Shadowsocks vs VPN (What is the Difference + Recommendation)
More often than not, people mistake Shadowsocks for VPN-based technology. Although the two have overlapping functions, they are significantly different. Read more to understand the differences and similarities between VPNs and Shadowsocks. We’ve also included the benefits and use cases of the two technologies.
What is a VPN?
A virtual private network (VPN) has two separate uses that are meant to enhance privacy. First off, a VPN app creates a separate network from a public Internet connection to give users online privacy and anonymity. Your data is routed through an encrypted tunnel and passes through a VPN server on its way to its destination.
Second of all, VPNs mask a device’s Internet protocol (IP) address, meaning anything you do online can’t be traced back to your location. This has the added benefit of letting you bypass geo-restrictions and Internet censorship.
What is Shadowsocks?
Shadowsocks is an open-source SOCKS5-based project designed to bypass censorship. A Chinese programmer first released Shadowsocks in 2012 as an underground tool to circumvent content geo-restrictions in China. However, the developer announced they were retiring from the initiative due to pressure from the Chinese authorities in 2015.
As luck would have it, there were many contributors who volunteered to maintain and improve upon the technology. Despite the government’s best efforts, it’s unlikely for Shadowsocks to be fully suppressed.
How Shadowsocks Works
Shadowsocks is based on proxying technology that grew popular in China after the inception of the Great Firewall. Users would circumvent the firewall by first linking to a separate device called a proxy server. The setup routes some traffic through the proxy server located in a different location, allowing the user to connect to otherwise blocked websites freely.
As the Great Firewall became more prevalent, it turned out challenging to use proxy servers to connect to restricted sites. For that reason, coders developed Shadowsocks that uses the SOCKS5 open-source internet protocol.
The process involves creating an encrypted connection between the Shadowsocks client on a local computer and the one running on the proxy server. Say, a virtual private server (VPS) that the user rents outside the country. Users can access this server by inputting its location and password within the Shadowsocks client.
This allows for unrestricted Internet access, as long as the user’s access to the proxy server isn’t blocked through other means.
Benefits of Shadowsocks
When comparing Shadowsocks vs VPN, two benefits come to mind. First, Shadowsocks proxying tends to be faster than a VPN, as it doesn’t fully encrypt your traffic. In fact, some Shadowsocks forks have added the option to disable encryption altogether.
Otherwise, Shadowsocks traffic tends to be more difficult to detect and block than the average VPN. Especially if the latter doesn’t implement its own obfuscation method (e.g. NordVPN stealth servers).
How Are Shadowsocks and VPN Similar?
Forty-three percent of people globally feel they lack control over their personal data, forcing them to explore tools to achieve anonymity. In fact, 80 percent of Chinese citizens and Americans are concerned about their governments spying on them. More than 91 percent of Americans believe they have lost control over the ways their data is collected and used.
Much like Shadowsocks, VPNs also reroute and encrypt data to give privacy and anonymity. Both technologies allow users to access geo-blocked or censored websites. They both achieve this by changing users’ public IP address to bypass geo-restrictions. VPNs and Shadowsocks are compatible with multiple platforms, including mobile devices and wireless networks.
How is Shadowsocks Different from a VPN?
We explore the key differences between Shadowsocks and VPN down below.
Shadowsocks is ‘Distributed,’ VPN is ‘Centralized’
Unlike the highly decentralized Shadowsocks, VPNs are extensive centralized services. Their architecture makes it easy for government authorities to detect and block traffic from VPN service providers. Meanwhile the Great Firewall of China needs to use traffic analysis and other advanced techniques to detect and block Shadowsocks traffic.
VPNs Rely on Popular Internet Protocols
VPNs rely on popular Internet protocols that instruct digital devices on how to talk to each other over the web. Meanwhile, firewall censors deploy advanced machine learning (ML) to identify VPN traffic based on their digital “fingerprints”. For instance, popular streaming services like Netflix use VPN blockers that limit which VPNs actually work on their platform.
