When it comes to VPN-related cybersecurity and anonymity, OpenVPN is one of the most frequently used terms you will hear. OpenVPN is a piece of free open-source software, a VPN protocol developed by OpenVPN Technologies Inc.
OpenVPN is indeed the default protocol most VPN services use today. It’s become the most widely used tunneling technology since its launch in 2001. Although it’s one of the most secure protocols and it’s relatively fast too, it has a few drawbacks. Thus it’s no wonder that competitors have come up with their own OpenVPN alternatives. And, some may have even succeeded at presenting a worthy challenge.
Let’s explore briefly what the OpenVPN protocol is and what your options are for an OpenVPN alternative.
What is the OpenVPN protocol
OpenVPN was originally programmed by James Yonan. It’s a free open-source standalone VPN protocol. OpenVPN creates an encrypted secure point-to-point tunnel between your device and the desired website. In other words, this VPN protocol makes it possible to have a private and secure channel for your online activities. Therefore, no snoopers like your ISP (Internet Service Provider), the authorities, and cybercriminals (hackers or cyberbullies) can retrieve any useful personal and other information.
Anyone can freely rewrite or use this protocol as is. Thanks to a dedicated developer community, OpenVPN keeps improving. However, its manual configuration may require more than average networking knowledge. This is surely one of its drawbacks for novice users.
Unfortunately, if a native VPN app doesn’t have automatic OpenVPN support, you’ll have to configure it yourself. Providers usually offer detailed instructions on their website. But this only comes in handy if you know what you’re doing.
How the OpenVPN protocol works
To understand and appreciate the differences between this protocol and OpenVPN alternatives, it makes sense to briefly see how OpenVPN works. This secure tunneling method uses the OpenSSL encryption library and TLS (Transport Layer Security) for authentication and key exchange.
OpenVPN supports various different ciphers, but the most commonly used is AES-256-CBC. This is one of the most secure ciphers, in use today even by governments and banks. However, the future of IT may hold a few surprises for us. We mean in particular the potential of quantum computing. Yet, for the time being, AES-256 or even AES-128 should be as safe as anyone needs.
OpenVPN supports both UDP (User Datagram Protocol) and TCP (Transmission Control Protocol). Since some countries have implemented Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) into their firewalls and can identify OpenVPN traffic, the protocol is sometimes enhanced using the XOR patch or enveloped in some stealth protocol, such as Stunnel. This makes your internet traffic look like normal HTTPS traffic.
Possibly the best characteristic of this protocol is that it’s customization-friendly. If you’re skillful enough, you can even create your own VPN connection with OpenVPN.
OpenVPN protocol – Pros and cons
There’s nothing in our world that only has a positive side, right? So, why would it be different in the case of VPN protocols? No matter how secure and speedy the OpenVPN tunneling protocol may appear, it’s an 18-year old protocol. Yes, it has some downsides as well.
- Free and open-source software
- Lots of OpenVPN apps offering different features
- High level of security
- Great encryption variety, including RC2-40-CBC, CAST5-CBC, RC2-64-CBC, AES-128-CBC, AES-192-CBC, and AES-256-CBC
- Has plenty of apps for different platforms
- Highly customizable
- You need advanced level networking knowledge for manual configuration or third-party clients to set it up
- Not the best for beating harsh censorship measures
- The code is quite big and difficult to audit
Without further ado, let’s explore what OpenVPN alternatives can offer for greater security and speed.
OpenVPN alternatives – here come the substitutes
#1 VPN protocols
The OpenVPN protocol has a clear dominance on the online privacy and security market. So, it was only a question of time when this pole position would get challenged. Still, the number of new protocols claiming better security and faster speeds is somewhat limited. We’ve found three possible OpenVPN alternatives among the VPN protocols trying to replace this 18-year old option.
This new-generation secure networking tunneling solution seems to have what it takes to become a good OpenVPN alternative. The word on the digital streets is that WireGuard will replace IPsec as well as OpenVPN protocols in the future.
WireGuard was originally written by Jason A. Donenfeld (Edge Security). This is indeed an ongoing project – similarly to other OpenVPN alternatives below, it’s not finished. Therefore, users are warned that WireGuard shouldn’t yet be used for security-sensitive online activities.
Somewhere between the lines of WireGuard code (only about 5,000 of them) is the potential for it to become the fastest, most secure, and easiest-to-use network tunnel. Only time will tell.
At the time of writing, there are only a few VPN solutions that support the WireGuard protocol, a few examples are Mullvad VPN, IVPN, and ProtonVPN.
Read our full reviews:
It’s a proprietary protocol developed by AnchorFree, the company behind Hotspot Shield VPN. According to AnchorFree, a large number of vendors use this protocol worldwide, including McAfee, BitDefender, Cheetah Mobile, and so on.
Unlike the OpenVPN protocol, Catapult Hydra isn’t open-source. It’s supposed to have “superior performance and reliability” according to the developers. Well, we can confirm that it certainly has impressive speeds. On that front, it could be a possible OpenVPN alternative to consider.
As a matter of fact, Catapult Hydra isn’t really a new protocol. It’s a modification and enhancement of TLS and OpenSSL.
