, it offers unparalleled security and privacy, and is used by most VPN providers.
- WireGuard is a newer, faster and far more lightweight protocol. This means that it has far fewer lines of code, making it easier to audit. Like OpenVPN, it is an open-source protocol that anyone can inspect.
- Both protocols are excellent. For many VPN providers, OpenVPN remains the default option for now. Simply because it’s been around for a long time and its security has been perfected and proven.
What is OpenVPN?
OpenVPN launched back in 2001. It’s an open-source protocol used by some of the best-known VPN services like PrivateVPN, Surfshark, and ExpressVPN.
It’s highly configurable and reliable, making it a popular option among users. Plus, it’s free if you don’t use it on more than two devices. If you want to add more, you can do so with a monthly subscription.
OpenVPN is compatible with Windows, Android, Linux, and macOS, and this versatility only adds to the protocol’s widespread use.
What is WireGuard?
Even though it’s only a few years old, WireGuard has already amassed a large user base, for the reasons you’ll see a bit further down this article. It’s also open source but far more lightweight than OpenVPN in terms of code. This makes sense, as OpenVPN has almost two decades of advantage and has evolved quite a bit since it came out.
This doesn’t make WireGuard any less secure or capable by any means. It uses some of the best encryption technologies available and has many other benefits. Many tech experts agree it’s even better than OpenVPN in some aspects.
So, what makes WireGuard and OpenVPN different, and which protocol is better? Let’s dive into the first major indicator.
When it comes to speed, WireGuard knocks it out of the park. In some tests, it was almost twice as fast as the OpenVPN protocol.
For instance, one test was done using NordVPN on a 500Mbps base connection. On a Seattle VPN server, WireGuard achieved a speed of 445Mbps, while OpenVPN got stuck on 222Mbps. The two protocols came the closest on the New York VPN server (280Mbps vs. 222Mbps in favor of WireGuard).
The main reason WireGuard is so much faster than OpenVPN is its simplicity. OpenVPN is far more complex and has various add-ons slowing it down. WireGuard, on the other hand, is quite clean and lightweight, offering higher speeds while using less CPU.
Now, it’s worth mentioning that OpenVPN was never meant to be the fastest VPN protocol to begin with. Instead, its main selling point is reliability, which some consider even more important than speed. Nevertheless, the WireGuard vs OpenVPN speed match has a clear winner.
The same goes for connection speeds. This is a crucial factor as your VPN connection can suddenly break down. When this happens, you need a protocol that allows for fast reconnection.
According to one test, it took WireGuard as little as 100 milliseconds to connect. Compare this to OpenVPN’s connection time of up to 8 full seconds, and it’s easy to see that WireGuard is the preferred option.
Now, some people jump to the conclusion that WireGuard is the fastest protocol out there. This makes sense when you look at the speed tests. As it consistently outperforms the competition, WireGuard has mistakenly been considered the fastest protocol since it came out.
However, this isn’t true. There are faster protocols in the VPN industry, but they don’t offer nearly as many encryption or security features. Speed should never be the only thing you look at when choosing a protocol, as the main point of a VPN is to protect your privacy. In this regard, WireGuard is the fastest protocol that still offers enough protection, even for more demanding VPN users.
Private internet access is the whole point of a VPN. The extent of the privacy you can enjoy depends both on your VPN client and protocol. Ideally, your VPN should use a protocol with a zero-logs policy, meaning that no data is stored on the VPN server.
OpenVPN has this policy to ensure maximum protection. However, the same can’t be said about WireGuard. Its routing algorithms record the user’s IP address and store it on the VPN server until it gets rebooted.
Both VPN protocols still allow you to hide your IP addresses from third parties. But if you don’t want the address stored anywhere, OpenVPN might be a better option.
This is mainly true if you’re setting up a VPN connection yourself. VPN services can mitigate WireGuard’s logging policy by concealing your IP address. For instance, a multihop feature uses multiple servers to route your internet traffic. It can also remove your IP address from the database after you’ve been idle for a while.
