VPN security: how VPNs help secure cloud data and control access


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Cloud security is a huge problem for modern businesses. Companies rely on SaaS applications for data storage, processing transactions, and collaboration. Cloud computing brings plenty of benefits, lowering costs, boosting productivity, and enhancing flexibility. But security teams must also find ways to secure SaaS apps, ensuring data remains safe at all times.

Many cloud security setups revolve around Virtual Private Network protocols and IP anonymization. Conventional VPNs have a role to play, but they may not be enough to protect cloud assets. This blog will assess VPN protection for cloud resources and look at how cloud VPNs blend access management and encryption for business-critical apps.

What is a VPN?

Virtual Private Networks conceal web traffic from external observers. VPN tunneling protocols encrypt traffic at its source. Data remains encrypted until reaching its destination. This limits the risk of interception or data breaches. VPNs apply above existing networks and route data through private servers. These servers assign new IP addresses to data passing through them. IP address reassignment effectively anonymizes users, making them hard to identify. 

Do VPNs provide effective security for the cloud?

Conventional VPNs provide a degree of security for cloud assets for a couple of reasons.

  1. A secure VPN will hide resources on the network. Companies can assign users to virtual networks with access to specific apps. Other network resources are off-limits and effectively invisible.

  2. VPN encryption shields data via protocols like IPSec or OpenVPN. These protocols are almost impossible to decode without the encryption key. Any data packets traveling through an encrypted VPN tunnel enjoy a basic level of privacy and protection.

However, even the most secure VPN may have some security gaps. In particular, conventional VPNs suffer serious vulnerabilities when securing cloud assets. For instance, security issues related to VPN setups include:

  • Vulnerability to intrusion – Attackers holding the access credentials of a single user may gain access to critical network resources. VPNs protect network perimeters well. But they provide little granular protection against east-west movement inside networks. If cyber attackers breach network boundaries, tunneling protocols will not prevent data loss.

  • Impracticality – Segmenting corporate networks with standard VPNs is unwieldy and inefficient. Single users may have to access many VPNs to access applications. Traffic bottlenecks can arise as traffic passes from remote workstations to SaaS portals and VPN data centers. Conventional VPNs also scale poorly in cloud-dependent settings. Safely managing many cloud apps can quickly become overwhelming.

  • Imprecision – VPNs can also be too imprecise to protect cloud resources. User requirements vary from team to team. Some employees require access to customer data, while others need safe access to marketing materials. Granular privilege management makes it possible to tailor access to each individual. But legacy VPNs are not equipped to allow this.

The role of cloud VPNs in SaaS security

Security concerns should not rule out secure VPN technology when securing cloud assets. Cloud based VPNs meet the needs of SaaS users, both in terms of user experience and security.

This type of VPN is hosted on the cloud itself - an arrangement that provides plenty of security advantages.

Cloud VPNs exist in the cloud

Companies do not need to maintain physical VPN hardware. Cloud providers maintain data centers and VPN routers close to cloud resources - a much more efficient solution.

Global access

Cloud-optimized software creates a privately administered network that is accessible anywhere. Employees install VPN clients and log in via BYOD or company-issued devices. As soon as they do so, VPNs establish secure connections with the SaaS resources workers need.

Access control

A cloud VPN solution provides network access in combination with IAM tools. Client gateways screen users. Only users with sufficient privileges can access relevant cloud resources.

Smooth expansion

SaaS-optimized VPNs scale smoothly. New users only have to download client tools, while security teams create profiles containing their privileges. A VPN for SaaS security ensures that users are safe wherever they travel—an essential feature for today's distributed workforces.

Data policies

Older VPN services tend to limit data usage and may charge more for users with heavy data requirements. Cloud VPNs are generally less restrictive, a good solution for SaaS users handling large volumes of business data.

Cloud VPNs effectively lock down SaaS assets

VPNs can struggle to handle the mix of on-premises infrastructure, remote devices, and SaaS. Next-generation cloud VPNs provide a solution suited to today’s agile businesses.

How does VPN security safeguard data in the cloud?

A vast amount of data now resides in the cloud. As of 2022, around 60% of all corporate data worldwide was stored in the cloud. As eCommerce expands, cloud services handle ever-growing volumes of sensitive data.

Companies need to secure data stored in the cloud. But will a VPN connection provide enough protection? The answer is yes. With the correct setup, a secure VPN is the ideal cloud security solution.

Imagine a company with large numbers of home workers, a centralized data center, and a growing dependence on cloud storage. Within this company, confidential data flows in many directions. Data packets are also constantly exposed to external attackers via the public internet.

Without a VPN connection, cloud assets used by this company are virtually defenseless.

  • Data flows on undefended networks are transparent. Without encryption, attackers can learn everything they need to know. In conditions like that it is relatively easy to mount targeted malware and man-in-the-middle attacks.

  • Attackers can steal the credentials of legitimate users. They can then use these credentials to access SaaS resources and harvest data.

  • The network edge is also vulnerable without VPN endpoint protection. Employees can connect virtually any device to the network. Additional devices expand the threat surface instantly and may not be visible to security teams.

Adding secure VPN security changes the picture dramatically.

  • Anonymization makes it harder for attackers to identify users connecting to cloud resources. They cannot easily intercept data packets and decode their contents.

  • Encryption conceals login credentials from hackers, limiting the risk of credential theft.

  • The VPN connection protects all devices connected to the network. This makes poor device visibility less of an issue.

VPNs designed with the cloud in mind take protection even further.

