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A virtual private network (VPN) protocol provides a secure tunnel for data transmission to keep your online activities confidential. All VPNs use a protocol that is created with a set of rules that dictate how data is transmitted through tunnels. Some protocols prioritize encryption and security while others focus on providing faster speeds for online gaming or streaming.
This guide covers how a VPN protocol works and the most common types of VPN protocols that will help you make an informed choice.
What Is a VPN Protocol?
A VPN helps its users establish a secure and safe internet connection by routing their internet traffic through encrypted tunnels. The VPN protocol dictates how the tunnel is formed and the data is transmitted.
The protocol determines the method of encryption, authentication and data encapsulation used while the data is transmitted across servers. Having an encrypted connection ensures your online activities are shielded from potential threats, such as hackers, government surveillance or data breaches. Most protocols vary in terms of security, speed and compatibility, so it’s important to choose one that suits your needs.
How VPN Protocol Works
A VPN protocol serves as the foundation for establishing secure and encrypted connection between your device and a remote VPN server. It performs two basic functions: authentication and encryption.
- Encryption: Once you initiate a connection with a VPN server, the chosen protocol kicks into action. The protocol employs robust encryption methods, such as secure sockets layer (SSL)/transport layer security (TLS) to make your data unreadable for unauthorized entities.
- Establishing a secure tunnel: Once encrypted, your data is summarized within a secure tunnel—a virtual conduit that spans between your VPN server and device. As the data is transmitted, the tunnel protects it from potential security threats.
- Authentication: The VPN protocol uses authentication mechanisms to make sure your device is connected to a trusted and authentic VPN server.
- Data routing and remote access: As your encrypted data travels through a secure tunnel, it arrives at the VPN server. From there, the VPN server acts as an intermediary that routes your data to its intended destination and masks your IP address.
- Bidirectional communication: The VPN protocol facilitates bidirectional communication, so data can flow seamlessly between your device and the remote server. Whether you’re uploading files or surfing online, the VPN protocol ensures that your data is transmitted in a secure way.
Most VPN protocols utilize various encryption and authentication methods which lead to different levels of speed and security.
6 Most Common Types of VPN Protocol
VPN protocols are used to establish secure and encrypted connections between a user’s device and a VPN server. Each protocol comes with its own strengths, weaknesses and specific use cases.
Here are some of the most common types of VPN protocols.
OpenVPN is an open-source and highly configurable protocol that is known for its security and versatility. The community-supported open source software (OSS) project enables developers to examine the code for vulnerabilities. In addition, they can modify the protocol, so it leverages proper authentication methods, ciphers and encryption procedures.
There are two types of OpenVPN protocols: transmission control protocol (TCP) and user datagram protocol (UDP) for communication. TCP establishes a connection between the sender and receiver before data transmission begins. In contrast, a UDP does not require this type of connection.
OpenVPN is widely used due to its ability to provide a balance between speed and security. It uses end-to-end AES 256-bit encryption, intrusion detection and prevention systems to safeguard your data and SSL/TLS encryption. A kill switch feature prevents domain name server (DNS) attacks and leakage, in case the VPN loses connection. It is available on MacOS, Microsoft Windows, MacOS, Android, Linux and iOS.
L2TP/IPsec is a virtual private network (VPN) protocol that is a combination of two protocols—layer 2 tunneling protocol (L2TP) and internet protocol security (IPsec).
L2TP uses a tunneling protocol to create virtual networks to create a secure path for data transmission. Often, it is paired with IPsec which offers encryption and authentication capabilities to protect the data packets being transmitted over a network.
Similar to OpenVPN, L2TP is available across famous operating systems, including Android, Windows, macOS and iOS. While OpenVPN is popularly known for its stronger security features, L2TP is well-known for its anonymization of data.
The point-to-point tunneling protocol (PPTP) is a network protocol that was developed by Microsoft in the early 1990s. PPTP creates a secure tunnel to transmit data between the user’s device and the VPN server.
