Understanding VPN Protocols

Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) have become essential for safeguarding online privacy and security. At the heart of every VPN’s functionality is a set of guiding rules and procedures – the VPN protocol.

VPN protocols play a pivotal role in online security. They determine how your data is transmitted over the Internet, ensuring your online activities remain private and protected from potential threats. These rules and procedures are fundamental to any VPN service, directly affecting speed, security, and device compatibility.

Understanding VPN protocols is crucial for online security. This article will delve into the various protocols, examine their functionalities, and guide you in choosing the one best suited to your needs.

What is a VPN protocol?

A VPN protocol is a set of rules and procedures dictating how data is transmitted and received over a virtual private network (VPN). In the context of VPNs, these protocols ensure that data being sent between your device and the VPN server is secure, efficient, and reliable.

At its core, a VPN’s primary function is to create a secure tunnel between your device and the VPN server, allowing for encrypted data transmission. 

A VPN protocol determines how this tunnel is established and how data is encrypted and decrypted. Different protocols have different methods and algorithms to achieve this, leading to variations in speed, security, and compatibility.

For instance, while some protocols might prioritise speed, making them suitable for streaming or online gaming, others might emphasise security, ensuring the user’s data remains confidential and safe from potential eavesdroppers.

How do VPN protocols work?

Protocols are the beating heart of a VPN. They determine how the VPN works.

When you use a VPN, the protocol is responsible for hiding your data from prying eyes and rerouting it via the VPN servers. It does both of these things by following these steps:

  1. Establishing the Connection: Initially, the VPN client (the software you use) and the VPN server agree on which protocol to use. This involves what is often termed a “handshake.” During this handshake, the two parties also decide on encryption standards and cryptographic keys that will be used for the duration of the connection.
  2. Tunneling: Once initial parameters are set, the VPN establishes a secure tunnel. Think of this tunnel as a protected passageway where data can move safely, shielded from potential prying eyes. This tunnelling can encapsulate data packets so that they become inaccessible to external entities, effectively placing them inside the protective layer of the tunnel.
  3. Encryption: Data sent through this tunnel isn’t just transmitted as is; it’s encrypted. Encryption transforms the data into a code to prevent unauthorised access. Depending on the protocol, various encryption algorithms may be used. Once the data reaches its intended destination (the other end of the VPN tunnel), it’s decrypted back into its original form using cryptographic keys shared during the initial handshake.
  4. Data Transmission: Within the confines of the established tunnel, data packets are transmitted between your device and the server. Due to the processes above, these packets are both encapsulated and encrypted, ensuring their contents remain private and secure.
  5. Terminating the Connection: Once the data exchange is complete or when the user chooses to disconnect, the VPN connection is terminated. Protocols have specific methods to safely end the session, ensuring any residual data or session identifiers are securely closed or wiped.

Different VPN protocols might emphasise one aspect of this process over another. For example, some might focus on achieving the fastest connection speeds by using less intense encryption, while others might prioritise maximum security, even if that means a slight speed reduction.

Understanding VPN Protocols

What are the most common VPN protocols?

OpenVPN

OpenVPN stands out in the VPN landscape due to its versatility, security, and performance. Its open-source nature is one of its most compelling features. Being open-source means that the source code is freely accessible to anyone. This transparency allows security experts worldwide to inspect, vet, and enhance the protocol. Over time, this rigorous examination ensures that vulnerabilities are discovered and rectified promptly, offering users a robust and secure connection.

A primary reason for OpenVPN’s widespread adoption is its adaptability. It can run on almost any port and be configured to run over TCP (Transmission Control Protocol) and UDP (User Datagram Protocol). While UDP is generally preferred because it’s faster and more efficient for streaming and online activities, the option to use TCP can be handy. Running VPN traffic over TCP port 443 makes it indistinguishable from regular HTTPS traffic, thus bypassing some forms of censorship or network restrictions.

Another advantage of OpenVPN is its robust encryption. It employs the OpenSSL library, which provides a plethora of cryptographic algorithms. This vast choice of encryption methods means that even if one encryption method were compromised, OpenVPN could easily be configured to use another, keeping data secure. Additionally, OpenVPN supports SSL/TLS for key exchange, providing another layer of security.

Despite all its features, OpenVPN has its challenges. Setting it up manually can be complex, especially for users unfamiliar with VPN configurations. However, many VPN service providers have streamlined this process, offering easy-to-use applications that deploy OpenVPN without requiring users to delve into the complexities of manual setup.

L2TP/IPsec

L2TP’s primary function is to create a tunnel between two connection points. However, on its own, it doesn’t provide any encryption, which is a fundamental requirement for ensuring a secure VPN connection. This is where IPsec (Internet Protocol Security) comes into play.

