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Identifying the Differences Between VPN Protocols

Eduardo Vasconcellos
Eduardo Vasconcellos

A VPN protocol is the system of controls and instructions that define the protection and performance your VPN can provide. Here are some of the most popular options to help your business.

With virtual private network (VPN) software, you can give your system a security boost by creating a secure connection to a public network, so you can reinforce your online privacy, anonymity, and security by encrypting your connection and hiding your IP. It's almost like your own private highway that gives you a clear path to everywhere you want to go, without any of the dangers the road can bring.

VPNs operate by giving you access to a server that obscures all of your information with a layer of encryption that prevents you from accidentally exposing critical personally identifiable information like your Social Security number, bank account numbers or emails. However, not all VPNs offer the same levels of security and consistent speed.

The encryption levels and transmission standards of a VPN service are controlled by processes and instructions, known as VPN protocols, to determine how fast and secure a given VPN provider can be. VPN protocols are what determine how data moves between a VPN server and your PC, while hiding it from hackers or other malicious operators.

What VPN protocols do

VPN protocols stem from the Point-to-Point Protocol (PPP) functionality that creates packets of data following the correct authentication, transmission encryption and data compression rules necessary to directly transmit to another server. Although PPP is now obsolete, it helps us understand the security standards we see today. Now, we have new protocols that prioritize different features like speed or security, while ensuring a basic level of cyber-protection.

As they become more popular, VPN protocols have incorporated a slew of functions and priorities to cater to different user types. For example, one protocol may focus on streaming, giving you the speed you need to watch your favorite movies and shows in full high definition. On the other hand, businesses tend to be drawn to enterprise-level VPN protocols with a focus on high security standards to protect the sensitive documents employees may need to access. Let's take a look at a few of the most popular options and what they can do. 

Did you know?Did you know? VPNs serve multiple purposes depending on the user. Business owners tend to rely on VPNs to secure their data.

PPTP

Among the oldest of the point-to-point security standards, the Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol was introduced by Microsoft in 1996 as a way to create a direct, secure connection over the Transmission Control Protocol. The TCP sends data through two points while ensuring traffic gets to its final destination through the Generic Routing Encapsulation tunnel, which encapsulates and transfers PPP packets.

Advantages

PPTP is already integrated with most operating systems, including Windows, Linux, macOS, and Android, making it a popular choice for a VPN protocol. This also makes PPTP one of the easiest types of VPNs you could set up. Along with that, it offers faster connections than other built-in protocols.

Disadvantages

Although it's one of the oldest VPN protocols available, PPTP has some of the most significant security flaws in cybersecurity. It is easily exploited with an ASLEAP dictionary attack tool, a known exploit specifically used to break the protocol and take full advantage of any vulnerabilities it finds. PPTP is widely known as vulnerable, so if you need a highly secure system, it's best to find another solution.

L2TP/IPsec

The Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol (L2TP) uses some of the functionality of PPTP, but it sends data packets within the User Datagram Protocol (UDP), as opposed to the TCP. By tunneling traffic through an IP network, L2TP sends controlled packets via secure connection between two endpoints. However, to provide optimal security and confidentiality features, L2TP is usually paired with Internet Protocol Security (IPsec) to provide specific security tools and protect data between two control connection endpoints.

Advantages

L2TP is sort of an extreme version of PPP, modified with military-grade 256-bit encryption to provide a highly compatible, stable security solution that's strong enough for top-secret communications. By incorporating IPsec, you get a security double whammy to encrypt the authentication process and make it difficult for hackers to pry in, while preventing man-in-the-middle (MitM) attacks that attempt to alter data.

Disadvantages

Because of the complexity involved, L2TP is one of the more difficult protocols to set up and configure, requiring higher overhead. This protocol also prioritizes security over speed, so it tends to suffer from slower transfer rates. Additionally, multiple reports suggest L2TP is susceptible to cyberattacks when using encryption with pre-shared keys. 

SSTP

Another VPN protocol developed by Microsoft, the Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol is one of the most secure protocols available. Designed for remote client access, SSTP doesn't usually support site-to-site VPN tunnels, but because it uses Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) transmissions, it offers support for roaming users who need anywhere/anytime access.

Advantages

SSTP includes improved security through SSL 3.0 encryption to make sure no unwanted users can access your data. Because it's integrated with Windows-based devices, SSTP comes with regular updates and support from Microsoft. Better yet, it provides superior speeds, limited only by the bandwidth you can supply.

Disadvantages

Because it was made by and for Microsoft, SSTP is exclusive to Windows, offering zero support to operating systems like Linux or macOS. In recent years, the protocol has proven vulnerable to Padding Oracle on Downgraded Legacy Encryption (POODLE) attacks, which allow hackers to listen in on encrypted communications.

OpenVPN TCP

Created by James Yonan, OpenVPN TCP is an open-source security protocol published under a GNU General Public License that grants anyone access to the source code, making it easy for the public to identify and repair any security flaws. OpenVPN prioritizes error correction and consistent connections to keep data transfers secure between applications, guaranteeing the data delivery.

Advantages

Because of its accessibility and oversight, OpenVPN is a consistent, reliable protocol that offers superior security with 256-bit encryption keys to prevent MitM attacks and keep information intact. OpenVPN is also highly compatible with most operating systems, including Mac and Windows platforms, as well as more bespoke systems like Android, Linux and FreeBSD. OpenVPN can also work well with firewalls and supports perfect forward secrecy to stop hackers from decrypting data.

Disadvantages

OpenVPN was made by developers for developers, making manual configuration a highly complex task that requires expertise to set up correctly. As it wasn't designed for any particular operating system, OpenVPN TCP also requires a separate software client to act as an intermediary between the protocol and the system it runs on. 

FYIFYI: OpenVPN has a highly complex setup, so if your business doesn't have a dedicated IT team, it might be too much trouble to configure.

OpenVPN UDP

While OpenVPN TCP raises the reliability of your data transfers, OpenVPN UDP focuses on low-latency and high-speed data transfers, without the key identifiers or sequence numbers that would slow down a transfer. By transmitting data without the redundancies and checks of TCP, UDP is better suited for streaming video, teleconferencing, and playing games online.

Advantages

Because OpenVPN UDP doesn't bloat its procedures with various redundancies and checks, you can eliminate the delays of additional processes and extra error correction. UDP is highly configurable for any system and simply sends complete data packages without creating an unnecessary burden for the latency of your connection.

Disadvantages

Despite the performance improvements a UDP can provide to data transfers, you'll suffer from more connectivity issues as you get farther away from your physical VPN server. Because UDP doesn't prioritize guaranteed data deliveries, you'll also see an increase in failed downloads, dropped connections and errors.

Clearly, there are multiple considerations in determining the best VPN protocol for your purposes. The level of security, transfer speeds, and stability you need are all major factors in the right protocols and service to keep your information safe. Without understanding what priorities you need in a security network, it's easy to go down the wrong path, but if you know what to look for, you can easily find an extra layer of protection.

Image Credit: Prostock-Studio / Getty Images
Eduardo Vasconcellos
Eduardo Vasconcellos
business.com Contributing Writer
Eduardo Vasconcellos is a veteran copywriter, creative content producer and marketing communications specialist with over two decades experience, able to take complex concepts and turn them into something simple and memorable. By focusing on customer psychology and product benefits, his specialty is crafting full marketing campaigns that follow industry best practices while authentically speaking to a customer’s need.