Nevertheless, if you’re looking for an option that prioritizes privacy out-of-the-box, you should choose VPN services that support OpenVPN.
Firewalls are getting stricter, and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have more and more power to block VPN traffic. This leaves many internet users affected by censorship. OpenVPN is far more capable than WireGuard at overcoming this issue.
It relies on the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP), which is excellent at overcoming traffic blocks. OpenVPN TCP and HTTPS use the same TCP port (443) to establish connections. Because of the security of the HTTPS protocol, even the strictest countries are unlikely to block it. Since it uses the same port, OpenVPN TCP overcomes firewalls very effectively.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the case with the WireGuard protocol. It uses the User Datagram Protocol (UDP) for its connections. While faster than TCP, UDP protocol isn’t nearly as good at evading firewalls. This can be a bit inconvenient if you need a VPN for streaming or accessing resources with geographic restrictions.
It’s worth mentioning that OpenVPN TCP isn’t fail-proof when it comes to overcoming traffic blocks. Certain deep pocket inspection methods can detect its traffic regardless of the port used. Still, even WireGuard’s creator admits that their solution isn’t too effective from the censorship perspective, making OpenVPN an obvious choice for those wanting to climb around firewalls successfully.
Every VPN protocol needs to undergo auditing every once in a while. Auditors make sure that the protocols are reliable and stable, and that there aren’t any bugs that would prevent them from working properly.
They do this through code inspections, so auditability is directly tied to a protocol’s number of code lines. Fewer lines of code mean higher auditability.
Now, both OpenVPN and WireGuard are open source, which means they’re equally transparent. However, their auditability varies greatly.
As of now, OpenVPN has 70,000 lines of code. Meanwhile, WireGuard only has 4,000. It takes a full team of tech professionals and quite a bit of time to inspect OpenVPN’s code thoroughly and perform a comprehensive audit. That’s why WireGuard VPN is a more widely audited protocol.
Still, OpenVPN remains a highly stable and secure VPN protocol. OpenVPN and WireGuard have patched all their security vulnerabilities, so there’s no need for concern about whichever protocol your VPN connection relies on.
Network changes are common in everyday use. When leaving home, you might have to switch from your Wi-Fi to mobile devices. Or perhaps you’ve lost reception and need to connect to a public network.
Whatever the case, you should have a seamless switching experience while on a VPN.
This is where WireGuard takes the win. Many users need to disconnect from OpenVPN during network changes and reconnect when they make the switch. This isn’t the case with WireGuard, as it provides a much smoother switch.
Historically, many VPN services used the IKEv2 protocol for mobile devices as it was the fastest VPN protocol regarding network changes. However, there have been concerns about the protocol being compromised. Plus, it’s closed-source, so it’s not nearly as auditable as OpenVPN and WireGuard. Thanks to its great mobility, the WireGuard protocol is a suitable replacement for IKEv2 on mobile devices.
Encryption is by far among the most important aspects of a VPN protocol. So, in the WireGuard vs OpenVPN encryption comparison, which protocol offers higher security?
Security experts always prefer encryption keys and algorithms that have been around for a while. With newer ones, there’s a higher chance of overlooked security vulnerabilities.
In this regard, OpenVPN takes the win. It’s been around for over 20 years and uses some of the most tried and tested encryption algorithms available. Moreover, the user can change the encryption level. This is quite convenient as it lets the user decide between higher speed and additional security, as the two are inversely proportional.
OpenVPN currently supports six encryption ciphers users can choose from, including AES-128-CBC, AES-192-CBC, and AES256-CBC.
Besides, it supports the OpenSSL library, which means it can use various other encryption technologies, including:
Does this mean that WireGuard is a less secure VPN protocol than OpenVPN? Not necessarily, it’s just less versatile. WireGuard also supports Chacha 20, which is considered one of the strongest encryption techniques out there. The “20” stands for the number of encryption layers and having 20 of them is quite impressive. The technology has been around for many years and has evolved over time, providing excellent security.
There were some security vulnerabilities with Chacha7 back in the day. However, since Chacha8, the encryption hasn’t been broken, which speaks volumes about its strength.
