Virtual Private Networks – while most of you have heard about VPN protocols, I bet you have no idea what they are.
That’s okay, you’re not alone.
In fact, according to a small survey I conducted recently, 90% of VPN users had no idea about protocols.
Even though protocols are the heart and soul of virtual private networks, most users have no clue as to what they are.
To be honest, I don’t blame them. After all, when there are multiple VPN protocols out there, and each one sounds more confusing than Kim Kardashian’s kids, it can be quite confusing to understand each of them.
Anyways, If you feel like knowing all about VPN protocols, and boast about how tech-savvy you are, you might want to stick around.
Here are the 6 common VPN protocols that most top tier VPNs offer:
Outdated VPN Protocols
What Are VPN Protocols?
VPN protocols are basically rules that govern how your data routes between your computer and the VPN server.
Since there are multiple VPN protocols, each one has different specifications and is good for different applications.
For instance, protocols that offer fast speeds are good for streaming and online gaming, while protocols that are more geared towards privacy are good for banking and online shopping.
Today, we’re going to be taking a look at five major VPN protocols, what they’re best for, and discuss their pros and cons.
But if you don’t feel like reading the entire blog, you can briefly skim through the easy-to-digest summary of VPN protocols below.
- OpenVPN: The most powerful VPN protocol that’s suitable for all activities. It is Open source and can be a little slow at times
- IKEv2: Offers open-source implementations, is decently fast and mobile-friendly but has been weakened by the NSA over the years.
- Wireguard: Wireguard is the latest and fastest tunneling protocol in the industry. It uses advanced cryptography that outperforms existing VPN protocols.
- SSTP: Offers reliable security, and is quite difficult to detect and block
- PPTP: Offers fast speeds and excellent support for different platforms, but has plenty of vulnerabilities that can be exploited.
- L2TP/IPsec: One of the most popular VPN protocols around. It offers good speeds but can get blocked by firewalls
Now that you have a basic idea of what each protocol is capable of, let’s dive in a bit deeper and discuss each protocol in greater detail.
Let’s start with OpenVPN…
As the name suggests, OpenVPN is based on an open-source platform. It is highly configurable and can be used on various platforms.
Since OpenVPN is…well, open-source, for people into programming, it is possible to audit the source code for vulnerabilities. Initially released in 2001, Open VPN is one of the most secure VPN protocols out right now.
What makes OpenVPN so secure?
To start off, OpenVPN uses unbreakable AES-256 bit key encryption among other ciphers in combination with the 160-bit SHA1 hash algorithm and 2048-bit RSA authentication to ensure sensitive data is never compromised.
In addition to that, OpenVPN uses two authentication modes, static key, and TLS. While TLS ensures end-to-end encryption, the static key is used to aid the transmission of cryptographic data.
Why is it so popular?
The biggest reason why OpenVPN is so widely used is because of its excellent OS compatibility. Windows, Mac OS, Linux, Android, iOS, and even routers are able to support OpenVPN.
Besides that, the fact that OpenVPN can be configured on any port makes it dead easy to disguise encrypted VPN traffic as ordinary network traffic, and help bypass firewalls.
What are the shortcomings of OpenVPN?
Well for one, Open VPN Is not the fastest VPN protocol around. In fact, OpenVPN is significantly slower than PPTP and offers roughly the same speeds as L2TP.
However, speeds can vary depending on what device you’re using and how you’ve configured it.
IKEv2 is another tunneling protocol developed by Microsoft and Cisco. Among all of the VPN protocols we’ve discussed so far, IKEv2 is the latest and was officially released in 2005.
Since it is relatively new in the world of VPN protocols, there’s not much support for IKEv2 yet. Like other tunneling protocols, IKEv2 doesn’t offer any encryption.
On its own, IKEv2 is used to establish secure key exchange sessions. However, when paired with IPsec, IKEv2 can offer both encryption and authentication.
Is IKEv2 secure?
Although the risk of Microsoft and Cisco creating backdoor access to the IKEv2 protocol still exists, the fact that there are open-source versions of IKEv2 available means this protocol is in fact secure.
