A VPN is short for Virtual Private Network. It is a collection of several networking schemes that allow computers to utilize public internet lines by creating a virtual network. VPNs have no specific standard models; however, it typically uses the public internet lines in many unique ways to create a virtual private network. Usually, the network operates between regional centers, branches, and even field representatives with the help of a set of hardware and software protocols. These protocols aid in encrypting traffic and authenticating users in the network.
A VPN allows a computer user to create a secure connection over the internet to another computer in the same network. VPNs have significantly evolved over the years since their invention. VPNs were originally meant to facilitate a secure connection among business networks over the internet. The VPN technology was a significant breakthrough in the business world, as it would easily allow workers and business owners to securely access resources specific to a business network at home and in the office.
Put, when a device is connected to a VPN, the VPN establishes a secure connection between a server (potentially another computer) with the device (computer, smartphone, tablet, etc.). The connection allows the device's user to surf the internet using the other computer's internet connection. So, for example, if you are in the US, but the other computer (server) is located in the UK, it will show you are accessing the internet from the UK. This will not only conceal your location, but it will also allow you to access UK-only-restricted websites. By now, you can already see the power of a VPN.
Mostly, VPN software forwards to the virtual network all your network traffic information. By doing this, you get benefits such as bypassing internet censorship and accessing local network resources remotely. It is essential to mention that VPNs have become so popular and in-demand that most modern Operating Systems have the VPN support integrated.
Over time, VPN uses evolved to be even broader and gained more relevance all over the internet scene. Internet users realized that with the help of a VPN, one could easily access region-restricted websites and content. It could also be used to hide your browsing activity from internet watchdogs (like the Government) on public Wi-Fi. These reasons, among others, became fundamental in the popularity of VPN, although they were not the original intent in the development of the technology.
To this date, VPNs have become so popular that even many Operating systems come with the ability to configure VPNs manually into the system. For example, here is a screenshot of the Windows 10 VPN settings page
As earlier described, for a VPN to work, there has to be an established connection between two or more computers — the client's computer and the server computer. Now, for the link to be successful, the VPN providers use transmission protocols and encryption standards to ensure a secure connection. These sets of instructions that VPN provides depend on to ensure users get reliable and stable client-server communication are called VPN protocols. There exist several VPN protocols in the market at the time of this writing. First, let’s look at some of the popular VPN protocols.
PPTP (Point-to-Point Tunneling Protocol) was developed back in the '90s by Microsoft. It has gained popularity over the years, and it currently a built-in protocol in most platforms. It boasts of very high speeds making it excellent for streaming geo-restricted content. However, it’s not very secure compared to its counterparts.
Both Cisco and Microsoft developed this protocol. It is a relatively safe, stable, and fast technology. It offers support for MOBIKE- which helps maintain a firm connection as one changes between a Wi-Fi connection and a data plan. Others argue that IKEv2 isn't technically a protocol because it mainly helps control the Key change in IPSec.
L2TP/IPSec is considered an improvement of PPTP. This is because the only fundamental difference is its use of double encapsulation. The first encapsulation sets up the PPP connection, and the second contains the IPSec encryption. The double encapsulation is, however, a double-edged sword since it improves security, yet it impacts negatively on the speeds.
Let me point out that L2TP doesn't provide any encryption on its own, and it requires IPSec to achieve this hence the pairing.
IPSec protocol is a secure protocol that encrypts data packets exchanged over an IP network. An IP network is a communication network that uses the Internet Protocol to receive and send data among connected devices. Primarily, IPSec is popular because of its perceived high-security feature, thanks to its Authentication Header and Encapsulating Security Payload mechanisms. It is also extremely desirable since it can perform traffic encryption, and the endpoint application won't tell. It is, however, very complex to set up and configure.
This VPN has numerous advantages over its peers. Apart from being released under the open-source license, it is easily configured, very secure, and compatible with several other platforms. OpenVPN traffic also offers a striking resemblance to the conventional HTTPS/SSL traffic, this a golden feature since it makes it extremely difficult to be blocked.
OpenVPN protocol is exceptional as it can run on virtually any port (Including 443 Ports reserved for HTTPS). Furthermore, it uses both TCP (Transmission Control Protocol) and UDP (User Datagram Protocol) ports.
However, to use this protocol, you will require third-party software because it isn't integrated into Operating Systems (OSs) or various platforms by default.
As you have probably guessed, SSTP refers to Secure Socket Tunneling Protocol. It was introduced alongside Windows Vista by Microsoft. However, it works on other OSs such as Android and Linux. In addition, SSTP's ability to be configured with AES encryption makes it significantly superior to PPTP security-wise.
It also has a common factor with OpenVPN in that they both use SSL 3.0 that allows them to bypass censorship by using the HTTPS traffic port 443 easily.
Since Microsoft owns it, it is less prevalent than OpenVPN that was released as an open-source protocol.
SoftEther is a newer technology compared to the ones mentioned above. However, it has grown to become a massive software project over time. SoftEther is a multi-protocol VPN project released under the open-source license. SoftEther is a "multi-protocol"; its VPN server supports many different VPN protocols mentioned above (IPSec, OpenVPN, L2TP/IPSec, and SoftEther VPN).
The SoftEther VPN protocol also uses SSL 3.0 insecure client-server communications. However, the protocol harbors several other technical differences from OpenVPN and SSTP that make it more appealing, such as Dynamic DNS Function, GUI Management, and RPC Over HTTPS Management.
It is compatible with many OSs, making it to the few VPN protocols having working clients on the Linux platform.
Due to its relatively new status, many VPN providers still don't offer the protocol as an option.
Wireguard protocol is the newest VPN protocol as of this writing. Wireguard is said to be lightweight and offers faster speeds than IPSec. It seems to only work smoothly with Linux at the moment, although plans are underway to ensure more cross-platform compatibility. Wireguard uses one cryptographic suite, which makes it very unlikely to have security loopholes. Since it was released as an open-source technology, several tweaks and modifications are expected with this VPN protocol.
There are a few VPN providers who are already offering the Wireguard protocol.
There is no one-word answer to this question. This is because the “best VPN” for you entirely depends on your internet needs. Luckily, CactusVPN provides a good comparison of some popular protocols here. The image below shows a summary of how the protocols mentioned above compared against one another courtesy of CactusVPN.
VPNs are useful not only to corporate users but also to the average PC user. It helps you browse the internet in a safer, more secure, and private mode. A VPN is "Virtual" in that it offers you a direct private connection to any web page or another computer. It is "Private" in that it allows you to visit the internet and perform several activities. Yet, it keeps the information between the two parties only (You and the website visited). Finally, it's a "Network" because you are connected to a specially dedicated network of VPN servers covering the whole world. It is also important to note that VPN providers use VPN protocols to offer their clients VPN services. Protocols are the technologies behind VPNs, and hence primary VPN users have no idea what protocol they are using.