How VPNs Are Changing to Manage Zero Trust Network Access

April 19, 2021
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3 min read

What do a growing number of cyberattacks, emerging tech, such as artificial intelligence, and cloud adoption have in common? They’re all helping fuel the rise of zero trust. Zero trust network access is, in turn, changing the way we access the internet for work. Let’s take a look at how another common tool today — the virtual private network (VPN) — intersects with it.

Why VPN Is at Odds With Zero Trust Network Access

VPNs have been falling out of favor for some time. That’s because of the way in which the corporate network has changed. Many businesses are now using a hybrid cloud model where employees can access corporate systems and data that could be stored thousands of miles away.

Traditional VPNs can still create an encrypted connection tunnel between those employees and on-premise business systems. But as they need to route users through the physical corporate network infrastructure, these solutions tend to be slow and not user-friendly. This has become even more apparent in the age of extensive remote work.

There’s also the issue of security. Nowadays, many remote employees are using VPNs to access corporate assets from a variety of devices while at home. Others work from a public place, including a library or coffee shop, when it’s safe to do so. Digital attackers might have already compromised those devices or the Wi-Fi networks to which they’re connected. They might have even compromised the user themselves by stealing access to their work account. Zero trust network access can handle this, but a traditional VPN can’t.

That’s because traditional VPN solutions don’t vet for those kinds of compromises. They’re designed to do one thing: provide a direct, trusted connection right past all perimeter defenses. Threat actors know this, which is why they can leverage an account compromise with a VPN to hide within the corporate network for as much time as possible.

VPNs in the Age of Zero Trust Network Access

In response to the risks discussed above, many organizations are turning to zero trust network access as a means to secure users, devices and applications on an ongoing basis.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about how zero trust will change the way in which many security tools function. For example, the zero trust model does not portend the death of the firewall, despite worries. It merely uses ‘segmentation gateways’ that combine the functions of firewalls and other tools. Zero trust enables you to enforce trust between approved users, devices, apps and other assets.

Where Software-Defined Perimeters Fit In

It may not be the death knell for firewalls, but it is pushing out VPNs. They’re being replaced with a software-defined perimeter (SDP).

The idea behind an SDP is to stop equating the perimeter with the data center, as was the case with traditional VPNs. Instead, you want to think of the perimeter as a solution that goes wherever the device goes. This type of arrangement dispenses with the blanket authorization granted to users by traditional VPNs.

Instead it gives out zero trust network access. Verified users and their devices receive access only to what they need to perform their jobs. This enforces the principle of least privilege, another core tenet of zero trust, by default. Therefore, it makes the notion of moving laterally between corporate systems much more difficult for a potential attacker.

That’s not the only way in which an SDP is different from a traditional VPN and supportive of a zero trust mindset. For example, many SDP offerings use a global network of points-of-presence to reduce latency and optimize data routing. This helps to create a smoother (and more productive) gateway for any users who might need access to the corporate network.

Keeping in mind the fact that many offerings come with a fixed price per user regardless of how many network resources are in play, you can also use an SDP to scale up zero trust network access as your business grows and evolves.

A Bright Future for Next-Gen VPNs

Traditional VPNs might have outlived their utility amidst more distributed networks. But that’s not so for next-gen VPNs like SDPs. In fact, the Cloud Security Alliance reported that the SDP is “the most effective architecture for adopting a zero trust strategy.” No doubt we’ll see more organizations turning to these types of solutions as zero trust network access adoption continues to grow.

David Bisson
Contributing Editor

David Bisson is an infosec news junkie and security journalist. He works as Contributing Editor for Graham Cluley Security News and Associate Editor for Trip...
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