Even though WireGuard supports it, we can’t say it can go head-to-head with OpenVPN when it comes to security, especially because of the OpenSSL library that the latter offers. So, this is one more point for OpenVPN. While an average user will be more than happy with WireGuard’s encryption, experts agree that it can’t match OpenVPN.
For a VPN protocol to receive widespread use, it has to be compatible with most, if not all major platforms. As it was released in 2019, WireGuard still hasn’t had the time to make this happen.
On the other hand, OpenVPN has been around for decades and is well known among experts and VPN providers. As a result, it’s compatible with most major platforms.
The WireGuard protocol was initially designed for the Linux kernel. It wasn’t until a year later that it started offering support for other platforms. Plus, not many routers support WireGuard, which is quite inconvenient if you want to configure your VPN.
This isn’t the case with OpenVPN. At the router level, most VPN providers rely on it, though it’s worth mentioning that WireGuard is consistently growing in popularity. In the last few years, many of the world’s best VPN services adopted it.
When it comes to mobile devices, most VPN providers use WireGuard. This is mostly due to its speed and mobility.
So, from the compatibility perspective, we don’t have a clear winner here. Both VPN protocols have advantages and drawbacks, so it all comes down to whether you’ll need a VPN protocol for desktop, mobile, or router use.
Cryptographic agility is an ability to instantly switch between encryption techniques, protocols, and cryptographic algorithms. It’s an important security feature that protects users in case of an attack.
OpenVPN is highly agile. It relies on various cryptographic algorithms and suits that allow it to make the switch automatically if the connection is under attack.
Now, this isn’t necessarily a good thing. Cryptographic agility is a double-edged sword, as having multiple cryptographic suites increases the so-called attack surface. In simple terms, more suites mean more potential security flaws and points of attack.
The WireGuard VPN protocol has a single suite, drastically reducing the attack surface. You might think the drawback of this is less protection in case of an attack. However, this isn’t the case.
WireGuard uses a methodology called “versioning” to protect users from attacks. In case of a threat, the entire protocol will change from the ground up into a new version. Because of this, WireGuard has successfully avoided the common attacks of non-agile protocols.
So, when it comes to VPN security from the agility perspective, the WireGuard vs OpenVPN match ends in a tie. Both are highly reliable VPN protocols; they just have different approaches to handling attacks.
Bandwidth usage is an important factor when choosing a VPN service for mobile users, especially if they don’t have unlimited data.
In this regard, WireGuard is a much better choice than OpenVPN. WireGuard uses far less bandwidth than its competitor, thanks to fewer encryption techniques that minimize the encryption overhead.
Because of this, WireGuard uses less mobile data than OpenVPN, which is quite heavy due to its encryption techniques.
Also, WireGuard is built into the Linux kernel, which lets it use fewer CPU resources. It’s much more lightweight than OpenVPN, which makes it an excellent VPN protocol for devices with lower CPU power.
Mobile users should also notice less battery drainage while using VPN services that support WireGuard. If you plan on using a phone VPN app more than desktop VPN software, it might be a better option.
Ease of Use
Some users don’t plan to use a VPN right out of the box. Instead, they want to manually configure their VPN to get the most out of it.
If this is the case, WireGuard might be a better option. This is mostly because of its lightweight code. In addition, there are many encryption options to choose from, so you can get it up and running more quickly.
On the other hand, if you don’t want to manually configure your connection, OpenVPN is a great option. Many services and routers support it, so all you need to do is install your VPN of choice. As soon as you run it, OpenVPN will be ready for use.
The Verdict: WireGuard vs OpenVPN – Which Protocol to Use?
Even though WireGuard and OpenVPN fulfill the same purpose, they have different approaches to it. That’s why you can’t say that one is undoubtedly better than another. It all comes down to what you need a VPN for and what matters to you when you use virtual private networks.
WireGuard is a better solution if:
You need a fast VPN service that doesn’t use a lot of your device’s CPU power.
You plan on browsing from a mobile device and will have frequent network changes.
You’ll manually configure your VPN.
