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VPN Protocols 101

Chris Hutton

An essential feature for a VPN is to keep the connection coded and protected. If a VPN is supposed to connect a user to a separate IP address and protect their information, then it is imperative that the connection not only maintain strength and presence, but that it be properly encrypted by the protocol of choice.

But like most cybersecurity terminology, it is a conversation driven by technical terminology and jargon, making it hard for consumers to approach and make meaningful decisions. The question of encryptions and protocols are particularly confusing, as there is rarely an obvious answer as to the best encryption, or how to use it. So here is The Streamable’s guide to the VPN encryption protocols. 

What Is a VPN Encryption Protocol?

The best way to describe a VPN encryption protocol is to think of it as a set of "rules" or patterns that a computer has to use in order to determine a relationship between the user’s computer and the IP server that they are streaming their data through. These specific connections offer requirements in regard to the specific encryption tools as well as the methods of information transmission.

Oftentimes, these methods will include things like encoding the data so it is not easily readable without the proper programs or codes to determine what is in said information being transmitted. It should also be encoded in the proper way. 

What Matters Most:

Three elements should be kept in mind while comparing VPN protocols. The first is speed. How fast is the connection between your computer and the VPN server that you are relying on? This may be affected by the complexity of the encryption service, as well as reliability. The second element would be that of security. If a user is buying a VPN service, they want it to be secure and reliable. Have people broken into the service before? Does it provide a complex enough encryption for your data to keep it all safe? Finally, users should determine how customizable the VPN is. The majority of users will rarely play with the ports and encryption variables, but having more customization functions will allow users to better adjust the software for your particular needs. 

List of VPN Protocols:

  • PPTP: Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol, or PPTP is a VPN method that’s quite old in tech history. Originally invented in the '90s, it is a protocol that is easy to configure and available on most VPN services, as well as one of the fastest connections. However, its age also means that many hackers and firewalls have learned how to crack its encryption.
  • L2TP/IPSec: Built as an extension of PPTP, Layer Two Tunneling Protocol/Internet Protocol Security is considered a slightly stronger protocol than PPTP due to its use of what is called "double encapsulation," which restricts access to certain components of the information through two different forms of internet connection. The dual encapsulation does mean that VPN connections are going to be slower as a whole, but it is immensely reliable in making the data secure. It relies on the AES cipher, which is considered a government-level encryption methodology. However, it is detectable by many firewall servers and might be blocked in some cases, thus requiring a more complex configuration to breach said firewalls.
  • IKEv2: Internet Key Exchange version 2 is a technology developed by Microsoft in the early 2000s. Now it provides what is considered a stable and safe cipher for the average mobile device. It does so through the authentication suite used to classify whether data is readable by managing what is called the 'Security Association," which is an attribute that the aforementioned suite reads to detect the information strength. IKEv2 is often the best option for users on 3G or 4G LTE connections due to its ability to reconnect. It is also, arguably, the fastest of the protocols listed here.
  • SSTP: Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol, or SSTP for short, is a method of data tunneling that was introduced by Microsoft around the time that Vista was the most popular operating system in the world. The software works exactly as it describes itself; where it creates a sort of ‘tunnel’ between the computer and the VPN server. Said information is then transmitted through said tunnel and is encrypted according to the tunnel’s design. The software is not as common due to its reliance on Windows software. It is a better version of OpenVPN and will still be able to get around most firewalls. However, it is not Mac compatible.
  • OpenVPN: OpenVPN is the most popular VPN protocol, primarily due to the fact that it is open-source and available to most users for no money. What makes OpenVPN particularly powerful is that it is increasingly difficult to ascertain whether the OpenVPN transmission is difficult to discern from normal HTTPS web activity, which is what most websites use to transmit their information around the world. It’s speed will vary depending on the level of encryption. Most VPN providers will have OpenVPN installed.
  • Wireguard: Allegedly made as a replacement for IPSec, it is the newest VPN protocol to exist as of 2020. It is also open-source and relies primarily on a singular tool for cryptography, which means that it is less likely to have holes in its security. It is, however, still being developed by programmers. It also lacks some cross-platform property and may not be available on all of your VPN variations.