NordLayer - Network Security

What are the best VPN alternatives for your business to consider?


By NordLayer
15 Mar 2022
5 min read
What are the best VPN alternatives for your business to consider?

Could it be time for your business to look beyond traditional VPN security? Changes to the way we work, the technology we use, and the threats we encounter are making Virtual Private Networks less useful all the time. In some cases, relying on Virtual Private Network protection can be actively dangerous.

Now, companies need to manage workloads located in the cloud and on-premises. They have to handle remote working and third-party access, as work-from-anywhere becomes the norm. They demand speed and convenience alongside protection against data thefts and malware intrusions.

These multiple demands present a massive challenge to Virtual Private Network-based solutions. That’s why demand is rising for alternatives that can surgically authenticate users to protect your data, won’t slow connections, and scale seamlessly with ever-sprawling hybrid IT ecosystems.

This blog will look at why these shifts are occurring and explore alternatives that transcend the limitations of standard VPNs.

Why do companies use VPN, and what drawbacks are they experiencing?

Virtual Private Networks have become a go-to solution when extending company networks into homes and other external settings. They allow users to create encrypted connection tunnels and assume anonymous identities, providing a way to transfer data without exposing it to external actors.

That has served network managers well, making remote access more secure. When Covid hit in 2020, millions of Americans started to use VPNs to facilitate home working. Around half of US remote workers now use a VPN to create an encrypted connection with their place of work.

However, problems associated with VPN usage have rapidly started to show. It’s now become apparent that VPNs aren’t a remote access security panacea for companies that are serious about mitigating security risks.

VPN coverage has some significant drawbacks which make it unsuitable for modern corporate networks, with problems including:

  • Speed and performance – VPNs rely on external servers run by a VPN service provider, which adds complexity to network operations. This extra level of complexity can compromise speed, while features like Kill Switches can also lead to performance issues.

  • Lack of authentication – Most VPNs lack comprehensive multi-factor authentication systems, making them more vulnerable to credential theft and unauthorized access.

  • Difficulties with scale – VPNs tend to scale poorly. Adding large numbers of remote access workstations or third-party contractors requires labor-intensive procedures. As user numbers grow, managers can struggle to control which VPNs employees are using and whether users are updating VPN clients appropriately.

  • Hackers can gain access to internal networks – Several common VPN standards present critical vulnerabilities such as CVE-2021-20016 and CVE-2021-22893. When hackers obtain login credentials, the encrypted tunnel and IP anonymization essentially become worthless. It could add additional security risks, as hackers gain the freedom to roam across internal networks while masquerading as authentic VPN users.

  • No third-party coverage – VPNs are not well-suited to corporate networks that involve connections to third-party organizations and contractors. Network managers have little control over how third parties use them, and monitoring behavior within networks is usually impossible.

  • Expand threat surfaces with little oversight – Generally speaking, every additional VPN client on a distributed network will increase the threat surface available to attackers. One compromised endpoint can allow access to sensitive resources, increasing security and compliance risks.

  • Poor functionality with Cloud-based resources – VPNs aren’t optimized to communicate with and secure Cloud resources. With companies relying on Cloud access more and more, this is becoming a crucial weakness.

  • The need for separate security stacks on the network side – VPNs provide end-to-end encryption, but this still requires a security stack to inspect traffic and provide a degree of authentication: this is both a vulnerability and an inefficient solution when suitable alternatives are available.

The May 2021 Colonial Pipeline attack dramatically exposed these flaws. In that attack, hackers took down energy supplies on the US Eastern Seaboard, resulting in a $5 million payout. The attackers gained access via VPN credentials purchased on the Dark Web – an easy entry route that applies to millions of network endpoints worldwide.

Given these serious drawbacks, it could well be time to investigate an alternative remote access solution for your business. Several options exist, with the potential to create hybrid setups as needed. Here are the significant variants to consider.

The best VPN Alternatives for Secure Remote Access

Identity and Access Management (IAM) and Privileged Access Management (PAM)

IAM and PAM provide forms of user authentication that most VPNs can’t – making it far easier to police who is using a network and what they can do when logged on.

IAM involves creating access management systems at the edge of the network. They assess each login attempt and compare credentials to those stored on third-party authentication resources, as well as authorized user lists held by network managers.

Users can be logged and tracked, and managers can be confident that private network resources are only available to valid users. However, IAM alone is rarely enough.

PAM generally supplements IAM and provides a more comprehensive solution. PAM systems allow network managers to define user privileges within network perimeters. Managers can decide what resources are available to different access tiers, police secure passwords, and monitor accounts in real-time.

IAM and PAM tend to be simplified tools and function as components of broader VPN alternatives such as Zero Trust Network Access and Secure Access Service Edge.

