It may be late, but corporates have understood the value of a remote workforce. Although they did engage in the practice of having distant workplaces, the situation was limited to a physical location. However, the advent of the COVID-19 made them aware of the acute need for technology that can allow for remote network management. Today, corporates have networks connected to the remote workforce via a traditional VPN. Furthermore, these VPNs are the tried and tested approach a corporate will likely adopt going forward. But how does VPN compare v/s ZTNA (zero-trust network access)?
We have to give emerging technologies such as ZTNA a fair share of page space and time. Many industry insiders have hailed them to be the next VPN. If not for their infancy and a vague ideology, many would have embraced this trust model. Even though ZTNs are a new entry in the corporate world, they are rapidly gaining a foothold. Although they won’t overthrow VPNs anytime soon, the prospects remain strong. On this note, we will introduce today’s topic, VPN v/s ZTNA, in a bid to enlighten our readers.
Definition of VPN
In the corporate scenario, VPNs are as old as the internet. They are the traditional approach to remote network access. Furthermore, a VPN has multiple implementations when it comes to corporate usage. For instance, remote access VPN or a site-to-site VPN. On top of that, we have the popular IPsec and the SSL VPNs. Sometimes the corporate even employ an MPLS VPN for their remote workforce. However, all these implementations have shortcomings. Some are restricted by physical limits and others by communication methods. Despite such fallacies, VPNs have never faltered. They are comfortable on the top because every alternative to VPNs has to rely on VPNs to establish a secure foothold.
VPNs use the traditional tunneling method to connect networks over a public communication network. The tunnels function due to security protocols like PPTP, IPsec, IKEv2, L2TP, WireGuard, OpenVPN, and more. Moreover, they use state-of-the-art encryption policies for securing data traffic. However, the charm of corporate VPNs lies in the fact that they can alter and redefine the surrounding networking products, for example, VPN routers, gateways, and concentrators. This allows them to maintain their lead in this field.
Zero-trust network access (ZTNA) works on a trust model where entrance gets awarded on a need-to-know basis. Furthermore, the key is superficial to the network. That’s because it connects to a layered application isolated from the architecture to provide enhanced security. ZTNA is on the rise since early 2020 due to the emergence of the pandemic. The surging demand for a remote workforce led to the implementation of a dynamic authentication and connection system that can prevent both internal and external threats.
There are two principal approaches to implement ZTNA successfully: endpoint initiated and service initiated. As their names imply—the endpoint approach allows users access from an endpoint-connected device, like an SDP (software-defined perimeter). In contrast, the service approach employs a broker between the user and the network application. Generally, a lightweight ZTNA provider will guard the entrance to the business application located either on-premise or on cloud providers.
Similarly, there are two delivery methods to ZTNA: standalone ZTNA or ZTNA as a service.
VPN v/s ZTNA: Differences
Here’s how ZTNA and VPN are different:
Granularity: Network-level access v/s Application level access
The policies that dictate access authorization differ for both VPNs and ZTNs. While VPNs provide total network access after authentication, ZTNs work more on a need-to-know basis, where the least worthy gets decided on pre-defined granularity. Meaning, once you get authenticated by the VPN, you can do whatever you want within the network with impunity. However, with ZTNA, there is no access at all unless the assets require it (data, application, or service). This isolation allows ZTNs to provide better security.
The load on VPNs is directly proportional to the user base. It can lead to latency and high demand for resources. Similarly, it can render the network incapacitated. However, the resource utilization in ZTNs is mild. This is due to the obsequious behavior of the trust model, which limits access and hence the load on the network.
Flexibility and agility
ZTNA is known to be flexible and agile, opposite of VPNs. ZTNs can be adaptable because access is subject to a per-case basis, whereas VPNs are rigid since they cannot distinguish between different access requests. Furthermore, once the user gets access, the VPN is prone to exposure from internal factors. Also, don’t forget that most VPN implementations rely on an IT team to install and configure the service when needed. It makes the scalability appear weak.
Deep visibility into user activity
VPNs can’t monitor on an application scale because once a user is inside the network, they have no control over their actions. However, ZTNA works in the exact opposite spectrum. It logs every user action and provides deep visibility and monitoring abilities. Furthermore, the logs can be subject to the SIEM (Security information and event management) tools for real-time and centralized visibility into user activity and threats.
Endpoint posture assessment
VPNs can’t factor in the risks associated with endpoint devices. A compromised or malware-infected device can easily connect to the server and access the internal network. It is not a problem for ZTNA, though—they perform a scheduled and continuous assessment of incoming devices. ZTNA runs an authentication request with the device to validate its security postures. However, this validation is subject to real-time device trust.
Most traditional VPNs are unable to handle the increasingly distributed workforce scenario. By concept, VPNs rely on physical locations to provide remote access to a network (site-to-site VPN). Furthermore, backtracking every user connection through a centralized VPN hub creates bandwidth issues which result in an overload. However, ZTNA users can establish a direct-to-app channel, forgoing the network altogether. It will minimize the load on a network when compared to scaling. ZTNs can do so by relying on IaaS (Infrastructure as a service) or private data centers to employ cloud computing solutions.
VPNs are costly as compared to the ZTNA technology. They require physical implants at onsite premises and are often limited to physical locale. Furthermore, they need hardware for networking. Although maintaining a VPN is doable, scaling is often expensive. However, ZTNA eliminates any need for hardware. Moreover, it doesn’t require pricey client software to function.
VPNs are virtual, but their corporate implementation is fraught with hardware-specific roles. This applies to networking devices or onsite hardware providing access to network resources alike. Although a VPN can make do without them, users have confirmed the most you can get from a VPN lie in the hand of specified hardware. Yes, a ZTNA can also get configured in the same way. But instead of a hardware-centric approach, they employ cloud computing services. It saves the cost and leaves room for growth.
VPN v/s ZTNA: Comparison table
|Security infrastructure||VPNs have a simple barrier that works against external threats.||ZTNs employ a double barrier strategy to prevent both internal and external threats.|
|Implementation architecture||It is mono (single) site.||It covers multi sites.|
|Access level||VPNs grant network-level access.||ZTNA awards application/resource level access to users.|
|Visibility to management||A superficial surface level monitoring regarding who logged in.||In-depth monitoring regarding who signed in to what.|
|Traceability||It is not interconnectable with PAM.||It has a transparent interconnection with PAM.|
|Admin rights||It doesn’t have an application declaration. Grants complex access assignments.||Application declaration is a must with ZTNA as it employs fast access assignments.|
|Physical onsite agent||VPNs need an exclusive onsite agent.||ZTNs can grant access without an agent.|
|Authentication profiles and checks||VPNs rely on a simple authentication policy defined by protocols.||It works on a stringent need-to-know access system where the least worthy gets defined by granular policies.|
|Authentication management||It has only Primary Authentication Management (PAM).||It has both Primary and Secondary Authentication Management.|