Not only that, IKEv2 supports various versions of AES encryption.
What benefits does IKEv2 offer?
Right of the bat, IKEv2 is the fastest VPN protocol around. Another reason why people love the IKEv2 protocol is because of the seamless switching experience it offers.
With the help of multi-homing technology, you can switch between Wi-Fi to 3G and 4G mobile networks without disconnecting from the VPN tunnel.
Not only that, but IKEv2 is also quite easy to set up and configure.
Are there any cons of IKEv2?
Every protocol has its weaknesses and IKEv2 is no exception. For instance, IKEv2 is not compatible with many devices. Other than that, IKEv2 is also susceptible to VPN blocking.
Wireguard is the latest and fastest tunneling protocol in the industry. It uses advanced cryptography that outperforms existing VPN protocols. It is considerably better than OpenVPN and IPSec/IKEv2.
That being said, it’s still considered experimental, so there are still some vulnerabilities in the Wireguard protocol that VPN providers need to address.
Wireguard is an incredibly fast protocol. It uses top-tier cryptology and is composed of just 4000 lines of code. That’s like 100 times less than OpenVPN. Wireguard is easy to deploy, audit, and debug.
Speaking of deploying, since both the server and the client parts of WireGuard are really easy to install, you can download pre-configured apps for desktops and even mobile devices from the app stores.
Even on the server-side, configuring WireGuard is not much difficult than configuring SSH. Just ask any IT professional.
Why Wireguard is popular?
The reason why Wireguard is gaining popularity is that it is free and Open Source. Anyone developer can look into its code. This makes deploying, auditing, and debugging Wiregurad quite convenient. Wireguard is modern and super fast. Consisting only of 4,000 lines of codes, it is the most lightweight protocol currently available. Just to give you a reference, OpenVPN in comparison has 100 times more lines of codes.
What are the shortcomings of Wireguard?
To be honest, Wireguard is still half-baked. It’s still in its early stages of development and it has a lot of room for improvement. Currently, it fails to provide users full anonymity. So, VPN providers still need to find custom solutions for Wireguard protocol for providing the appropriate security measures without losing speed.
Another VPN protocol that is owned and developed by Microsoft is SSTP. The protocol was mainly designed to work on the Windows platform only; however, there is limited support for Mac OS and Linux.
That said, Android, Mac OS, and even iOS can support SSTP through third-party clients.
Unlike PPTP which was released around the time of Windows 95, SSTP was released with Windows Vista. More specifically, with the Service Pack 1 of Windows Vista.
Is SSTP secure?
To some extent, yes, SSTP can be considered secure.
As far as encryption is concerned, SSTP uses a rather old SSL 3.0 encryption standard with known vulnerabilities. In fact, Microsoft even addressed the vulnerabilities of SSL 3.0 in 2014.
However, since SSTP also uses 256-bit SSL keys for encryption and a combination of 2048-bit SSL/TLS certificates for authentication, SSTP is still considered secure.
What benefits does SSTP offer?
Right of the bat, SSTP can bypass VPN blocking firewalls. Since SSTP uses TCP port 443, encrypted VPN traffic can get past firewalls without being detected.
Besides that, the setup process is surprisingly easy, especially on Windows platforms.
Are there any weaknesses of SSTP?
First of all, the fact that Microsoft owns SSTP, there is no way to independently assess the code for any weaknesses or backdoor paths.
In addition to that, configuring SSTP on platforms other than Windows can be challenging.
Similar to L2TP in many ways, PPTP is another rather old VPN protocol that is somehow still being used. Originally developed and unraveled by Microsoft back in the late 90s, PPTP is among the most widely used protocols around.
In fact, if you dig in a bit deeper, PPTP has been in use since the time of Windows 95.
Is PPTP secure, does it offer any encryption?
Well… not quite. You see, the standalone PPTP protocol itself has no predefined authentication or encryption technology.
Even though the Windows PPTP stack does offer few options to tweak encryption strength, lower encryption standards effectively offer no security benefits.
So why is PPTP still so popular?
