What Is OpenVPN and How Does It Work?

what is openvpn protocol featured image

VPN protocol that offers outstanding security layers and compatibility with nearly any device or platform.

OpenVPN is an open-source VPN protocol that uses virtual private network technologies to ensure secure point-to-point and site-to-site connections. It launched in 2001, and today, 20 years later, it’s one of the most popular VPN protocols among VPN users. If you would like to inspect it closer, learn how it works, and find out all bout its pros and cons, you’re at the right place.

Why You Should Use the OpenVPN Protocol

Using a VPN service has never been as vital as it is these days. According to some cybersecurity statistics from 2020, a cyberattack happens every 39 seconds. Finding a good VPN protocol can get you a long way and keep your device safe from potential harm.

VPN protocols work by transferring data to and from the internet through virtual tunnels. These tunnels are there to encrypt your data, reroute it, and change your IP address during the process. There are multiple ways to mask and encrypt online data, and those processes are also known as VPN protocols.

There are various types of VPN tunnels available. Some of the most common tunneling protocols in the industry are PPTP, L2TP/IPSec, OpenVPN, SSTP, IKEv2, and WireGuard. Each tunneling protocol transfers data in a different way and different protocols usually serve different purposes.

To have the OpenVPN protocol explained, we’d say it’s the most flexible of them all. It’s an open-source solution, meaning that anyone can access it and alter its code.

There are two main options when it comes to OpenVPN. OpenVPN Community Edition is the basic, free version of the software, while OpenVPN Access Server is the advanced, paid version.

How OpenVPN Works

One of the first things you should know about this type of protocol is that it’s highly customizable. You or your VPN provider can adjust its settings to make it more suitable for your needs and preferences.

OpenVPN offers tunneling through the Secure Sockets Layer and its updated form, Transport Layer Security. SSL and TLS protocols allow users to share the keys to encode and decode the information that’s being sent through the tunnels.

As an additional layer of safety, the OpenVPN protocol also includes TLS-auth, an extra step that helps confirm that only the right devices and users can interfere with data. It implements standard 256-bit encryption, making its keys extremely difficult to crack.

In addition to all the other security features, OpenVPN also includes a tool called Perfect Forward Secrecy. The PFS encryption works by creating a brand new key every time you go online, so if someone manages to steal your key during one session, they won’t be able to use it to decode your messages during the next one.

How Fast Is OpenVPN?

As much as it is reliable and secure, OpenVPN isn’t really the fastest VPN protocol around. One of the strengths of OpenVPN is that it can be used on both User Datagram Protocol (UDP) and Transmission Control Protocol (TCP). These are the communication standards that enable devices to exchange messages over the network.

From what we have experienced, OpenVPN with TCP is more reliable, while OpenVPN with UDP appears to be faster. Deciding which one to go with depends mainly on what your needs are.

OpenVPN Security

OpenVPN is one of the safest VPN protocols on the market. The main reason for that is that it’s an open-source solution, and no company owns or operates it. Therefore, you can be entirely sure your data is safely transmitted, and no one can get unauthorized access to it or sell it to a third party.

To prove it means serious business, OpenVPN utilizes 256-bit encryption, military-grade ciphers, and implements support for Perfect Forward Secrecy.

Advantages and Disadvantages of OpenVPN

Just like any other VPN protocol, OpenVPN has some pros and cons you should know about. Let’s have a look at those.

Pros:

  • Great compatibility. OpenVPN can run on various kinds of devices and platforms. It’s compatible with Windows, macOS, and Linux operating systems, and you can also use it on any iOS or Android mobile device.
  • Affordability. As an open-source solution, OpenVPN is available to everyone. It’s free to download and use. With an OpenVPN client, users can establish a free connection to a VPN server. And if they wish to use it on a server to accept incoming VPN connections, this protocol provides access from two clients.
  • Enhanced security. OpenVPN implements high-end ciphers and 256-bit encryption keys to ensure the highest level of security for its users.
  • Supports PFS. As we’ve already mentioned in our OpenVPN protocol description, OpenVPN supports PFS, the encryption method that codes your data and makes it difficult for hackers to decode. Every time you access OpenVPN, it creates a new random key and distributes it to each OpenVPN client and the server. Once your session is over, the key is no more valid and can’t be used anymore.
  • Community support. As an open-source solution anyone can access and modify, OpenVPN has a huge number of fans and a very active worldwide community. Members of the community constantly work on smoothing out glitches, trying out new features, and enhancing the OpenVPN protocol whenever possible.

