Top 7 VPN protocols and how to choose the best one for you
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With privacy becoming ever so elusive in our online lives, data protection has become a growing concern for many. That is why almost a third of all Internet users utilize a VPN.
Each VPN service runs a given VPN protocol that has its own advantages and drawbacks. Learning about some of the most popular VPN protocols in more detail will ultimately help you make a better choice when selecting a commercial VPN service provider or when creating your own VPN server.
What is a VPN protocol?
VPN stands for virtual private network and works by creating a safe tunnel, which allows you to send encrypted data from your device to a remote server.
VPN services use a number of different VPN protocols for the processes of encryption and authentication. These protocols determine how your data is routed through a specific connection.
Naturally, these protocols are all different from each other. Each protocol has a separate, unique rule set which affects its performance as well as the level of privacy of the VPN service.
How do VPN protocols differ?
Which protocol you’ll choose depends mainly on your reasons for using a VPN.
Is it to surmount censorship and gain access to social networks? Are you wary of using open Wi-Fi hotspots in public places, especially when shopping or banking? Or maybe you just want to protect your anonymity while browsing? These are all just examples of why you should consider using a VPN.
Additionally, if you want to protect your privacy even more and not have to use a third-party VPN provider, you can instead install a VPN protocol on a VPS server, essentially creating your own private VPN server.
Each use case may require the use of a specific protocol, each with its own pros and cons when it comes to the level of security and the speed/stability of the connection.
So before choosing a VPN service, here is what you should know about some of the most popular VPN protocols and how to find the one, which will fit your needs the best.
PPTP - the original VPN protocol
Point to Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP) is the oldest widely-used tunneling protocol. It was developed by Microsoft in the 1990’s and its main purpose was to encrypt data when transmitting it via dial-up connection.
While PPTP is very fast, it has become less and less secure due to the advancement in technology over the last couple of decades. This has also left it vulnerable to being exploited and cracked, hence why it is suggested to use newer protocols.
In general, PPTP is great for accessing geo-restricted content and video streaming thanks to the high speeds, however, it is not recommended if you want to better protect your privacy.
- Fast and easy to set up
- Universally supported
- Good connection speed
- Useful for streaming
- Poor overall security
- Less privacy protection
L2TP/IPSec - old but reliable
Coming up next on the list we have another older VPN protocol - L2TP and its trusted partner - IPSec.
Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol (L2TP) is often combined with Internet Protocol Security (IPSec) for better security and performance. The role of L2TP is to establish a secure connection, while IPSec is tasked with encrypting the data.
L2TP/IPSec was developed by Microsoft and Cisco in the 1990s and is supported by most modern computers and mobile devices, making it really easy to set up and run.
However, it does have some drawbacks. One such disadvantage is that it can be automatically blocked by most firewalls, requiring the configuration of some additional firewall rules.
While PPTP is fast, but not secure, L2TP/IPSec is slower, but uses more robust encryption. It also doesn’t have any major known vulnerabilities, but some users may be concerned by the fact that the NSA helped develop IPSec.
- High-level encryption
- Widely supported by modern devices
- Secure without any known vulnerabilities
- Encapsulates data twice, making connection speed slower
- Can be automatically blocked by firewalls
- Requires additional firewall configuration
- NSA helped developed IPSec, which can be a privacy concern for some
You can also check out our L2TP VPN installer script if you wish to utilize the L2TP protocol to create your own personal, VPS-installed VPN server. We also have useful documentation entries on how to create additional users for your L2TP server as well as how to connect a desktop or a mobile device.
SSTP - originally designed for Windows
Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol (SSTP) is another VPN protocol, which was developed by Microsoft. It has been fully integrated with and supported by every Microsoft operating system since Windows Vista SP1. However, despite being mainly considered as a Windows-specific solution, it can also run on Linux as well.
SSTP uses 2048-bit SSL/TLS certificates for authentication and 256-bit SSL keys for encryption, making it sufficiently secure. Unlike L2TP/IPSec, SSTP has no problem bypassing firewalls without any additional complicated rules needing to be set up.
One of its major drawbacks is the fact that it is a proprietary solution and its code cannot be audited independently.
- Good level of encryption
- Good overall security
- Harder to be detected and blocked by firewalls
- Integrated into Windows OS
- Also works on Linux
- The code is not available for testing
- Primarily supported by Windows systems
IKEv2 - fast, secure and stable
The Key Exchange volume 2 (IKEv2) VPN protocol was also developed by Microsoft, this time in cooperation with Cisco. Similarly to L2TP, it is often paired up with IPSec, which provides additional encryption and authentication.
