What is a VPN protocol? The most popular VPN protocols explained

What is a VPN protocol? The most popular VPN protocols explained

To understand how a VPN is able to come in handy for helping you in extreme online situations, you need to understand its components.

You are in the right place, at the right moment, as when it comes to extreme situations, Transylvanians are experts at defying any challenge.

You need to be aware that not only humans need to obey orders or follow the rules, in order for societies to work, but software solutions too.

When it comes to a VPN connection or a VPN software, the rules are made by the one and only – VPN protocol.

So, let’s see what is so important about this VPN component.

The Transylvanian explanation of a VPN protocol.

Inhale and exhale… the Transylvanian explanation part in our articles is like a piece of cake, both in the metaphorical form and plain speech:

  1. Metaphorical – an explanation that is super easy to understand.
  2. Plain speech – it’s good and enjoyable, just like a piece of your favorite cake. You’ll just want more.

This time, before digging into the cake, first you must know a few general aspects regarding the VPN protocols. So, the protocol in a VPN connection is a set of rules that will determine exactly how your data routes between your computer and the VPN server.

Transposing this into our explanation, we could refer at the VPN protocol like the alphabet, sorry, I meant alpha bat in the bats’ social structure.

If you’re wondering if I am delusional, you must know that I am not. Bats are super-smart creatures who have a social structure dominated by a leader. This leader is responsible for the group’s well-being.

Just like a VPN protocol, the bat leader will apply a set of rules that the rest of the group needs to follow in order to stay safe and sound.

Of course, there are different species of bats so there can be powerful leaders and more clumsy ones, just like the virtual private network protocols.

The most powerful bat leader would be the Vampire Bat which, in the VPN industry would be the OpenVPN protocol, as is fierce and popular among VPN users. On the list, we must add the Brazilian free-tailed bat, a super-fast bat, just like PPTP VPN protocol.

And, not to bore you, I will end this list with the rare Honduran white bat, a beautiful snow-white species that could be the out-of-the-box Softether VPN – a powerful protocol that no many VPN services provide. 

What is an Internet protocol?

A baby-bat is not flying right after it is born. It takes a few months of learning before being able to be Nightcrawler. Just like a baby bat, you need to learn what is an Internet protocol, before getting more specific, and to learn what a VPN protocol is.

In IT, an internet protocol is a set of special rules that apply to the way that data is transmitted over the internet. A protocol governs all the steps implied in the data transmission between two or more devices.

There are different protocols based on the process that needs to be performed. As protocols specify the right standards for communication between two computers, providing detailed information about the processed involved in the data transmission, we can talk about the following types of protocols, based on the processes. Here are just a few examples:

  • HTTPS (Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure)
  • TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol)
  • IP (Internet Protocol)
  • DNS (Domain Name System)
  • SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol)
  • FTP (File Transfer Protocol)

As these are the most common protocols, let’s find more, shall we?

  1. HTTPS – is the young son of HTTP, the notorious protocol you’re using at this very moment. HTTPS is a client-server model of protocol and is used for displaying information in web pages, by creating a connection between a web client and a web server.
  2. TCP – breaks data into small packages of information and sends it to its destination, being used for communication over a network.
  3. IP – is TCP’s best friend and are working together. It’s just like me and TomBat – an unstoppable team.
  4. DNS – defines the way in which Internet domain names are located and, after that, translated into IP addresses.
  5. SMTP – is the boss of e-mails. This mail transfer protocol manages the transmission of your e-mails over the world wide web.
  6. FTP – a protocol used for transferring files to different networks.

What is a VPN protocol?

Let’s focus now on this very-important VPN component that rules the way your data is managed during your VPN connection.

VPN protocols explained

A VPN protocol is a technology that uses different encryption standards for data transmission. During your active VPN connection, the VPN protocol will lead the data between your device and the VPN server, and back.

Diagram showing how the VPN protocol encrypts the communication between your device and a VPN server.