IPsec is a suite of related protocols that enable encryption and authentication of data at the IP layer. When L2TP is combined with IPsec, the resulting L2TP/IPsec protocol not only establishes a tunnel but also ensures that the data travelling through this tunnel is encrypted and secure.

The pairing works in a rather synergistic manner. L2TP takes care of the creation of the tunnel, while IPsec ensures that the data passing through this tunnel is encrypted and authenticated. This combination effectively offers two layers of security: the first is the tunnel itself, and the second is the encrypted data within that tunnel.

One distinctive feature of L2TP/IPsec is its use of double encapsulation. This means that data packets are first wrapped (encapsulated) by L2TP and then again by IPsec. While this process certainly adds a layer of security, it can also make data transmission slightly slower due to the added overhead of the double encapsulation.

As for its cryptographic standards, L2TP/IPsec employs a variety of encryption algorithms and hashing methods, making it versatile in adapting to different security requirements. Some commonly used encryption algorithms with L2TP/IPsec include 3DES (Triple Data Encryption Standard) and AES (Advanced Encryption Standard).

In terms of compatibility, L2TP/IPsec is natively supported on many platforms, ranging from desktop operating systems to mobile devices. This widespread support makes it a popular choice for users and businesses alike. However, it’s worth noting that while L2TP/IPsec offers a good balance between security and performance, it might not be the most suitable choice for all scenarios, especially when maximum speed or specific security configurations are required.

PPTP

The Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol, commonly known as PPTP, holds the distinction of being one of the earliest protocols introduced for VPNs.

At its core, PPTP’s primary function is to encapsulate data packets, allowing them to be securely transmitted over an IP network, such as the Internet. But PPTP itself doesn’t offer encryption.

While PPTP’s straightforward setup and fast connection speeds made it a popular choice in its early days, its security credentials have come under scrutiny over time. Several vulnerabilities have been discovered that potentially expose users to various types of attacks, including the possibility of unauthorised decryption of the data.

Given these known security concerns, the broader cybersecurity community often advises against the use of PPTP, especially when transmitting sensitive or confidential information. As VPN technology has evolved, newer and more secure protocols have been developed, overshadowing PPTP’s early prominence.

IKEv2/IPsec

IKEv2/IPsec is a combination of two separate components: IKEv2, which stands for Internet Key Exchange version 2, and IPsec, which is shorthand for Internet Protocol Security.

IKEv2 is the protocol responsible for establishing and managing the secure connection. It’s particularly notable for its ability to handle network changes efficiently. This adaptability is especially beneficial for mobile users. If, for example, a user moves from a Wi-Fi connection to a cellular data connection, IKEv2 ensures that the VPN connection remains uninterrupted, allowing for a seamless transition.

Then there’s IPsec, which ensures that the data being transmitted is secure. It achieves this by authenticating and encrypting each IP packet in a data stream. There are two main modes within IPsec: Transport Mode and Tunnel Mode. Transport Mode encrypts only the data portion (payload) of each packet, while Tunnel Mode encrypts the entire packet. When combined with IKEv2, the protocol typically operates in Tunnel Mode, which offers a higher degree of security.

In combination, IKEv2/IPsec offers robust security benefits. IKEv2 manages the connection, ensuring stability and adaptability, while IPsec focuses on encrypting and securing the data. This synergy makes IKEv2/IPsec a preferred choice for many who require dependable connections, especially on mobile devices that might frequently switch between different networks.

WireGuard

Unlike traditional, more cumbersome protocols, WireGuard was designed with a focus on simplicity and efficiency. Its lean codebase, consisting of fewer than 4,000 lines, contrasts with the tens of thousands of lines of code in some older protocols. This streamlined design not only makes WireGuard faster and more resource-efficient but also facilitates easier security audits and reviews. As a result, potential vulnerabilities can be spotted and resolved more effectively.

WireGuard operates on the principle of cryptographic keys, both private and public. Each end of a connection has a pair of these keys, ensuring that communication remains secure and authenticated. This method eliminates the need for complex handshakes or renegotiations seen in other protocols. Furthermore, by using modern and high-performing cryptographic algorithms, WireGuard ensures robust encryption without compromising speed.

One of the standout features of WireGuard is its ability to maintain a connection even when a device switches networks. For instance, if you transition from a Wi-Fi connection to a cellular one, WireGuard seamlessly retains the VPN connection, ensuring minimal interruptions. This “roaming” capability is particularly advantageous for mobile users constantly on the move.

However, WireGuard isn’t without its critiques. Being a newer protocol, it hasn’t undergone as many years of real-world testing as its predecessors. Additionally, its minimalistic approach means some features present in other protocols aren’t natively available in WireGuard, which might require users or providers to implement additional tools or configurations.