Software Ethernet, or as it’s known, SoftEther VPN was developed by Daiyuu Nobori and his team at the University of Tsukuba, Japan. It’s a powerful open-source multiprotocol VPN that supports all the primary platforms.
This protocol is completely free. It’s supposed to have the capability of penetrating any kind of firewall. It’s also said to be better, faster, and more secure than OpenVPN. Not a bad OpenVPN alternative.
#2 Third-party VPN software
You may not be the experimenting or network guru type, but that doesn’t make your online privacy and security any less important. Fortunately, third-party VPN software can offer you more than just an easy way to automatically use the OpenVPN protocol.
Most VPN apps, like NordVPN, ExpressVPN, AstrillVPN, and TorGuard, support more than just the OpenVPN protocol. In addition to the usual OpenVPN over UDP or TCP pairing, you may select PPTP, L2TP/IPsec, IKEv2, SSTP, various stealth protocols, etc. And, let’s not forget about other security features like multi-hops or Tor over VPN.
Therefore, by using a third-party VPN app, you can choose the right protocol and features for your individual needs. If you are using the right VPN that is. Usually, all you need to do is open the Settings menu and tick or untick a few boxes. So, depending on your purpose, you can use a faster but less secure, a more secure but slower, or some highly situational VPN protocol.
Since there are 1,000+ VPN tools on the market, it’s vital that you choose the best and most reasonably-priced one for your needs. Our Best VPN service pages should give you a good base for finding the best way to protect your anonymity. But you may also want to read our VPN comparisons to find out even more.
#3 Peer-to-peer overlay networks
Yet another way to protect yourself online is to use peer-to-peer overlay networks. Although these are usually free, they all come with a price tag. Namely, you have to share your bandwidth and storage with other users of the P2P network. Since every peer’s device becomes a router, such a service is entirely decentralized and thus offers a high level of security.
But, from another angle, a P2P network is quite vulnerable to security breaches by its very nature. Fellow peers might compromise your data stream. However, you do have the option to only use trusted peers like your friends. In any case, the popularity of these networks keeps growing. Below are four of the most popular ones.
Freenet is free open-source software that allows you to browse the web, share files, and comment on forums anonymously. You can also use it in “darknet” or “high security” mode, which makes it almost impossible to detect as you only connect to your friends or users you trust.
More than 2 million users have downloaded Freenet since its start back in 1999. Freenet’s philosophy espouses the free flow of information and knowledge as well as freedom of speech.
It’s available for Windows, Mac OSX, GNU/Linux, and POSIX. Of course, you can’t compare its versatility and platform support to market-leading VPN services. Still, you may give it a try if you feel that Freenet is a worthy OpenVPN alternative.
Tor stands for The Onion Router, and it’s essentially free software that makes anonymous communication and file-sharing possible on the web. The so-called Tor Project launched back in 2002. It has become infamous for its dark web use and torrenting activities.
The Tor network and the Tor browser are supposed to make sure that you remain anonymous on the web. Your internet traffic is routed through a free global volunteer overlay network. You can also use it together with a VPN service for maximum security.
The main limitations of Tor are its low connection speed and weakness in the face of strong firewalls (although Obfsproxy fixes some of that).
With its end-to-end encryption, I2P offers high-level security. This network uses so-called garlic routing (series of encrypted messages) unlike Tor’s onion routing (a single message). Therefore, I2P makes it rather difficult to trace your online activity.
But this anonymity network is not without drawbacks either. I2P is smaller than Freenet or Tor. It’s also relatively young. In fact, it still hasn’t reached the 1.0 version release. Its installation and use are quite difficult – it’s not for the general user. I2P is also said to work best on Linux as Mac OS and Windows systems are too easy to track.
If you’re an advanced internet user wishing for anonymity, you may find an OpenVPN alternative in I2P. This network is the best for secure and anonymous instant messaging, blogging, file-sharing, emails, torrenting, and visiting webpages.
GNUnet is part of the GNU project, which was first announced in 1983. This project is also focused on freedom of information and security on the web. Essentially, GNUnet is a software framework for secure and decentralized peer-to-peer networking. It’s compatible with the most common platforms, including Windows, Mac OS X, GNU/Linux, and Solaris.
A group of GNUnet hackers found a growing interest in the project after the announcement of NSA surveillance (PRISM). They registered their association almost five years ago, which was also the year of the first stable release.
The main goal of GNUnet is to “become widely used, reliable, open, non-discriminating, egalitarian, unfettered and censorship-resistant system of free information exchange.” Can we wish for more?
This so-called “anarchistic network” is far from a finished product. In fact, GNUnet is continually evolving to include further applications and extensions.
This framework can be used over TCP, UDP, SMTP, and HTTP protocols. Thus, all data traffic can be confidential. GNUnet also aims to become a development platform for decentralized internet protocols, which seems to be the future of networking.
Conclusion on OpenVPN alternatives
Of course, it’s not easy to find the best and most secure anonymity method, be it a simple VPN protocol, a full VPN service, or a P2P network. We can’t make generalized statements for any of them. It all depends on what you are aiming for. One method may be perfect for some users, while others may prefer another.
If you’re less tech-savvy, you may be happy with a decent third-party VPN service. However, if you’re a networking guru, you may find more potential in using an anonymous overlay network like GNUnet or Freenet.