Based on VPN users’ requirements, the VPN protocols can be grouped on protocols that favorize the level of security in your VPN connection, stability, VPN speed, level of encryption, the capacity to bypass online restrictions/deep packaging inspection.

Sometimes, the popularity of a VPN provider is given by the number of VPN protocols allowing its user to access. That’s why most of the VPN services are investing a lot of time and hard work to provide the most popular VPN protocols and differentiate by the others by the number of rare protocols providing.

Currently, the VPN protocols that you get to see advertised in VPN providers’ lists are OpenVPN, PPTP, IPsec, SSTP, L2TP, IKEv2, SoftEther VPN, Stealth VPN, or Shadowsocks VPN.

Now, let’s put under the magnifying glass all the above-mentioned protocols, by grouping them based on what defines them the most.

VPN protocols for online security

Open VPN

OpenVPN is the leader of VPN protocols’ gang, as is perfectly balanced in terms of security, speed, and stability. Another plus is that is super-configurable, and it works on multiple platforms (Windows, macOS, Android, iOS). As is hard to be detected by firewalls, Open VPN might come in handy for users who need to bypass online restrictions.

As it does not come as a native protocol integrated into certain OSes, it requires third-party software.

Another plus? OpenVPN uses the highest level of encryption (256bit encryption), assuring super-secure VPN connections and it can run on any port, including the 443 HTTPS port, using both UDP and TCP protocols.

SSTP

SSTP (Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol) it’s OpenVPN’s brother from another mother as these two protocols assure the same level of security for your VPN connection.

SSTP enables the possibility for traffic transportation via the Secure Socket Layer (SSL) over TCP port 443, fact that, just like in OpenVPN’s case, makes it hard to be detected by firewalls.

The only downside of this protocol is its compatibility – it can be used only on Windows operating system as is developed by Microsoft. We will provide you more details about VPN protocols compatibility, later on in this article.

IPsec

Another popular VPN protocol used for security reasons is IPsec (Internet Protocol Security). Its high security is granted by the Authentication Header, the Encapsulating Security Payload mechanisms, and the fact that it encrypts the traffic in such a way that the endpoint application will not be aware that you’re using a VPN.

Wireguard

A super-easy to use VPN protocol, not provided by many VPN services. It’s known that Wireguard is pretty secure and often compared with OpenVPN. After it was released for Linux kernel, the protocol was developed and now is a cross-platform VPN protocol available on different OSes like Windows, Android, iOS, and Mac.

VPN protocols for fast VPN connections

While using a highly-secure VPN protocol, your connection speed can be affected. What you need to be aware of is that a VPN that favorize the speed won’t be able to provide high security. Here are a few VPN protocols that are super-fast.

PPTP

PPTP or Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol, it’s like the oldest bat ever. Developed by Microsoft back in the 90s, PPTP still exists and serves some purposes. It cannot be compared to the best VPN protocols for security purposes as it is susceptible to attacks. However, PPTP provides fast connections, which makes it the right solution for users wanting to stream geo-restricted content.

L2TP

L2TP is PPTP’s successor, and it’s often described as an improved PPTP extension, the only difference being the double encapsulation.

  • The first encapsulation is for setting up the PPP connection.
  • The second one uses the IPsec encryption (so the protocol itself uses no encryption, that’s why is always paired with IPsec).

Looking at L2TP from this perspective, we can say that due to better encryption is a little slower than PPTP, but faster than OpenVPN, SSTP, and other secure VPN protocols.

IKEv2

Something’s funny about the IKEv2 protocol. This technology is like a clumsy kid who dreams about becoming a superhero… Why am I making this comparison? Because IKEv2 is not actually a protocol, but it behaves like one.

Developed by Microsoft and Cisco together, IKEv2 kept under the pillow a picture of IPsec, as this protocol uses IPsec as a ground technology. Also, in the VPN market is known as a relatively safe, fast, and stable protocol.

VPN Protocols for online freedom

The VPN protocols developed to help VPN users bypass online restrictions, firewalls, and DPI are like the majestic creatures. These technologies are a little bit more complex, that’s why not many VPN services are providing such out-of-the-box features.

