VPNs used to be a niche tool used mainly for remote working. But with online privacy and security now priorities for everyone - plus tales of the government monitoring your traffic and ISPs selling your browsing data to the highest bidder - VPNs are becoming an essential app for your phone, laptop and other devices.

Security is the name of the game when it comes to VPNs. They encrypt all data travelling from your device to the internet through a private ‘tunnel’ so your activity can’t be monitored by prying eyes.

There are several choices for encryption protocols and one of the most popular is OpenVPN.

What is OpenVPN?

OpenVPN is a protocol which is - somewhat surprisingly - over 15 years old. It's been in continuous development since its release in 2001, and is used by most consumer VPN services.

These are the main advantages of OpenVPN:

  • It is open source. This means that its code can be viewed by anyone, so it has been inspected, vetted and tested by many different security experts and organisations.
  • It features military-grade, 256-bit encryption and can use multiple encryption techniques and algorithms.
  • It can be used on almost any platform, including Windows, Linux and macOS as well as Android and iOS.

While this makes it an adaptive and powerful too, it also suffers from a couple of drawbacks.

First, it isn't a standalone VPN service and requires third-party applications to function. This means, to some extent, that it is only as useful as the applications that it’s relying on – which isn’t a problem if they are legitimate and professionally developed and run.

Second, it requires technical knowledge to configure, but this is handled by whichever VPN service you choose, so isn't really a drawback at all.

The OpenVPN project has its own VPN service called Private Tunnel. Like many of the best VPN services this isn't free, but for a minimal monthly fee, you get an easy-to-use and secure internet connection that's useful on public Wi-Fi and for privacy when browsing the web.

Is OpenVPN better than WireGuard?

Until recently, OpenVPN was unchallenged, but there's a new protocol which is currently the darling of the VPN world.

WireGuard is also open source, but is only around 4000 lines of code compared to the 100,000 or so for OpenVPN. This makes OpenVPN look bloated, outdated and also noticeably slower.

In tests, WireGuard has been clocked at speeds up to twice as fast as OpenVPN, although this tends to be when the VPN server is physically quite close to the device being tested.

Regardless, WireGuard is quickly being adopted by VPN services such as NordVPN, (our current no.1-ranked VPN service), Hide.me, Mullvad, StrongVPN and Malwarebytes.

ExpressVPN reckons its own brand new protocol, Lightway, is even faster than WireGuard, so we could see this being adopted by a number of VPN companies as this, too, will be open-sourced.

These new lightweight protocols offer the same level of encryption (and therefore security) as OpenVPN, but require less battery power and handle network changes, such as between Wi-Fi and mobile data, much better than older protocols.

So it looks very much as if OpenVPN's days are numbered.