On the other hand, OpenVPN is more suitable if:
You need to bypass strict censorship.
Private internet access without any data being recorded matters the most.
You tend to put more trust in technologies that have been around for longer.
Whichever option you go with, you’ll have a secure VPN protocol that will create a VPN tunnel for secure, private browsing. This is what VPNs are all about, and everything else is a matter of preference.
To use either protocol, you need a VPN service that supports it. Let’s look at the best VPN provider for each protocol.
Best WireGuard VPN Provider – NordVPN
NordVPN is among the best commercial VPN services out there. It’s fast, reliable, and packed with features that protect your online privacy.
NordVPN comes with a proprietary NordLynx protocol built around WireGuard. The main advantage of NordLynx is its speed, which makes sense considering that this is also WireGuard’s main selling point.
When connecting to a VPN server, many users experience some slowdown in their connection. While this is normal regardless of the service you’re using. NordLynx aims to minimize the slowdown while still ensuring superb encryption.
In some tests, NordLynx outperformed IKEv2 and OpenVPN, allowing for some of the fastest VPN connections testers have registered. If speed is your main deciding factor, NordVPN shouldn’t disappoint.
As mentioned, WireGuard does come with a privacy concern because it records user IP addresses. NordVPN found a way to overcome this issue by implementing double Network Address Translation (NAT). NAT authenticates users through an external database instead of sharing their IP addresses with the VPN server. This way, the address stays hidden from everyone.
Despite its many solid features, NordLynx isn’t perfect. It’s still relatively new compared to existing VPN protocols, which leaves room for instability and unaddressed security concerns. Still, there haven’t been any major issues, so NordLynx has built up a stellar reputation over the past few years.
Best OpenVPN VPN Provider – ExpressVPN
ExpressVPN has proven more reliable and capable than most other VPN services on the market. It has various excellent security and privacy features and is fast enough for most users.
Easily the most notable feature of ExpressVPN is its strict no-log policy. No sensitive data is stored on their servers, so you can enjoy complete anonymity. Of course, this doesn’t mean that ExpressVPN doesn’t store any data. But none of it is personally identifiable, so you don’t have to worry about the known security vulnerabilities that come with many other services.
ExpressVPN uses hard drives to store data. Some experts believe this to be less secure than cloud storage as the data stays on the drive until it gets rebooted. To mitigate this, ExpressVPN reboots its hard drives every two weeks. Even if this wasn’t the case, a security breach wouldn’t reveal any of your personal data anyway.
ExpressVPN’s confidence in its security measures is so high that they offer a $100,000 bug bounty to anyone who finds server flaws. So far, none have been detected, which means their methods are working.
The provider leverages OpenVPN’s superior censorship evasion techniques to offer users unrestricted access to content all over the world. It does this better than most services, making it an excellent choice for those wanting to explore otherwise gated content.
Of course, ExpressVPN does come with some drawbacks. The first one is the price since it costs more than many of its competitors. It doesn’t fit everyone’s budget, but those who choose it believe it’s worth the cost, mainly thanks to all the security features.
In addition, ExpressVPN isn’t the fastest service out there. It’s more suitable for users who prefer privacy over speed.
Frequently Asked Questions
Which VPN protocol is better for gaming?
If you need a VPN for gaming, you should go with an option that supports WireGuard. Its speed paired with low bandwidth and CPU usage makes it an excellent choice for gamers. You can enjoy a secure, fast connection that won’t overwhelm your device thanks to WireGuard’s low encryption overhead.
Which VPN protocol is better for streaming?
Because of its ability to overcome firewalls and restrictions and rich server location, OpenVPN is the best choice for streaming. Services like Netflix tend to modify libraries according to the country you’re watching from, so OpenVPN can unlock many titles you wouldn’t be able to access otherwise.
Can WireGuard replace OpenVPN?
It’s unlikely that this will ever happen. OpenVPN is a mature, well-established VPN protocol used by some of the most popular VPN providers. It’s also touted as the most secure VPN protocol, which is a title WireGuard has yet to earn. Despite its many capabilities, WireGuard won’t replace its competitor anytime soon.
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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