SoftEther VPN

Even though it is pretty new on the market, SoftEher is a multi-protocol, started as a project at the University of Tsukuba.

Something that seemed to be just a regular project ended up being one of the most known open-source multi-protocol VPN software, so don’t be fooled by the fact that it has “Soft” in its name.

As it uses 256 bit-encryption, it’s hard to be detected, so it can easily help your VPN bypass any kind of restrictions.

Stealth VPN

This sophisticated technology called Stealth VPN uses an advanced technique called obfuscation (ObfsProxy) in order to make your VPN traffic look like HTTPS traffic. Because it’s able to mask your VPN traffic, its name was given after the Stealth Airforce planes which are able to overfly any area without being detected.

Shadowsocks VPN

Last but not least, Shadowsocks VPN is not truly a protocol, but it acts like one. Compared to IKEv2, which, as well, is not a protocol, Shadowsocks is super-powerful and capable of bypassing even the Great Firewall of China’s DPI. If you decide to configure Shadowsocks manually on your device, you must know that your connection won’t be encrypted. If you’re lucky enough to have it configured into a VPN client, then you can enjoy a 100% encrypted, secured, and anonymous online experience.

VPN protocols – comparison table

If there would be a fight between OpenVPN vs PPTP vs L2TP vs other VPN protocols, which one would win based on its stability, encryption, and compatibility with other devices?

Let’s take a look at the information structured below.

VPN ProtocolsEncryptionStabilityCompatibility

OpenVPN

Good

Very stable and fast

Various operating systems and devices

SSTP

Good

Very stable and extremely secureWindows (Vista, 7, 8, 10)

IPSec

Medium

Pretty stableVarious operating systems and devices

Wireguard

Medium

Pretty stable and fastVarious operating systems and devices

PPTP

Light

Not very stable and reliableVarious operating systems and devices

L2TP

Good

Very stable and fastVarious operating systems and devices

IKEv2

Medium

Pretty stable and fastVarious operating systems and devices

SoftEther VPN

Good

Very stable protocolVarious operating systems and devices

Stealth VPN

Good

Very stable protocol.Windows, Android.

Shadowsocks

Light

Very stable protocolVarious operating systems and devices

How to use a VPN protocol?

Now that you know who’s making the rules in your VPN connection, it is time for you to learn how to use a VPN protocol. As some of these technologies are pretty complicated, you probably think that is additional software that you need to install on your device, to enjoy stable and reliable VPN connections via secure VPN protocols.

Even if it might sound strange, these protocols are not additional software, but build-in features. The trustworthy VPN providers have implemented these VPN protocols directly into the VPN clients so you can enable a VPN connection via a protocol with just a click.

Withal, if you want, you can configure one VPN protocol directly on your device, if your device allows you to, of course. So, to do this, make sure to check first if your OS supports specific VPN protocols. To help you have a smooth VPN journey, some VPNs will even provide you tutorials on how to configure a VPN protocol on your device. Cool, isn’t it?

If your VPN provider is not that awesome, have no fear, Vlad is here, and it might be able to help you. Just drop me a line on the contact page, and I will try to provide you with a link to a proper tutorial.

You make the rules. What will you choose?

Do you know the idiom Don’t judge a book by its cover? When it comes to VPN protocols, you must be a little bit fastidious and judge your provider based on its features list. Why? You should never choose a VPN provider that allows only low-performance protocols like PPTP.

Pick the provider that meets your needs and expectations, and when it comes to choosing the VPN protocol for your connection, keep in mind that you need to define your online goal.

Should you need the VPN to stream some videos? Then try PPTP, as is fast and can do the job.

Do you need to stay secure, and bypass firewalls? Use something powerful like OpenVPN, SSTP, or Shadowsocks VPN.

Don’t forget that the VPN protocol is making the rules for your VPN connection, but you’re the one to decide what you want to use TODAY.

Stay thirsty for learning!

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