Cons:

  • Complex manual setup. Although OpenVPN is highly compatible and its functions are fairly easy to grasp, setting it up can be a bit complex. Since we’re talking about a very flexible VPN protocol, there are many options to choose among and configuration might be challenging. You can connect to OpenVPN through a paid VPN service, such as NordVPN, IPVanish, or ExpressVPN, which offer setup guides to help you with the configuration.
  • Additional software is required. If you’re interested in utilizing OpenVPN technologies, you should be prepared to install and configure it, as OpenVPN isn’t a part of any particular platform, and it requires a client program to send traffic through the tunnel and decrypt data going through it.
  • Limited number of servers. OpenVPN has a free version but allows just two VPN connections at the same time. If you’re a commercial user, you’ll have to opt in for a paid license. The number of simultaneous connections you need (starting at 10 and going up to 2,000) will determine the price of your subscription.

Installation and Configuration Procedure

There are three main options to choose from when installing and configuring OpenVPN. You can connect to it by using a VPN provider’s app, configure it manually via a VPN service, or enable it manually without going through a VPN provider.

The first and the second options are the easier ones, and all renowned VPN providers offer configuration guides to help users out.

Connect to OpenVPN via Provider’s App

This is the first and the most straightforward option. All you need to do is find a VPN provider that fits your needs, install its VPN app, and log into it. You can set the desired protocol and browse the internet safely after just a few clicks.

Configuring an OpenVPN Connection Manually

If, for example, you are a Windows user and you decide to go ahead with NordVPN, here’s how the manual implementation of the OpenVPN protocol would look via that VPN provider.

1. To initiate the process, download the OpenVPN GUI application. This application is an alternative option you can use to connect to NordVPN servers on your Windows PC.

2. Open the installation file and follow the instructions provided by the wizard.

openvpn installation file

3. Once you install the OpenVPN client, download NordVPN configuration files, which can be found on NordVPN’s website. You’ll be able to see recommended servers based on your current location, as well as available protocols for those suggested servers.

recommended servers for openvpn protocol

Based on your preferences, in this list of options, click on “Download config” next to OpenVPN UDP or OpenVPN TCP.

4. Next, go to the folder where these files have been downloaded. Select the downloaded configurations, right-click on them and select Copy.

5. Extract the configuration files to the following directory:

C:\Program Files\OpenVPN\config\

6. Once you have the configuration files in the right folder, open the OpenVPN GUI app through the shortcut on your desktop.

7. The app will ask you to allow it to make changes to your device. Click on Yes.

allow app to make changes

8. The application will start running, and you’ll see it in your system tray, right next to the clock, or in the hidden section of it. Right-click on the app icon, hover over one of the servers, and click on Connect.

9. Then you’ll be asked to provide your NordVPN service credentials that can be found in the Nord account dashboard. You can simply copy-paste them from there and click Okay.

10. Within a few seconds, the application should connect, and the icon should turn green, showing you’re successfully connected. If you hover over it, you’ll be able to see the connection status and all the details about it.

That’s pretty much it, and if you managed to get here, you’re all set! When you decide to disconnect, right-click on the app icon, hover over the server, and click Disconnect.

Enabling OpenVPN Manually Without a VPN Provider

Finally, you can set up OpenVPN without going through a VPN service. With 20-plus steps needed to complete the installation, this is the most complex option and requires some advanced technical knowledge.

If you already have some knowledge of the OpenVPN protocol specification, you might be able to manage it on your own. The detailed manual setup tutorial provided by OpenVPN can help you with accomplishing this task.

The Alternatives

There are various VPN protocols you can use instead of OpenVPN. Now that you know how OpenVPN works, getting to know its alternatives is a good idea if you want a clearer picture of all your VPN options.

WireGuard vs. OpenVPN

WireGuard is another great choice for those looking for a fast and modern VPN solution. It appears to be faster and establishes connections quicker than OpenVPN. According to some tests, WireGuard consumes 15% less data than its opponent. It also handles network changes better, making it a more reliable choice for mobile users.

On the other hand, OpenVPN is often praised for its security, and those who consider privacy their top priority should probably go for it instead. OpenVPN lets you use various authentication algorithms and encryption ciphers, while WireGuard has a fixed set of security features implemented in each new release.

