Let’s face facts; accessing and using a VPN is incredibly straightforward. To begin, you simply need to find and download a VPN client for your PC or chosen device, before confirming your location and hitting the ‘Connect’ button!
However, virtual private networks are actually underpinned by some relatively complex technology, including ‘protocols’ that establish a unique set of rules pertaining to how your data is packaged and distributed.
But what exactly are protocols, and which are the best options on the market? Here’s a brief breakdown!
Getting Started - What is a VPN Protocol?
We’ve already established how VPN protocols establish a unique set of rules for the packaging and transference of your data across a private network.
More specifically, protocols created so-called “VPN tunnels”, through which encrypted data is routed safely, securely and as quickly as possible.
This helps to underline the challenge facing VPN protocols, however, as while less encryption tends to result in faster connections and delivery, this also translates into less secure web traffic. Conversely, increased encryption enhances security while reducing server speed, making it hard for clients to strike the ideal balance.
To negate this, the best and most reputable VPN clients often combine different protocols as part of their offering. As each one can prioritise different aspects of the data exchange process, you can enjoy an optimised experience that doesn’t compromise on functionality, security or privacy.
So, when deciding which VPN to download for free on your PC, you should give priority to those that operate multiple protocols simultaneously.
OK - But What are the Best and Most Common VPN Protocols?
Of course, even when you identify a VPN client that utilises a number of protocols, it’s important that you take the time to learn about each one and their exact functionality.
So, here’s a guide to five of the most common VPN protocols, along with a breakdown of their advantages and potential drawbacks.
We’ll start with IKEv2, or ‘Internet Key Exchange version 2. This remains one of the most common VPN protocols among mobile users, thanks to its ability to automatically reset and reconnect after interaction with a remote server has been interrupted.
As a result, you can seamlessly switch between Wi-Fi and mobile data connections when using your smartphone, without compromising on productivity or accessibility at all.
This protocol is also noticeably fast and capable of supporting advanced cipher functions, enhancing user privacy and data security in the process.
But are there any drawbacks to this protocol? Well, the creators of IKEv2 (namely Microsoft and Cisco) showcase a perpetual interest in developing vulnerabilities around the protocol, which may be a little too easy for experienced hackers to exploit.
As a result of this, it’s often recommended for VPN clients to combine IKEv2 with the IPSec protocol, creating a more secure connection that’s ultimately fit for purpose from the user’s perspective (we’ll have a little more on IPSec later in the piece).
Apart from the very latest versions of iOS, Mac OS and Windows, you’ll also note that using IKEv2 in alternative operating systems may require some time-consuming manual configurations.
Such configurations may also create vulnerabilities for hackers to exploit, so it’s worth keeping this in mind when comparing the marketplace.
Next up is the single most familiar VPN protocol, known commonly as OpenVPN. This accessible and easy to implement protocol relies on the OpenSSL crypto library, which serves as a comprehensive index of secure cryptography algorithms that subsequently secure your connection tunnels.
OpenVPN also uses TLS with SSL/TLS to create private key exchange, further borrowing from existing blockchain technology to enhance the security of any data that’s sent between two servers through a VPN connection.
What’s more, OpenVPN operates two standard network protocols to afford users far greater flexibility depending on their precise usage. These include:
User Data Protocol (UDP): In simple terms, this network protocol requires minimal data verification, creating a fast connection that may be ideal for pastime such as streaming (or where your security is a slightly less important consideration overall).
Transmission Control Protocol (TCP): If you’re a seasoned gamer or someone who regularly accesses public networks, you may choose to use OpenVPN’s TCP Protocol instead. While this requires multiple data verifications and significantly slows the data exchange process, it creates a more secure connection that’s stable and reliable.
Despite its enhanced security and flexibility, there are a couple of drawbacks to using the OpenVPN protocol.
Most significantly, this protocol isn’t built directly into OS platforms such as Windows or Mac OS, requiring a client program to route traffic through the OpenVPN tunnel and decrypt any data flowing from the other direction.
Further manual configuration is required too, with this process often complex and packed full with a huge number of options that may be overwhelming for inexperienced users.
Next up is the most recently released tunnelling protocol, namely WireGuard. This contemporary option is best known for its speed and ability to deliver the fastest connection speeds on the market.
Despite this, it doesn’t necessarily compromise on your security or privacy while online, thanks largely to its use of publicly available cryptography software packages such as Poly1305 and ChaCha20.
The former aids data authentication, for example, while the latter contributes to 256-bit encryption and ensures that your data is indecipherable to hackers or potential cyberthieves.
This protocol was also designed in part to directly solve the issues arising from OpenVPN and IPSec implementations, which as we’ve already touched on can include complex and time-consuming configurations. To this end, Wireguard has minimal lines of code, making it easy to install or patch as required.
Another advantage of WireGuard is that it provides tools for developers to add their scripts and extensions, which partially explains why it has been so widely adopted in a relatively short period of time.
Like all VPN protocols, of course, WireGuard has to make some trade-offs in order to deliver its key selling points. One such issue revolves around the use of cryptography like ChaCha20, which at present don’t have a great deal of supporting hardware or systems.
Also, the protocol isn’t focused on deep packet inspection or so-called “obfuscation” (which in this case involves making VPN traffic look like regular Internet traffic and hides all references to VPN protocols in the data packets).
This may make the protocol ineffective when trying to stream geo-restricted content through platforms like Netflix, which use advanced technology of their own to detect and block the use of VPNs.
We’ve already touched on the IPSec protocol in relation to IKEv2, but it’s also used in conjunction with Layer 2 Tunnelling Protocol (L2TP) to provide robust encryption.
Currently, L2TP doesn’t have any encryption at all, so the deployment of IPSec and 256 AES variants helps to create a secure tunnel and handle all authentication processes.
Interestingly, L2TP itself is a fusion of two different protocols, namely Layer 2 Forwarding and Point to Point tunnelling.
Due to its composition and use of IPSec, this VPN protocol is thought to be highly secure and largely free from vulnerabilities. It’s also widely accessible and easy to configure, making it a popular choice in 2022.
However, the secure process of encapsulating data twice also creates significantly slower transmission and connection speeds.
What’s more, L2TP actually uses pre-shared keys which can be overtaken by a provider’s independent website, creating a scenario where hackers are able to access your VPN servers and potentially launch malware attacks.
The Bottom Line
As we can see, each of these major protocols offer their own unique advantages and drawbacks, with the best and most reputable VPN clients combining two or more protocols as part of the service that they deliver.
If you look at market leaders such as Surfshark, for example, you’ll see that the client employs WireGuard, OpenVPN and IKEv2 protocols to create flexibility and optimal usage. This guarantees you a choice of protocols when connecting to the VPN server, depending on the precise activity that you want to carry out online.
This should definitely be a key factor when choosing a viable VPN client, as you’ll need to leverage protocols that help you to get the absolute most out of your experience.