What's the Difference Between IPsec vs SSL VPNs ... and Which Should You Use?

What is the Difference Between IPsec vs SSL VPNs


Virtual private networks (VPNs) are used by businesses and individuals alike to provide secure, direct access to networks from remote locations, and unlock a raft of benefits as a result.

There are different ways to configure and operate VPNs, and different technologies and techniques available for those that want to implement them. This means you’ve got a few points of comparison to weigh up when choosing a setup to use.

One of the main distinctions is between encryption methods, with IPsec and SSL being the primary contenders. Let’s dissect the differences between these approaches, and also unpick which is right for you according to your needs.

Understanding IPsec


When it comes to VPN IPsec, or internet protocol security as it is also known, the key thing to appreciate is that it acts as a network-level solution for encrypting and authenticating interactions between two or more devices.

There are actually several protocols encompassed by the umbrella of IPsec, and these work together to encrypt IP packets and authenticate connections over public networks, creating privacy and security as a result.


Getting to grips with SSL


The first point to grasp is that secure sockets layer technology has actually been superseded by transport layer security (TSL), although in some cases you’ll still hear SSL discussed with regards to a VPN.

In all likelihood this will be an instance of SSL and TSL being used interchangeably, so don’t get confused and think that an SSL solution is long in the tooth, as TSL is almost certainly underpinning the service in question.

SSL VPNs ensure that data sent between processes over a network connection is encrypted throughout its journey, again preventing outside intervention or manipulation. The port numbers of individual processes will be taken into account as part of the encryption process.

Wrangling the differences


By this point the main thing to know is that IPsec is about creating secure, encrypted connections between devices, while SSL is about achieving the same thing, but between programs instead.

So with an IPsec VPN you could establish an encrypted link between a laptop and a business server, while with an SSL or TLS VPN you could ensure that a web browser was able to access a web server securely.

Because of this distinction, there are also differences in terms of the setup required. SSL functions within a web browser, while IPsec needs its own software installed and configured on all devices involved.

There are a lot of other variables to consider, but these largely come down to how you decide to implement the given VPN solution, and so it’s important to avoid generalizing when making comparisons, because each deployment and use case will be unique.

Coming to a decision


So how exactly can you pick between competing IPsec and SSL VPN packages? Well, your first port of call is considering the aspects of performance and security.

Performance differences between the two should be negligible, although this does depend on your implementation of the VPN. It is possible to suffer some performance penalties when using IPsec, for example, because as mentioned this requires additional locally installed software on connected devices. That said, you may be willing to make this compromise in order to achieve network-level encryption.

From a security perspective, it’s equally tricky to separate the two. The best option is to consider the threats you face, and decide whether the merits of IPsec or SSL solutions are more appropriate in this context.

This is where an exploration of the outcomes of successful breaches is also required. Because IPsec functions at a network level, it has obvious conveniences for end users, but can be more vulnerable to disruption if an attack gets through the outer layer of encryption.

SSL keeps interlopers at arms’ length because it defends the transport layer instead, but does leave you with different limitations from a functionalist perspective to take onboard.

Final thoughts

Whether you eventually implement an IPsec VPN or instead opt for an SSL VPN, this is not a decision to be rushed, nor one to make without carrying out a rigorous assessment of your requirements.

There are pros and cons to each, and the main thing to remember is that encryption in all its forms is better than not having any kind of protection for remote connections.

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