This means that if you spot a vulnerability in an algorithm, you can promptly configure OpenVPN into something else, and if you’re using WireGuard, you would need to perform a software update across all your devices. Besides that, OpenVPN is currently supported by many more VPNs than WireGuard.

IKEv2 vs. OpenVPN

IKEv2 or the Internet Key Exchange version 2 is a part of the IPSec protocol suite. It implements a large number of cryptographic algorithms, including AES, 3DES, Camellia, and Blowfish, and in most cases, it’s faster than the OpenVPN.

One of its major drawbacks is the fact it was developed by Cisco and Microsoft. So, unlike OpenVPN, IKEv2 is a closed-source program, which might be a dealbreaker for some users. There are some open-source versions of this solution, and it’s recommended you use them if you have any security concerns.

IKEv2 is natively integrated into BlackBerry devices, which is why mobile users usually favor it over OpenVPN.

Top 3 VPNs With This Type of Protocol

Many VPN providers offer OpenVPN protocol, but checking them all out is pretty time-consuming. To save you time, we made a list of what we believe are the top three VPN providers with this type of protocol.

NordVPN

NordVPN is one of the biggest, most well-known names in the VPN industry, and there are many good reasons for that. Some of the things that make NordVPN stand out among its competitors are its excellent speeds and overall performance.

Privacy is another element this provider highly values and is praised for. The company’s headquarters are based in Panama, a privacy-friendly country where no law can demand user logs from a VPN provider. Therefore, NordVPN promises a strict no-logs policy to all its users, and it’s one of its greatest benefits.

SurfShark

SurfShark is another reputable VPN service that guarantees total privacy to its users. With more than 1,700 servers across 63 countries, SurfShark offers global access from unlimited devices, all from the same account.

It unblocks all major streaming platforms, such as BBC iPlayer, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and many others, and enables you to stream all content in HD. It also allows P2P sharing on all its servers, meaning you can use it for torrenting as well.

ExpressVPN

Last but not least on our list is ExpressVPN, one of the best VPN solutions around. This provider has more than 3,000 servers across 94 countries around the world. So, wherever you are, a fast connection is guaranteed with ExpressVPN.

It allows up to five simultaneous connections, split tunneling, and has a kill switch option turned on by default. Streaming with ExpressVPN is lightning-fast, and you can use it to unblock Netflix, YouTube, HBO, Spotify, and some other popular platforms.

Final Thoughts

There are many VPN protocols available, and OpenVPN is definitely one of the options worth considering. Hopefully, our article has helped you find answers to some of the most common questions, such as “What is OpenVPN used for?” “How does it work?” as well as provide you with details on its installation, configuration, and alternatives.

OpenVPN is a great option thanks to its outstanding security layers and the fact it’s compatible with nearly any device or platform. Depending on how tech-savvy you are, you can choose to enable OpenVPN on your own, configure it manually, or connect to it using a provider’s VPN app.

If you choose the last possibility, go with the provider that offers access to other VPN protocols as well, so that you can have multiple options for different purposes.

FAQ

Do I need a license for OpenVPN?

You don’t need a license for the free version of this open-source solution, which comes with two VPN connections. However, if you wish to unlock more connections, you would need to purchase a license key and unlock a certain number of additional connections.

Is OpenVPN free or not?

OpenVPN comes in two shapes. Its open-source project is free and available to any end-user. However, the commercial OpenVPN Access Server product for business users isn’t free. If you’re interested in an Access Server subscription with up to two simultaneous VPN connections, you don’t have to pay any fees. The free option also allows you to share connections, automate deployment, and maximize your VPN usage. On the other hand, if you need more connections, you would have to sign up for a monthly or yearly subscription plan.

Is OpenVPN a good VPN?

With OpenVPN, security shouldn’t be an issue as it’s arguably the most secure VPN protocol you can find on the market. As an open-source protocol, OpenVPN isn’t owned or operated by any major corporation – unlike some other protocols. Some of its stand-out security features include ciphers, custom SSL/TLS tunneling, and PFS encryption.

What are the benefits of OpenVPN?

There are many benefits of using OpenVPN. Some of the most significant are affordability, good firewall compatibility, and top-notch security measures. OpenVPN encryption ensures the safety of your data and allows you to enjoy any online activity without having to worry about privacy issues.

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