On the other hand, the ML detection method is not as effective when it comes to the less centralized Shadowsocks technology. Shadowsocks allows each user to customize their setup, resulting in proxy connections that look different from the outside. Basically, filtering systems (such as the Great Firewall) will have trouble identifying traffic patterns that should be blocked.
Shadowsocks Doesn’t Work for all Traffic
Unlike a VPN, Shadowsocks can only reroute TCP and UDP traffic. For example, ICMP pings are not supported through Shadowsocks. In fact, some Shadowsocks-based clients (e.g. Outline) are forced to drop unsupported packets.
As a result, incorrectly configured Shadowsocks clients may be a detriment to user privacy. This is because incompatible data may ‘leak’ outside the proxy connection. Naturally, VPN clients aren’t immune to leaks. However, a VPN leak is less likely to occur when you use a reliable provider.
VPNs deploy several layers of encryption to secure information on their servers. In contrast, Shadowsocks is a lightweight software that disguises traffic as regular HTTPS traffic to fly under the radar of various filtering systems. Shadowsocks uses SOCKS5 proxies that work with multiple TCP connections to send traffic, making it much faster and challenging to detect.
It uses HTTPS and SOCKS5 protocols to hide some of the users’ traffic, which it routes through a server to hide online actions from an ISP. In essence, Shadowsocks encrypts the traffic it forwards through the ‘proxy’ server. As mentioned in the previous section, this is limited to TCP and UDP data packets.
Security and Scalability
Developers created Shadowsocks as a for-coders by-coders tool. However, some non-professional programmers in China now use the software to access sites like YouTube and Vimeo, both blocked in the country.
Google Jigsaw released Outline, a Shadowsocks-based tool that simplifies setting up Shadowsocks even without the knowledge of command-line. Outline deploys Shadowsocks servers on multiple cloud service providers, including Rackspace, Digital Ocean, Amazon EC2, and Google Cloud Platform.
While Shadowsocks is a powerful software for bypassing website restrictions, it has a limited functionality beyond that. For instance, the developers have not optimized the tool for enhancing users’ online security.
On the other hand, VPNs offer a higher level of security, which is sorely needed in this day and age. For instance, you can use a VPN to browse securely on public Wi-Fi hotspots. Besides, VPNs keep you safe from data logging and monitoring by ISPs and other third parties.
The sheer number of VPN vendors is proof enough of the tool’s value. However, since no VPN is perfect, users should do their own research to ensure they make the right choice.
Shadowsocks is entirely open-source and free. There’s also an extensive community of programmers and testers supporting the project with frequent updates. In contrast, running a reliable VPN service that includes a global server network, user support, and app updates can get expensive.
So yes, a VPN subscription can be more pricey than renting out a proxy server for Shadowsocks. Of course, the extra cost goes towards ensuring that you can unblock all the content you need. Not to mention providing improved privacy and security.
On top of that, there’s always the risk of your Shadowsocks proxy server getting identified and blocked. Renting out yet another server every time that happens can quickly get annoying. With a VPN, you can just switch to a different server in 2-3 clicks max and resume browsing as usual.
Shadowsocks and VPN Use Cases
As discussed previously, Shadowsocks’ main purpose is to circumvent censorship. The software utilizes HTTPS to disguise traffic so that requests can bypass filtering systems (such as the Great Firewall). Since you’re basically accessing the Internet through a proxy server, you get a modicum of privacy as well. The websites you visit will see the proxy server’s IP address instead of yours, thus hiding your location.
Meanwhile, VPNs both hide your IP, and encrypt any data passing through your network. You get plenty of servers worldwide to bypass geo-blocks and Internet censorship. Moreover, top-grade VPNs (such as NordVPN) implement their own obfuscation methods. Much like Shadowsocks, you can disguise your VPN traffic to evade blocks in countries like China.
