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What is an SSL VPN: A simplified guide

A man sitting on a couch with a laptop and suitcase, ready for work or travel.

VPNs are a useful way to connect securely to the internet. But not all VPNs are created equal. Using an SSL VPN can help strengthen the privacy of your internet browsing. Read on to learn how SSL VPNs work to help protect the data you send and receive online, and how they compare to OpenVPN or IPsec VPN providers such as Norton Secure VPN.

What is an SSL VPN

An SSL VPN, or Secure Sockets Layer Virtual Private Network, is a type of VPN that connects to the internet via the SSL/TLS protocol. SSL VPNs provide a secure remote connection, which allows people to access the internet anywhere without compromising data privacy.

How SSL VPNs work 

SSL VPNs work like a typical VPN in that they provide a private, encrypted tunnel for the traffic to travel through between your device and the internet. After you log in and authenticate your identity, SSL VPNs encrypt the data you send and receive online. Often, SSL VPNs are browser based and work only if you’re signed into the network they protect, for example when you sign in remotely to your employer’s internal network. 

On top of the more typical VPN capabilities, SSL VPNs use the SSL protocol — a form of network encryption that helps make connecting to websites more secure. With SSL encryption, devices must verify each other’s security and data integrity to ensure that the messages or data being sent aren’t intercepted. 

The S in HTTPS web addresses refers to this SSL encryption. Given SSL’s high security standards, pretty much every reputable website has adopted the SSL encryption protocol and uses SSL certificates to ensure stronger site and data security. Some browsers may even flag websites without HTTPS because of privacy concerns.

The TLS, or Transport Layer Security, protocol is an updated version of the SSL encryption protocol, and was renamed partly because the developers were no longer associated with Netscape, which first developed SSL. SSL’s earlier versions were increasingly vulnerable to cyberattacks such as POODLE and DROWN, so TLS became the new standard for encryption protocols.

In addition to being more secure, TLS can also be applied to email, messaging, and VoIP communications, broadening the opportunities for more secure connectivity. While the term SSL is still commonly used, most websites today use TLS encryption.

An SSL VPN provides a private, verified tunnel from your device to the internet.

SSL VPNs encrypt the data you send and receive online after authenticating your identity, usually through login credentials.

Types of SSL VPNs 

SSL VPNs use the SSL protocol to connect in different ways — the type of SSL connection can affect how many network services you can access and how you access the network in the first place. The main types of SSL VPNs are SSL tunnel and SSL portal, which we’ll describe in more detail below.

SSL tunnel VPNs

An SSL tunnel VPN sends your internet traffic through a secure VPN tunnel. This type of VPN allows you to use a web browser to access multiple network services, including services that may not be web-based, such as enterprise software or proprietary networks. 

SSL tunnel VPNs can be especially useful for enterprises if they have applications or networks that are otherwise inaccessible remotely. 

SSL portal VPNs

Commonly, a SSL portal VPN works like a secure website, where you connect via an internet browser and enter login credentials to activate the VPN connection. SSL portal VPNs typically support only one secure connection at a time, limiting your ability to access networks and applications not accessible via a web browser.

SSL portal VPNs work for anyone who just wants to access the web more securely. Plus, all VPNs come with the additional perks of hiding your IP address, masking your real location, and encrypting your browsing data. These features help to increase your online security when you’re connected to public Wi-Fi.

SSL VPN vs. IPsec VPN: What’s the difference 

There are many differences between SSL VPNs and IPsec VPNs, and the most obvious one is the different encryption protocols they use when connecting to the internet. IPsec VPNs use the IPsec protocol along with a combination of hardware and software to enable a secure VPN connection, while SSL VPNs use the SSL/TLS protocol and prioritize web-based connections.

Here’s how SSL VPNs and IPSec VPNs compare:

The setup is more complicated, requiring client software installation and VPN keys  Generally easier and faster to configure
Multiple users can access a network at the same time Focused on individual remote access, rather than multiple simultaneous users 
Network-level control allows users to access all services in a network Application or service-level permissions are potentially more secure
Offers network-layer encryption, resulting in lower costs Provides application-level encryption, resulting in higher costs
The required client software may not be compatible with all devices No required client software is needed, allowing for more device compatibility

Generally, IPsec VPNs are no better or worse than SSL VPNs, and each type has its strengths, weaknesses, and particular use cases. Choosing an IPsec or SSL VPN depends on your specific network requirements as well as your network access control and compatibility needs.

Pros and cons of SSL VPNs

Using an SSL VPN to connect to the web can help ensure that your browsing experience is private and secure. However, there are some downsides to using SSL VPNs. Let’s break down the pros and the cons of using an SSL VPN connection.

Pros Cons
Allows secure remote access Limited network-level access control
Uses the SSL/TLS protocol Only protects the web browser it is set up on
No need for client software Doesn’t protect traffic from web apps
Easy to setup and use May be vulnerable to malware
Compatible with a wide variety of devices  Can be difficult for many users to access at the same time 
 End-to-end data encryption Relies on web-based applications

Using an SSL VPN connection carries many benefits and can work well on a small scale to protect your data and privacy. If you’re looking to use a VPN, one with an SSL VPN connection is a good option, if its scale and capabilities suit your needs.

Protect your network connection with Norton

Looking for something more flexible and secure than an SSL VPN? Norton Secure VPN uses the ultra-secure OpenVPN and L2TP/IPsec protocols to encrypt your network connection and the data you share online, helping to hide your browsing activity from digital snoops. 

And Norton Secure VPN’s no-log policy means that we don't track or log your online activity, so you can browse in peace with your online privacy protected. Get Norton Secure VPN and start browsing more securely and privately today.


What’s the difference between a VPN and an SSL VPN?

The main difference between a VPN and an SSL VPN is that an SSL VPN is just one type of VPN — all SSL VPNs are VPNs, but not all VPNs are SSL VPNs. SSL is just one of the encryption protocols that VPNs can work with. VPNs that do not use SSL encryption protocols include IPsec, SSTP, IKEv2, and WireGuard VPNs. 

Do I need a VPN if I use SSL?

It depends. SSL/TLS encryption is standard for pretty much any reputable website these days, providing a strong level of data privacy. But using a VPN can help make your overall browsing experience more secure, as SSL alone doesn’t prevent web tracking or hide your IP address.

Who uses SSL VPNs?

Anyone can use an SSL VPN, although it’s particularly useful for businesses and organizations that need to give their employees and staff remote access to certain enterprise applications.

How do I know if my VPN is SSL enabled?

If your VPN has end-to-end encryption, it likely uses SSL/TLS encryption. Most VPNs powered by the OpenVPN protocol also use SSL/TLS encryption. But VPNs marketed toward consumers sometimes don’t have this level of encryption, because data is unencrypted before delivery at its destination. If you’re using a commercial VPN, it most likely uses SSL/TLS encryption. 

  • Danielle Bodnar
  • Cybersecurity writer
Danielle Bodnar is a technology writer based in Prague, with a particular interest in digital privacy. Her work explores a variety of topics, including VPNs and how to keep your online accounts secure.

Editorial note: Our articles provide educational information for you. Our offerings may not cover or protect against every type of crime, fraud, or threat we write about. Our goal is to increase awareness about Cyber Safety. Please review complete Terms during enrollment or setup. Remember that no one can prevent all identity theft or cybercrime, and that LifeLock does not monitor all transactions at all businesses. The Norton and LifeLock brands are part of Gen Digital Inc. 


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