Well, there are two main reasons for its popularity. First of all, the PPTP protocol is easy to set up. Since it is built into most modern computers and mobile devices, it is by far the easiest protocol to manually setup.
Secondly, the PPTP protocol is ideal for streaming. Since PPTP offers less overhead encryption, you are going to experience fast speeds.
Are there any weaknesses in PPTP?
Right of the bat, there is strong evidence that the NSA has been successful at cracking PPTP traffic. So, while this protocol might be able to deter small-scale breaches, it would stand no chance against powerful entities like the NSA.
L2TP or Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol is a tunneling protocol that is used to establish a safe channel between two networks, however, the protocol is void of any encryption.
This is why L2TP is usually paired with IPsec for security. L2TP protocol is rather old and was jointly developed by Cisco and Microsoft in the 90s.
How is L2TP even secure when it offers no encryption?
When paired together, IPsec handles both encryption and authentication between your computer and the VPN server, while L2TP takes care of the secure transmission of data packets.
Speaking of encryption, IPsec uses AES-256 bit encryption. Now if you don’t know, AES-256 bit encryption is considered among the top ciphers, and in theory, it is unbreakable.
The L2TP/IPsec bundle offers one of the most secure VPN connections you can opt for.
Why is it so popular?
Probably the biggest reason why L2TP/IPsec is so widely used is because of the fact that this protocol has built-in support for modern computers and mobile devices.
Compatibility isn’t a big issue and the setup process is rather simple.
What are the shortcomings of OpenVPN?
One of the biggest gripes people have with L2TP/IPsec is that it can be blocked by firewalls.
For instance, by default, L2TP/IPsec uses VPN port 500. Knowing this information, anyone can block the corresponding ports. This is one of the techniques that are widely used in countries that don’t permit VPN usage.
So Which VPN Protocols Should You Use?
So now that we’ve looked at 5 major VPN protocols in detail, let’s recall for a second what we’ve discussed so far.
To make it even easier for you to understand, I’ve compiled a table below describing the pros and cons of each protocol.
Which VPNs Offer the Best VPN Protocols?
- ExpressVPN – Overall Best VPN. Come with 3000+ servers in 94 countries that offer powerful security and support both torrenting, and streaming. Offers Lightway, OpenVPN, L2TP/IPsec, IKEv2, PPTP, WireGuard, SSTP. Costs just $6.67/mo and comes with a 30-day risk-free money-back guarantee. Limited time offer: Get 3 months free subscription with its annual plan.
- Surfshark – Most Affordable VPN. Starts from just $2.30/mo. Offers 3200+ servers in 65 countries. Can easily unblock geo-blocked services like Netflix US and Hulu with ease. Offers WireGuard®, IKEv2, OpenVPN, and Shadowsocks. Supports unlimited simultaneous connections and also offers a full 30-day money-back guarantee.
- NordVPN – Most Secure VPN. Comes with powerful security features such as Nordlynx, AES 256-bit encryption, kill switch, CyberSec, and obfuscated servers. Supports IKEv2/IPsec, OpenVPN, NordLynx. Offers 5200+ servers in 59+ countries. Costs just $3.29/mo, supports 6 multi-logins, and comes with a 30-day money-back guarantee.
So which VPN protocol is the best?
Well, based on the fact that each VPN protocol has its pros and cons, no single VPN protocol is good for every purpose.
While OpenVPN offers powerful encryption excellent compatibility, protocols like PPTP and IKEv2 offer fast speeds.
So instead of just relying on one VPN protocol, it’s better to choose different protocols for different applications.
Ideally, instead of relying on manual configurations, you should invest in a VPN service that offers a variety of VPN protocols.
Speaking of VPNs, here’s our top recommendation:
- Ranked#1 – ExpressVPN – 7,476 reviews | TrustScore 4.5
- Ranked#2 – Surfshark – 9,689 reviews | TrustScore 4.3
- Ranked#3 – NordVPN – 6,391 reviews | TrustScore 4.0
Want to know about other complex-sounding online terminologies, check out this glossary of online privacy terms.