IKEv2 was built with the primary focus being put on speed, security and above all - stability. This protocol uses IPSec tools to help maintain the VPN connection when switching networks, quickly reestablishing the link if the connection is temporarily dropped.
This makes it an ideal solution for mobile devices, which often need to alternate between Wi-Fi hotspots and mobile data.
Windows, macOS and iOS devices have native IKEv2 support, while Android users need to install third-party applications in order to use the protocol.
- Fast and very secure
- Great at maintaining a stable connection while on the go
- Can easily switch between networks without experiencing connection issues
- Has open-source versions available
- Built-in support for Windows, macOS and iOS
- Can be blocked by firewalls if its default settings are used
- Only some Android versions are supported
OpenVPN - one of the most popular VPN protocols
The OpenVPN protocol was released back in 2001. It quickly rose to prominence, becoming one of the most popular and utilized open-source VPN protocols worldwide. It currently serves as the base for the services of many premium and commercial VPN providers.
The protocol can run on both TCP and UDP. TCP is better when it comes to overall security and ensuring a stable and reliable connection. UDP, on the other hand, is best used for low-latency transmission of data activities such as video and audio streaming or online gaming.
Security is probably the greatest advantage of OpenVPN as it can run most encryption protocols.
Additionally, the protocol is available for almost all operating systems, although the support is not built-in. OpenVPN can work on devices running Linux, Windows, macOS, iOS and Android, among others.
Moreover, it is also difficult to be detected and blocked by firewalls.
Finally, since it is completely open-source, the code can be easily audited by anyone for flaws.
- Supports both TCP and UDP
- Open-source, verifiable code
- Very fast, secure and reliable
- Can bypass firewalls without additional rule configurations
- Can be configured for different uses, making it highly versatile
- Runs on almost any operating system
- Requires additional user clients in order to work properly
- Slightly more difficult to configure
If you wish to create your own VPN server, you can check out our OpenVPN installation script for a step-by-step tutorial! We also have a number of other documentation entries on OpenVPN server management including how to create OpenVPN user profiles and how to connect desktop and mobile devices.
WireGuard - innovative and fast
The WireGuard VPN protocol is one of the newest open-source VPN protocols. It is also one of the fastest ones.
While still in its infancy, it is already available for all major operating systems.
WireGuard is extremely lightweight having only 4000 lines of code. This low amount of code results in higher speeds and less room for errors and vulnerabilities.
It uses state-of-the-art cryptography with a variety of protocols and primitives to choose from when it comes to encryption.
Overall, WireGuard is simple and easy to use. It is also capable of roaming between IP addresses.
- Open-source, checkable code
- One of the fastest VPN solutions
- Extremely secure and reliable
- Supports all major operating systems
- Lightweight in terms of code, having only 4000 lines
- Wide range of encryption protocols and primitives
- Can roam between IP addresses
- Still in development
- Can still come across an unsupported operating system
- Has its own app similar to OpenVPN
Similarly to OpenVPN, we also have a special WireGuard installation script that you can use if you decide to create your own VPN server. You can also find some useful tutorials on how to create users for your WireGuard VPN server as well as how to connect desktop and mobile devices.
SoftEther - academic project turned VPN protocol
SoftEther VPN started as an academic project in the University of Tsukuba, Japan. It is an open-source, easy-to-use multi-protocol VPN software with strong firewall resistance.
In terms of resources, it is arguably faster than OpenVPN and has lower overall memory and CPU consumption.
The SoftEther VPN software also has its very own VPN protocol unsurprisingly named SoftEther. It uses SSL to establish secure client-server VPN communications with many technological improvements in order to attain better overall security and higher connection speeds.
The software runs on Windows, Linux, Mac, FreeBSD and Solaris. It also aims to be considered as a viable alternative to OpenVPN and Microsoft's VPN servers.
- Completely free
- Open-source, verifiable code
- High speed and great stability
- Strong security
- Can be difficult to configure correctly
- Requires additional user clients in order to work appropriately
Similarly to some of the other VPN protocols that we previously discussed, we also have some useful resources in our documentation. You can check out our entries on how to install the SoftEther VPN protocol on CentOS 7 and also our SoftEther installation script for Ubuntu.
We also have dedicated tutorials on how to connect your desktop and mobile device to a server running on the SoftEther VPN protocol. We also have some more information on how to manage your SoftEther VPN server.
Which VPN protocol should you choose?
Sadly, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to VPN protocols. However, we do hope this article makes it a bit easier when it comes to choosing the best one based on your requirements.
Whether you value speed or privacy, stability or ease of use, there is a protocol out there that will make your browsing secure and hassle-free.
For some extra tips when it comes to selecting a VPN protocol, you can also check out how some of these discussed protocols compare to each other in our article on how to choose the right VPN protocol for your server.