PPTP is one of the earliest VPN protocols but it still relies on the outdated MS-CHAP v2 to transmit data. As a result, it is considered weak and susceptible to various security vulnerabilities. However, the lack of encryption and authentication features makes PPTP the fastest VPN protocol.
Due to its security weaknesses, PPTP typically is not recommended for secure or sensitive use cases. Other VPN protocols, such as L2TP/IPsec and OpenVPN, offer stronger security features.
Launched in 2015, WireGuard is a communication protocol that was developed by Jason A. Donenfeld. Unlike older protocols, it is designed to be lightweight and efficient which makes it one of the fastest protocols.
WireGuard emphasizes simplicity in its design and implementation. Not only is it easier to set up and maintain, but it also supports multiple types of primitives and encryption. It uses state-of-the-art cryptography including the ChaCha20, Poly1305, BLAKE2, Noise protocol framework, SipHash24 and HKDF.
WireGuard has gathered attention for its potential to become a next-generation VPN protocol that offers both speed and security. The protocol is available on multiple operating systems such as Windows, Linux, macOS, Android and iOS.
Secure socket tunneling protocol (SSTP) is a VPN protocol developed by Microsoft. Similar to PPTP, it was designed to be fully integrated with Windows devices. It delivers data within a SSL 3.0 tunnel, then sends it to a remote VPN server.
The protocol is relatively easy to set up, especially on Windows devices. Most VPN providers have Windows SSTP instructions available for integration. This means users can establish SSTP connections without the need for third-party software.
To keep your data secure, SSTP uses 2048-bit SSL/TLS for authentication and industry-standard 256-bit SSL keys for encryption. Additionally, it supports the AES-256 cipher, which makes it difficult for unauthorized entities to hack data. This ensures the integrity and confidentiality of data transmitted for VPN users.
SSTP is well-suited for Windows devices. While it supports other platforms—macOS, Linux or mobile devices—may be more limited compared to other VPN protocols.
Internet key exchange version 2 (IKEv2) was jointly developed by Cisco Systems and Microsoft.
IKEv2 is often used in combination with the IPsec protocol to create secure VPN connections. When combined, they can protect data transmission and establish a secure communication channel.
One of the standout features of IKEv2 is its ability to reestablish connections quickly after temporary disruptions. It allows for seamless switching between different network interfaces, such as Wi-Fi to cellular, or when devices go in and out of sleep mode. This makes it suitable for mobile devices that frequently change network connections.
The protocol is extensively supported on a wide range of platforms, including MacOS, Windows, Linux, iOS and Android. This broad compatibility makes it a resourceful option for users on different devices.
The VPN protocol determines how data is encrypted and transmitted between your device and the VPN server. The most popular VPN protocols include OpenVPN, L2TP/IPsec, PPTP, SSTP and WireGuard. While most VPNs promise to keep your online activities confidential, their effectiveness is deeply intertwined with the VPN provider you choose. A reputable and trustworthy provider paired with the right protocol provides a higher level of protection for your security and privacy.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What are the most common VPN protocols?
The most common VPN protocols are OpenVPN, WireGuard, L2TP/IPsec, IKEv2/IPsec, PPTP and SSTP. These protocols offer different trade-offs between security, speed and compatibility, so the best option will depend on your specific needs.
What are the differences between VPN protocols?
VPN protocols differ in several aspects, such as their security features, speed, compatibility and use cases. When choosing a VPN protocol, consider your specific needs, such as your preferred level of security, devices and operating systems and the types of online activities you’ll participate in.
What are the three main forms of VPN protocols currently in use?
The three main forms of VPN protocols currently in use are OpenVPN, L2TP/IPsec and WireGuard.
OpenVPN is an open-source protocol that is known for its strong security and flexibility. IPsec provides security features at the IP layer of the network and is often paired with other protocols, such as L2TP to create secure VPN connections. WireGuard is an open-source and lightweight protocol that is designed to be more efficient than some older protocols.