VPN Protocols – What Are They and Why Should You Care?

VPN awareness and understanding is quite elevated in the UK, with some 23% of the population appreciating the need to create an additional layer of network protection when surfing online.

However, while many of you may know that a VPN (or virtual private network) creates an encrypted connection between your mobile and desktop devices and a remote server (simultaneously safeguarding your data and masking your IP address), the technology that underpins this is far less renowned.

For example, did you know that VPNs rely on different protocols to determine their functionality? In this article, we’re going to explore the main VPN protocols, while asking how they’ll impact your experience as an Internet user.

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Getting Started – What is a VPN Protocol?

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We’ll delve into the different protocols below, but in general terms, this type of technology determines precisely how data is routed between your computer and the remote server in use.

Each protocol has different parameters and specifications, which in turn translate into unique benefits and potential drawbacks.

Some are known to prioritize speed and performance, for example, whereas others eschew this for an exclusive focus on optimizing privacy and network security. Let’s see how this impacts the various VPN protocols below!

1. OpenVPN

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We’ll start with the most popular and widely used protocol, with OpenVPN established as an open-source option that offers widespread functionality.

For example, the open-source nature of the protocol makes it ideal from a broad range of projects and applications, while it’s also possible to scrutinize the code and for vulnerabilities and identify these proactively.

In terms of security, OpenVPN also utilizes market leading AES-256-bit key encryption, while combining this with 2048-bit RSA authentication and a 160-bit SHA1 hash algorithm. This creates a well-rounded and robust level of encryption, and while the protocol is known for its relatively slow speeds, the technology underpins some of the most secure VPNs available.

OpenVPN is also incredibly accessible, and it can be with a diverse range of operating systems including Windows, macOS, Linux, Android, iOS and even routers. You can even download VPNs with OpenVPN protocols on your Blackberry device, so it’s little wonder it has become so popular in recent years.

2. Wireguard

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While Wireguard is the newest VPN protocol on the mainstream market, it’s very much focused on the speed of performance rather than security alone.

Like OpenVPN, it’s also open-source, although it uses a much simpler codebase in comparison to other major virtual private networks. Interestingly, this means that many markets leading VPNs like Surfshark combine Wireguard and OpenVPN, in order to strike the optimal combination of speed and network security.

The relatively simplistic nature of Wireguard’s code also makes its associated VPN services easier to set up than most alternatives, while there’s a far greater level of support for a wider range of primitives and encryption types.

Of course, it’s all of these factors and more that make Wireguard the fastest VPN protocol around. The protocol’s speed also tends to underpin VPNs that are ideal for mobile devices and smartphones, or even fully loaded backbone routers in some cases.

At the same time, Wireguard makes full use of the ChaCha20 encryption algorithm, which is also known to be highly compatible with portable devices. Unsurprisingly, Wireguard is fast-becoming one of the most-widely sought after protocols around, although most VPNs combine it with alternatives to help create more robust security.

3. L2TP/IPSec

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You may have heard of the Point-to-Point Tunnelling Protocol (PPTP), which is one of the oldest VPN protocols around. Although it’s still used by some applications, it’s largely considered to be outdated in terms of speed and security, while it has also been directly superseded by the popular L2TP/IPSec protocol.

It combines two different elements developed by Microsoft and Cisco, although the former’s L2TP doesn’t actually provide any encryption or privacy by itself. As a result, it’s bundled together with the robust security protocol IPSec, creating a formidable option that’s considered to provide one of the safest VPN connections around.

Like the aforementioned OpenVPN, L2TP/IPSec boasts AES-256 bit encryption, while it has no known or overt vulnerabilities. This doesn’t mean that it’s flawless, however, with the protocol occasionally and randomly defaulting to UDP on port 500.

The issue here is that this can make VPN users’ web traffic easier to spot and subsequently block, which of course undermines the core purpose of using a virtual private network in the first place.

The Last Word

These three security protocols are the most widely used in contemporary VPN services, while they each offer different advantages and potential drawbacks to users.

This is why the best VPNs tend to combine different protocols to optimize their performance, with the deployment of OpenVPN and Wireguard in a single product likely to deliver both speed and security and equal measure,

Before you subscribe to and download a VPN, we’d recommend checking the precise protocols that it uses, as this can help you to make an informed decision that suits your intended usage.