VPN Protocols – Big 5 Explained

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could trust everybody? You know, leave the doors to your house unlocked. Count on complete strangers. Send files and data without security. But you can forget all that. Your father probably told you never to trust anyone, and your father was pretty much right. And if you’re doing any of those things, take heed. If you’re not thinking about security — whether on the street or online — you’re testing fate. Anything could happen.

Securing Your Data Stream

The funny thing is that many of the people who are so careful in their daily lives neglect that discipline when they get on the internet. Throwing caution to the wind, they log into insecure networks, send files and critical information across the public internet, and generally risk their fortune and future through indiscriminate use of internet resources. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

We all know that privacy is important — especially when it comes to the internet. Did you know that there’s a way to make your data traffic totally private? It’s called a virtual private network (VPN). As the name indicates, it’s a way to create an environment restricted from the prying eyes of the general public. It is a form of network security, and it’s something that everyone should consider using.

Rules of the Road: What Is A Protocol?

What is a protocol? Think of it a set of rules. If we think of the internet as the “information superhighway”, then we might expect that there are some rules that would keep traffic flowing properly. And in the big world of information technology, there are loads of them.

Every day when you drive down the road or on the highway you need to follow  a lot of rules. You not only have to deal with the laws that you learned when you started driving. You also have to obey the signs and signals all along the way. If we didn’t follow these rules of the road, then driving would be chaos!

Network protocols direct the traffic of every data packet. There are hundreds of protocols that deal with everything from email to wireless LAN. The protocols we’re discussing today have to do with virtual private networks. VPN protocols make it possible to protect streams of data as they pass through the internet. But this protection is only available for those who are actually using VPN technology.

Types of VPN Protocols Explained

Virtual private networks have been around for a good while. People even used VPNs long ago with those slow dial-up connections. VPNs have also been used with lots of different wide area network technologies, such as Frame Relay, x.25, and ATM. You can use them across just about any existing network infrastructure. A VPN basically creates a private tunnel through a public environment. And it protects any traffic that runs through it from outside interference. Here are some of the notable protocols used in VPN:


  • Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol (PPTP)

PPTP comes installed on Microsoft Windows, and it’s fairly easy to set up. It has always been a popular VPN protocol, but it has never become an established standard in the industry. PPTP has been around since Windows 95, and it’s included on Windows 10. It’s even available for Linux of Mac. But a PPTP VPN is generally considered to be obsolete. Some home routers allow for PPTP support with something called PPTP passthrough, which uses TCP port 1723 and General Routing Encapsulation (GRE) to create a secure VPN tunnel.


  • Internet Protocol Security (IPSec)

One very common VPN protocol — even in business settings — is IPSec. What is IPSec? As the name indicates, it uses the Internet Protocol as the basis for its encrypted connections. IP operates at layer three of the OSI model, the network layer. What happens is that when you link two different network devices together across the network, they connect with something called a handshake. This becomes part of a level of trust through authentication. Once this process establishes a link, a session starts. Then traffic can be sent securely back and forth across the virtual connection. IPSec uses public and private keys to establish encrypted data flows.


  • Layer Two Tunneling Protocol (L2TP)

On its own, L2TP does not provide secure communication. But paired with IPSec, this tunneling protocol can be very effective. L2TP data packets encapsulated into UDP packets, travel between two L2TPControlConnectionEndpoints (LCCEs). It all gets a bit complicated. Despite its complexity, L2TP is actually a mature technology that works well with Cisco and Microsoft solutions. It works on layer two, the datalink layer. L2TP is reliable when paired with another VPN protocol.


  • Internet Key Exchange Version 2 (IKEv2)

Also referred to as “VPN Connect”, IKEv2 draws from IPSec. It’s a stable and secure protocol, and may be faster than the L2TP/IPSec combination. Like IPSec, IKEv2 uses shared keys for authentication and encryption. One of the benefits of IKEv2 is that it’s very secure. IKEv2 supports AES 128, AES 192, and AES 256 encryption.


  • Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol (SSTP)

SSTP is a VPN protocol that supports user authentication rather than device authentication. It uses SSL/TLS over TCP to create channels through layer four, the transport layer. Because it runs over TCP, it suffers from performance issues related to the additional processing required. This protocol is available for Linux, BSD, or Windows.


  • OpenVPN

Probably the most versatile and extensible VPN protocol available is OpenVPN. It’s fast, and it will even use 256-bit VPN encryption. What is OpenVPN? OpenVPN is an advanced VPN protocol that is under continual development by the open source community. That means that engineers from all across the world are collaborating to make regular additions and improvements to the protocol. The OpenVPN website says that it provides flexible VPN solutions, and it supports IoT and the cloud. It appears to be the VPN with all the bells and whistles.


It helps to know a little bit about VPN tunneling protocols if you want to create your own secure VPN connections. A little knowledge will help you to understand what kinds of rules and processes are making VPN happen. Each piece of VPN software uses at least one VPN protocol. And if you know your protocols, you will have more information so that you can make an intelligent decision about which software to use. Which VPN protocol is better? PPTP or L2TP? IPSec or OpenVPN? The latest and greatest seems to be the open-source OpenVPN.

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