Encryption applies from the moment employees log in. An encrypted tunnel links remote laptops with SaaS applications with no gaps between or hops via central data centers. This architecture shrinks the threat surface. It also permits fine-grained monitoring and user access management.

Cloud-optimized VPN solutions help to secure SaaS apps. But they won’t remove all data security risks. For instance, cloud providers may operate lax security procedures, failing to encrypt data on their servers. Zero-day exploits or supply chain attacks may target SaaS software. Malicious insiders can also use credentials to access cloud-native VPNs.

While cloud VPNs are a necessary part of SaaS security, they work best as part of an overall security configuration. Even with a secure VPN connection, companies must choose cloud partners carefully. Applying strong cybersecurity practices across the board is essential.

How do VPNs help with cloud access control?

Encryption and anonymization are the most familiar aspects of VPN technology. But cloud VPNs bring another feature into focus: granular access management

Access management is the process of admitting users to network resources. Users make access requests and provide credentials. Access management systems compare these credentials with individualized security profiles. If the two match, security controls allow access to network resources.

VPNs add more functionality to this basic process.

  • Companies can create secure VPN networks for each department or team.

  • Users access the relevant VPN when logging onto the company network, adding another layer of authentication to exclude attackers.

  • Inside the network, users can access the assets they need, while VPN encryption hides other resources from view.

  • A remote secure access VPN suits home workers and travelers, wherever they are.

This solution runs into several problems when SaaS enters the picture. Connecting to SaaS apps via central data centers and private VPN servers may result in slow down. Managing many VPNs is also time-consuming for security teams and vulnerable to human error.

A cloud-native VPN solution is a more effective way to manage access. The VPN gateway authenticates users before they access SaaS services. Virtual private networks then encrypt user data between workstations and cloud portals. They also assign a fresh IP address, concealing user activity from external observers.

Cloud VPNs are the ideal counterpart to Identity and Access Management (IAM) tools. Single Sign On (SSO) access management combines with cloud-optimized VPN security. The result is a double layer of security protection for cloud assets.

Are there any risks when using VPNs for cloud security?

No cloud security system is flawless, and VPNs are no exception. Relying on Virtual Private Networks to guard data on the cloud is generally not advisable for many reasons.

1. VPNs are vulnerable to credential theft

Hackers can even bypass cloud VPNs with access management mechanisms if they gain the authentication details of employees. After that, cyber attackers may access poorly secured SaaS apps beyond the VPN perimeter.

2. Attacks may also be harder to detect 

Hackers benefit from VPN encryption and IP anonymization, just like ordinary users. Attackers supplying authentic credentials may enjoy the freedom to explore networks without managers knowing.

3. Misconfigured VPNs bring additional risks.

Companies may feel secure even though their encryption is flawed. Connection speeds can also suffer, raising the risk of low productivity and network failure.

4. Poor vendor performance

Some VPNs keep logs that erode user privacy. Others maintain IP address tables that reuse addresses repeatedly. This makes IP address anonymization much less powerful.

5. Updating VPNs also poses a potential risk.

Not all VPN suppliers serve updates to cover emerging risks. Some networks also use multiple VPNs to handle access requests. Managers must handle a complex updating schedule in such cases. And if security managers miss updates, networks may be left exposed.

Despite these risks, the benefits of using VPN security to protect critical data outweigh the potential drawbacks. Companies should follow cybersecurity best practices, manage updates, choose suppliers carefully, and employ access management tools. VPNs work well within a robust security setup which mitigates the risks listed above.

Are there alternatives to VPNs?

VPNs aren’t the only security option when guarding cloud assets. The following methods also protect the links between corporate networks and SaaS applications:

Identity and Access Management (IAM)

IAM can function as a VPN alternative. IAM or PAM work in similar ways. Employees use sign-in portals located at the network edge. IAM tools compare worker credentials with centrally stored data and only admit authenticated users. Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) strengthens an IAM setup. In that case, users supply two or more credentials, often using biometric scanners or access cards. MFA generally limits access to legitimate actors.

Zero Trust Network Access (ZTNA)

ZTNA tools authenticate users but apply more detailed protections as users move within the network. In a ZTNA setup, users can only access resources according to strict permissions. East-west movement across the network is radically restricted, making it harder to execute data thefts.

Secure Access Service Edge (SASE)

SASE is another VPN alternative. SASE secures every network endpoint. Next-generation firewalls and software-defined perimeters define the resources available to every user. As with ZTNA, SASE setups tightly control movement across the network.

SD-WAN 

Software-defined Wide Area Networks can feature in SASE and ZTNA systems. But they also work in stand-alone setups. SD-WAN applies over networks like VPNs. They route traffic, authenticate users, and govern access to third-party SaaS resources.

SASE and ZTNA are highly complex solutions requiring in-depth assistance from third-party suppliers. Because of this, VPN-based cloud protection may be preferable for small and medium-sized businesses. Companies might lose some granular control. But VPNs are agile, fast, easy to configure, and secure. Cloud-optimized VPNs mesh well with SaaS and are easier to scale than SASE.

Secure your cloud resources with NordLayer’s help

SaaS applications make life easier for companies. They promote collaboration and reduce the cost of storing data and software. And they also add flexibility, allowing companies to add or remove services in moments. 

However, cloud apps are not secure on their own. Robust cloud security systems are needed to protect data, and VPNs should be part of these systems.

NordLayer provides adaptable VPN solutions for businesses that rely on the cloud. Our cloud-optimized VPN services protect data flows from remote workstations to SaaS servers. Create agile VPN setups optimized for the cloud, and cut your data breach risk. Get in touch today and explore VPN solutions that suit your unique situation.

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