VPN with Shadowsocks
Private Internet Access (PIA) is one of the few VPN services that still supports Shadowsocks. You can take advantage of this while using PIA’s multi-hop feature. What this does is basically add an extra step between you and the VPN server, which may help with bypassing VPN blocks on certain networks.
Note that Shadowsocks is only available on desktop versions of the PIA app, and only at specific locations. Otherwise, PIA does not keep any logs when using Shadowsocks or any other protocol. It’s easy to use and has extra security features, such as an Internet kill switch, leak protection, and even a built-in ad-blocker that also filters malicious websites.
The VPN supports split tunneling, P2P traffic, and can unblock Netflix from anywhere. They also have an extensive server network, numbering in the tens of thousands of units spread across 80+ countries.
More on VPN with Shadowsocks
Users can integrate VPN and Shadowsocks to leverage the benefits the two technologies offer, such as speed, security, and anonymity.
You can first set up Shadowsocks to sidestep blockers like the Great Firewall and access the Internet without restrictions. Subsequently, you can install a VPN as a digital security app to encode information and re-route traffic through protected servers to alleviate cyber-attacks.
That way, your ISP, government authorities, or any other outsider can’t tell what you’re doing online. Besides, cybercriminals cannot steal confidential information from your systems or networks, whether you’re at home or on the go.
Shadowsocks VPN FAQs
We answer some of the more common questions people have regarding Shadowsocks vs VPN.
When is It Better to Choose VPN Over Shadowsocks?
If you’d rather not waste time with complicated setups, then VPN is better than Shadowsocks for most purposes – especially streaming. However, VPN traffic can be easier to detect and block than Shadowsocks. In that case, Shadowsocks may be a decent backup plan.
Does Shadowsocks Work the Same as a VPN?
While there is some overlap between how Shadowsocks and VPN work, the two are not the same. VPNs encrypt all your data by default, whereas you need to configure Shadowsocks for every app. Moreover, you’ll need to rent out a server to use as a Shadowsocks proxy.
Is It Legal to Use Shadowsocks?
While fully legal elsewhere, the legality of Shadowsocks in countries like China is up for debate. Chinese authorities have asked Shadowsocks’ creator to shut down development of the protocol. However, there have been no user reports of legal issues while using it.
Does Shadowsocks Ensure Privacy and Anonymity?
Shadowsocks isn’t designed with privacy and anonymity in mind. Instead, the protocol is mostly useful to bypass Internet censorship in countries like China. You can configure Shadowsocks to use encryption, but it will only encrypt data between you and the proxy server.
Which is More Expensive: VPN or Shadowsocks?
Technically, Shadowsocks is less expensive than a VPN, as you only pay for renting out a proxy server. That said, VPNs are worth the extra cost if you need a reliable way to stream geo-blocked content. That, and keeping your data safe from hackers and surveillance.
Are VPNs Faster than Shadowsocks?
Overall, Shadowsocks tends to be faster than VPNs, as it doesn’t fully encrypt your traffic. Of course, that also means Shadowsocks leaves you more exposed to hacking activity. Not to mention it may not be as reliable for unblocking content on Netflix and similar sites.
Ultimately, Shadowsocks is a robust tool for sidestepping digital censorship. The technology has gained popularity, especially in countries where Internet control is a significant issue. Despite the authorities’ efforts to block the tool, it has continually expanded due to its open-source nature, making it difficult to detect.
Meanwhile, VPN remains a more suitable option for businesses and users seeking identity protection, anonymity, and security on the Internet. VPNs function as cybersecurity tools that encrypt data and reroute all traffic through VPN providers’ secure servers.
Conversely, Shadowsocks does not focus on your privacy, security, or anonymity. The main purpose of the tool is to bypass restricted content while working more like a proxy than a VPN. Shadowsocks, unlike VPN, does not encrypt all the user’s data or mask public IP addresses and does not reroute traffic via secure servers.
If you want a VPN, here are some recommendations: