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VPN Protocols Explained

VPN Protocols Explained – Which One Should You Use?

VPN protocols authenticate and establish a communication channel with the VPN server. The approach to the process varies between protocols. One may emphasize speed over security, thus giving a faster performance, but one may provide more robust security, albeit at a slower speed.

There are billions of computers around the world, including the ever-growing number of smartphones. Have you ever stopped to wonder how, despite different configurations, hardware specifications, and architectures, communication between them over the internet happens seamlessly? You can thank protocols for that.

Protocols are a set of rules and instructions that define a common standard on which two devices can communicate. As a quick example, if we define the common language as English for a group meeting, all participants will be capable of understanding each other.

Virtual Private Network

As a refresher, let us briefly go over how Virtual Private Network (VPN) communication occurs. A VPN involves a central server that has been set up to allow communication between clients in a private network. A VPN service is one that uses a remote server to route internet traffic to the destination. Encryption provides security to prevent third-party intervention.

Because the VPN acts as a proxy, it allows the user to spoof IP address, thus hiding its geo-location. You could be sitting in Singapore and connect to a VPN server in the USA, but the destination server will read the VPN server’s IP address and not yours.

There are two components in a VPN server: a client and a VPN server. The client needs to authenticate the VPN server, and agree on certain things like the VPN protocol, which contains information such as what key exchange and encryption algorithm to use.

What is Are VPN Protocols?

A protocol defines a set of rules to ensure compatibility and seamless communication between two devices. For VPNs, it provides the necessary information, such as what encryption protocol will be used.

Communication with any webserver is done on trust. The server has to prove its identity to the client, then negotiate a key to secure the session. A protocol defines what key exchange algorithm will be used to share the session key for encrypting communication, what algorithm that session key will be based on, and what hash algorithm will be used to ensure data integrity.

Let’s explore some of the commonly used VPN protocols.

Internet Key Exchange Version 2 (IKEv2)

Developed by Cisco and Microsoft, IKEv2 is one of the widely used VPN protocols today. What makes IKEv2 particularly useful is its capability of switching between internet connections to provide a consistent VPN experience. Thus, it is used as the preferred protocol on iOS and has native support in Android, Windows, and macOS. iProVPN uses IKEv2 as the default protocol for all of its platform apps.

IKEv2 delivers functionality for tunneling and exchanging session keys securely. It does not provide encryption for securing packets, which is where IPsec comes in. IKEv2 is also preferred because of its balance between speed and security.


Another widely used VPN protocol is OpenVPN. It is an open-source protocol that has allowed for the validation of the protocol by network and security enthusiasts. While other VPN protocols are proprietary, OpenVPN’s nature relieves concerns surrounding potential risks. The community can report any vulnerabilities in an effort to keep it safe and secure.

Unlike IKEv2, which uses IPsec for encryption, OpenVPN uses SSL/TLS for encryption. It supports both TCP and UDP, and because it can use Port 443, it allows OpenVPN traffic to blend in with HTTPS traffic to evade detection by firewalls.

Layer 2 Tunneling Protocol/IPsec

L2TP has built-in support in Windows since Windows 2000, making it one of the oldest VPN protocols. As the name gives it away, it is a tunneling protocol that is designed to establish a tunnel between the client and the server to move user data. But it does not feature an authentication and encryption process. Hence, it is paired with an encryption protocol, usually IPsec.

L2TP is less common now as IKEv2 and OpenVPN provide speed, security, and compatibility on nearly any device. Despite OpenVPN not being supported natively on some platforms, it can be set up via an app.

Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol

If you thought L2TP is an old protocol, PPTP is even older. It was created during the Windows 95 era by Microsoft for tunneling data over the internet. As you can guess, it’s obsolete now. The lack of strong security makes it unreliable. Not to mention that several vulnerabilities have been discovered.

It’s not accurate to describe PPTP as more common because many have moved on from it. iOS and macOS have discontinued native support for PPTP in later versions. Unless security is not paramount, you shouldn’t use PPTP.

Which VPN Protocol Should You Use?

iProVPN gives you a choice to choose between OpenVPN, L2TP/IPSec, and IKEv2 on its apps. For security reasons, we have chosen not to support PPTP directly.

Most users shouldn’t worry about picking the best; you are unlikely to experience a difference. However, in certain situations, one VPN protocol may work better for you. For example, using OpenVPN UDP can allow you to bypass strict firewalls since it can blend in with HTTPS web traffic. And IKEv2 is preferred on mobile devices since it can keep the VPN connection consistent if you drop out of the Wi-Fi range and switch to cellular internet.

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