Zero Trust Network Access (ZTNA)

Zero Trust systems operate according to the principle “never trust, and always verify.” This security architecture assumes that all devices are suspect until passing authentication.

Network portals will not allow users to access critical systems without thorough validation processes. Segmentation tools ensure police activity within networks, limiting lateral movement between corporate resources.

ZTNA tools do everything VPN services can do, with added features such as multi-factor authentication, credential storage, and least-privileged access to every resource. Users cannot access resources unless security tools permit them to do so, which radically reduces data thefts’ scope, making them less severe when breaches occur.

Additionally, ZTNA solutions tend to be Cloud-native, a significant advantage over software-based VPNs. It’s also an excellent fit for companies expanding their remote working operations.

Secure Access Service Edge (SASE)

As the name suggests, SASE involves securing every endpoint connecting to network resources—a robust approach to security risks for companies that rely on third-party contractors and remote work and a valuable supplement for ZTNA setups.

Alongside ZTNA access management, SASE setups will often incorporate next-generation firewalls (NGFW), as well as software-defined perimeters or wide area networks. When you bundle all of that together, the result is a blend of perimeter protection and internal access control that is well-suited to complex and expanding corporate networks.

However, ZTNA and SASE are complex VPN alternatives that may not suit smaller organizations. In that case, other lightweight security options are available.

Software-Defined Perimeters (SDP) and Software-Defined Wide Area Networks (SD-WAN)

SDP and SD-WAN solutions are often components of ZTNA/SASE solutions, but companies can also deploy them as stand-alone security packages. Both solutions use software tools to authenticate users and profile devices.

Software-Defined Perimeter tools can connect to third-party authentication providers and regulate access to resources inside networks. SD-WAN tools effectively replace network routers. Instead, they authenticate users and handle network traffic, providing an overlay to monitor user activity.

SDP and SD-WAN systems aren’t always easy to differentiate. Both are well-adapted to meet the needs of Cloud users, and both are capable of absorbing third-party users and expanding as corporate needs dictate.

Generally, the two approaches work together. In practice, software-based security tools function at both enterprise edge and individual user levels, governing who can log on and what they can do. That’s a considerable advance over simple VPN solutions.

Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI)

So far, we’ve looked at basically similar VPN alternatives for business users. SDP and SD-WAN tend to be a foundation for ZTNA/SASE approaches, and the differences are primarily around scale and complexity.

VDI is different. In a VDI setup, workers connect to network resources via virtual machines. No hardware is involved, and sensitive data resides on remote working devices. Managers can specifically dedicate resources for each user’s virtual machine and have a lot of flexibility regarding machine configuration.

VDI can work well for many Cloud-based remote working challenges. However, VDIs are complex to run, create, and add costs. These factors often make software-based ZTNA approaches preferable, but virtual solutions are still worth considering.

What to consider before choosing a VPN Alternative

Every company has its own unique security needs, and it’s crucial to find an alternative to Virtual Private Networks that meshes with those requirements. Several factors come into play when choosing an alternative, including:

  • The number of connections – How many employees or third-party users will the network need to support? Using an easy-to-scale SDP solution might make sense if there are high demands. A more in-depth ZTNA implementation might come into play if smaller user numbers are involved.

  • Is virtualization relevant? – Some businesses are well-suited to the use of virtual desktops. For instance, customer support teams often find VDIs useful to limit the transferral of customer data and log employee activity. But that’s not always the case for remote workers. Generally, more autonomous workers will benefit from a ZTNA/SASE-based alternative.

  • Cost – How much can you set aside to invest in a VPN option? VPNs are affordable and easy to use, becoming the dominant security solution. However, off-the-shelf SDP and ZTNA-based solutions are competitive and more secure, which results in long-term savings. Generally, long-term investment trumps short-term cost reductions, but balancing cost and functionality is always an issue.

Are you ready? - ZTNA/SASE solutions require security teams to create access lists and set up device profiling, user monitoring, and network segmentation protocols. Staff will need training in security behaviors, and it will probably be necessary to create third-party authentication arrangements. Don’t run before walking. Make sure you have the expertise and staff to implement VPN alternatives.

How NordLayer can help you go beyond VPNs

The age of remote working is here, but most companies still rely on flawed Virtual Private Networks for secure network access. However, as we have seen, there are many alternatives to standard VPNs that deliver enhanced control and security.

At NordLayer, we offer a route to Zero Trust security that out-performs VPNs on every level. Get in touch with our team and explore how ZTNA/SASE solutions can lock down network resources, minimize the risk of cyber-attacks, and make remote working more efficient.

Security is constantly evolving as threats emerge, so don’t stick with what you know. Embrace what works with NordLayer’s help.

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