Wireguard is the newest VPN protocol to gain widespread adoption, and it’s becoming increasingly popular with consumer VPN services.
But what is Wireguard, how does it work, how save is it, and how does it compare to legacy protocols like OpenVPN?
This guide will teach you everything you need to know about the Wireguard protocol.
- What is Wireguard?
- Wireguard vs other protocols
- Which VPNs support Wireguard
- Compatible Operating Systems
What is WireGuard?
Wireguard is an Open Source VPN protocol that uses a combination of elliptic curve encryption and symetric key cryptopgraphy. It is designed to be more performant (faster) than legacy protocols while remaining highly secure and attack-resistant.
Perhaps the most notable feature of Wireguard is how lightweight it is. The entire codebase weighs in around 4,000 lines of code. That’s puny compared to OpenVPN which has grown to over 100,000 lines of code at last count.
Wireguard is able to remain lean because it is less flexible than other protocols. It uses a specific combination of encryption ciphers. It can’t be customized by the end-user to support other encryption schemes like AES-256.
Pros & Cons of WireGuard
Wireguard has some key advantages compared to older protocols, but there are tradeoffs as well. These are the most significant things to be aware of:
Cyptography & Encryption
Wireguard includes all the security features necessary to create a secure VPN tunnel, it just implements them differently than less-performance protocols.
From the Wireguard White Paper, here are the ciphers Wireguard uses compared to the most common cipher used for OpenVPN.
|Key Exchange / handshake
As you can see, Wireguard’s implementation is completely different than what you’d get with OpenVPN, but it still offers strong 256-bit encryption and perfect forward secrecy for added security.
How secure is WireGuard?
WireGuard is extremely secure. The lean codebase has been audited by reputable cryptographers and there are no known security vulnerabilities in the core code base. There have been several CVE’s from vendor-specific implementations, however (all patched).
Wireguard was deemed secure enough by Linus Torvalds that it is now part of the Linux kernel and the default VPN protocol.
There is one thing Wireguard is missing though, NIST certification. But Wireguard is new and governments are notoriously slow, especially when it comes to technological adoption. But things are changing. NIST adoption was actually endorsed by U.S. senator Ron Wyden who sits on the Select Committee on Intelligence.
Best Uses for WireGuard
Wireguard is acceptable for most VPN uses, but it is best suited to use-cases that prioritize speed and performance over security.
Example uses for WireGuard VPN:
- Streaming – WireGuard is perfect for streaming video over VPN, especially on far away servers when unblocking geo-restricted sites like Voot or Netflix. It’s especially impressive for low-spec mobile devices that might do poorly with OpenVPN.
- Torrenting – Fast speeds and on-the-fly server switching makes Wireguard perfect for torrenting. It is kill-switch compatible and works on all major OS’s.
- General Security – Protect your data and privacy on open-wifi networks, hotels, planes, cafes and so on.
Where Wireguard falls short:
- Obfuscation & Firewall bypass – Because Wireguard has a specific encryption signature and doesn’t use the OpenSSL library, it can’t easily be obfuscated or disguised as non-VPN traffic. This makes it inferior to OpenVPN for bypassing restrictive firewalls or usage in countries where VPNs are illegal.
How WireGuard compares to other VPN protocols
In head-to-head tests, the Wireguard vpn protocol outperforms other mainstream protocols for both performance and stability in most scenarios. This, combined with its ease of deployment is why WireGuard has gained quick adoption among consumer VPN brands like NordVPN.
WireGuard vs. OpenVPN
OpenVPN is the industry standard and enjoys near universal support among top Virtual Private Network brands. Like WireGuard, OpenVPN is open-source. However unlike Wireguard, OpenVPN is highly-configurable with a large code-base.
OpenVPN prioritizes security and flexibility over raw performance.
Is WireGuard faster than OpenVPN?
An independent test on 114 different servers found that, on average, WireGuard is 14.6% faster than OpenVPN.
This performance advantage varies greatly by client hardware and multi-threading capabilities. Wireguard was also not universally the fastest. It was the fastest protocol in 58.8% of tests.
Wireguard’s own website also has some benchmarking data that shows a much larger speed advantage for Wireguard, though the footnotes admit the test is outdated and not conducted to scientific standards.
Wireguard vs IKEv2 / IPSec
The closest protocol to Wireguard’s performance is IKEv2/IPSec, which sits in between OpenVPN and Wireguard on the speed vs. security matrix.
IPSec has made significant performance strides recently and actually outperforms Wireguard in certain situations (though less than 50% of the time).
However IPSec is not as widely available as OpenVPN, and is often found only in desktop clients and iOS. It is less-often (though sometimes) available for Android OS, or router firmware.
Which VPNs Support WireGuard?
NordVPN was the first mainstream VPN to adopt WireGuard with their NordLynx protocol. After this proof of concept, their was a surge of adoption as other top brands added WireGuard in order to remain competitive.
Speed is an important deciding factor when choosing a VPN service, and Wireguard’s significant performance advantages remain a big selling point.
Currently, there are more than a dozen VPN brands that offer WireGuard connections.
- NordVPN – The first to release WireGuard in their official app. NordVPN offers a customized version of WireGuard known as NordLynx.
- Private Internet Access – PIA released WireGuard from beta in 2020 and now offers it on Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS and Android
- Surfshark – One of the first VPNs to offer Wireguard for manual connections (like your router). It’s also available in-app on Windows, Mac & Android.
- Cyberghost – Wireguard is offered on all OS’s except iOS. It’s a perfect combo for Cyberghosts dedicated streaming servers which support 10+ Netflix regions.
- IPVanish – They were a bit late to the Wireguard party, but now offer it on most apps alongside IPSec and OpenVPN.
ExpressVPN is the most prominent VPN service to defer Wireguard adoption. Instead, they developed their own Lightway protocol from the ground up to be a more performant alternative to OpenVPN. However maintaining and security a custom protocol is a challenge most VPN brands would never attempt when there are good alternatives like Wireguard.
What Operating Systems work with WireGuard?
Wireguard is platform agnostic, though the only OS with built-in Wireguard integration is Linux (along with router brands like ASUS).
However, WireGuard can be ported to nearly any platform or OS through either the official WireGuard client, or a 3rd-party VPN app.
Currently WireGuard is supported by most top VPN brands on:
- Some router models (running specific firmware versions)
Conclusion: Should you use Wireguard?
Yes. If your VPN offers the Wireguard protocol, you should choose it for most use cases (as long as you notice performance benefits).
Wireguard is superior to OpenVPN for both streaming and torrenting, though it’s less useful if you need to traverse a firewall or avoid detection altogether.
But for everyday use, Wireguard is the best protocol available right now, with IPSec/IKEv2 a good backup option if you’re prioritizing performance.