VPN protocol comparison

VPN ProtocolSecuritySpeedCompatibilityMain Use Cases
OpenVPNHigh (with proper configurations)Medium to HighWidely supported on many platformsGeneral-purpose, streaming, secure browsing
L2TP/IPsecHighMediumNative support on most platformsMobile devices, secure browsing
PPTPLow (known vulnerabilities)HighNative support on many platformsOlder systems, quick setup
IKEv2/IPsecHighHighSupported on many modern platformsMobile devices, quick reconnections
WireGuardHigh (modern cryptography)Very HighIncreasingly supported, but newerNext-gen applications, mobile devices

What is a proprietary protocol?

A proprietary protocol refers to a communication protocol that is developed and owned by a specific company or entity. These protocols are typically designed to address specific needs, improve performance, or introduce innovations not found in more widely used standards. 

NordLynx by NordVPN is an excellent example of a proprietary protocol that’s been developed to enhance VPN performance and security. While it’s based on the WireGuard protocol, NordLynx adds its own tweaks and modifications to fit NordVPN’s infrastructure and to address the privacy concerns associated with WireGuard’s default setup. The result is a protocol that claims to offer faster speeds without compromising the user’s anonymity or encryption strength. The blend of the lightweight nature of WireGuard and the customisation of NordLynx has received acclaim from many users for boosting connection times and transfer rates.

Lightway by ExpressVPN is another proprietary protocol designed to tackle some of the shortcomings of older VPN protocols while emphasising speed, security, and reliability. ExpressVPN developed Lightway to be lightweight, meaning it uses less processing power and connects more quickly than other protocols. Its codebase is smaller and simpler, which, in theory, reduces the potential for security vulnerabilities. Lightway also aims to maintain VPN connections more reliably when switching between different networks, such as transitioning from Wi-Fi to mobile data.

Both NordLynx and Lightway highlight the trend in the VPN industry, where companies are developing their own protocols tailored to their specific infrastructure and the needs of their user base. 

Which VPN protocol is the best?

The question of which VPN protocol is “the best” depends heavily on the specific needs and context of the user.

For most users seeking an optimal blend of speed and security, OpenVPN remains a reliable choice. However, those looking for cutting-edge performance might lean towards WireGuard or proprietary protocols like NordLynx and Lightway, which have been tailored by their respective VPN providers for enhanced speed, efficiency, and a seamless user experience. These proprietary protocols capture the essence of what modern VPN users need: rapid, secure connections with minimal disruptions.

The best VPN protocols for different scenarios

  1. Gaming:
    • WireGuard: Offers low latency and high-speed connections, ensuring smooth gameplay.
    • IKEv2/IPsec: Has quick reconnection capabilities, which can be useful if there are any momentary drops.
  2. Streaming:
    • OpenVPN (UDP mode): Provides a stable and secure connection, which is crucial for uninterrupted streaming. It’s widely accepted and can bypass most geoblocks.
    • WireGuard: Due to its high-speed connections, it can also be ideal for streaming high-definition content.
  3. Mobile:
    • IKEv2/IPsec: This is especially useful for mobile devices due to its ability to reconnect quickly when switching between Wi-Fi and mobile data.
    • WireGuard: Offers a stable and efficient connection, beneficial for mobile battery life.
  4. TV (Smart TVs and Streaming Devices):
    • OpenVPN: It’s commonly supported on a wide range of devices and offers both security and speed.
    • L2TP/IPsec: It’s natively supported on many platforms and can be an option when OpenVPN isn’t available.
  5. Public Wi-Fi:
    • OpenVPN: Due to its strong encryption, it’s a good choice for insecure public networks.
    • WireGuard: It offers a quick and secure connection, which is ideal for transient Wi-Fi connections.
  6. High-Censorship Countries:
    • OpenVPN (over TCP or obfuscated): Can be configured to bypass deep packet inspection and evade blocks.
    • L2TP/IPsec: While not as secure as OpenVPN, it might be harder to detect in some environments.
  7. General Browsing and Security:
    • OpenVPN: It’s the industry standard, offering a good balance of speed and security.
    • WireGuard: Modern protocol with robust encryption and efficient performance.

Remember, while these are general recommendations, the best protocol often depends on the specific VPN provider, the user’s device, and the network conditions. Testing and experience are crucial in pinpointing the most suitable option for individual needs.

Patch Bowen
Patch Bowen is an accomplished technology journalist with a solid academic foundation, holding a degree from Auckland University. His expertise spans across a range of tech topics, with a notable focus on product reviews, industry trends, and the impact of technology on society. With his work featured on major New Zealand websites like Stuff.co.nz, thebit.nz, and The Press, Patch has established himself as a credible voice in technology media. His articles are known for their detailed analysis and practical insights, particularly in making complex technological concepts understandable for a broad audience. At ReviewsFire, Patch is renowned for his thorough evaluations and clear, informative writing style. He has a knack for identifying and explaining the nuances of the latest gadgets and digital trends, earning him a reputation as a trusted source for tech advice and information.

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