ZTNA vs VPN: choosing the right secure remote access solution for your business

Zero Trust vs VPN cover

When the pandemic hit, it pushed businesses to embrace remote work quickly. They searched for secure ways to adapt.

With the pandemic, unfortunately, came a rise in cyberthreats. The FBI noted that cyber-attacks more than doubled in 2020. Additionally, employees using their own devices for work added more security concerns. Risks also increased when employees connected to company networks via unsecured home or public Wi-Fi. 

For a long time, Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), or what some might call traditional VPNs,  were the reliable choice for safe remote connections. They connected remote staff to main offices securely. But as reliance on software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications grew, VPNs started to lag behind.

The new solution is Zero Trust Network Access (ZTNA). It adapts to your needs for better security. This method is more advanced in protecting connections. As businesses evolve, the choice between ZTNA vs VPN becomes more critical. Our guide will help you understand the differences between VPNs and ZTNA easily. 

Key takeaways 

  • Zero-Trust Network Access provides secure, specific access for apps and data, great for remote and hybrid workplaces.

  • Virtual Private Network is good for wide network access, linking offices together, and it's budget-friendly for big network setups.

  • ZTNA is better in managing and monitoring network use.

  • VPNs work well for basic tasks like connecting large networks but may need extra security steps. 

  • While ZTNA has more advanced options, VPN can still be the right choice for broad network access needs. Choose based on your needs.

What is ZTNA?

Zero Trust Network Access (ZTNA) changes how we think about cybersecurity. It's different from old-school perimeter-based security that trusted everything inside a network. Traditional security guards the network's edge, assuming the inside is safe. ZTNA solution doesn't make such assumptions. It checks every user and system, no matter where they are or their history with the network.

ZTNA's strong point is its focused access control. It's not about accessing the whole network, but specific apps and data. This is great for businesses using SaaS like Salesforce. For instance, ZTNA lets an employee access just Salesforce, keeping the rest of the network secure. It makes things clearer, safer, and cuts down on unnecessary data movement to headquarters.

Zero-trust model is a boon for businesses with cloud setups and remote workers on less secure networks. It constantly checks and confirms who's accessing the network, lowering risks. As part of Secure Access Service Edge (SASE), ZTNA brings together various cloud-based security tools, creating a solid security net.

ZTNA process

In ZTNA solutions, we separate getting into the network from using apps. It only lets connections out, not in. This keeps the network hidden and safe because outsiders can't just connect to it. ZTNA also limits app access and focuses on securing the path between the user and the app. Using encrypted paths, it adapts well to different situations. ZTNA's cloud-based method works with various devices, offering more adaptability than traditional security methods.

What is a VPN?

VPNs are vital for keeping your online life safe. They connect your network to a far-off server securely. Their main strengths are encrypting your data and hiding your IP address.

Encryption means making your data safe with a VPN client. It changes your data into a code as it travels. This code keeps your data safe from prying eyes, even if someone finds it. Once it arrives, it changes back, so it's readable again. This keeps your private information safe, especially at work.

How VPN works

VPNs also hide where you're browsing from. They give your data a new IP address, usually the VPN server's. This makes it seem like you're online from somewhere else. It hides your online tracks, keeping your searches and downloads private. Hiding your real IP address adds an extra layer of safety.

Without a VPN client, your data is out in the open. Anyone can see where it's coming from and possibly who you are. This could let attackers see and grab your data.

VPN solutions act like shields for your corporate network data. They keep your online actions private and safe. With online threats around us all the time, VPNs are crucial for staying safe and private online.

ZTNA vs VPN comparison

Zero Trust vs VPN comparison table

Access scope: ZTNA or VPN


  • ZTNA solutions give specific access to apps and data. It uses the Zero-trust model for safe access.

  • Users authenticate to ZTNA before accessing apps via secure tunnels.

  • ZTNA is great for network security, fitting well with hybrid work. It quickly spots and stops unusual access.


  • VPN solutions offer wide access across the network. Users can connect to office networks securely.

  • They're great for connecting different office networks together seamlessly.

  • VPNs don't limit access to certain apps or data, which is handy but can be a security risk.

  • This wide access is useful for some jobs. But if credentials are stolen, it could expose many network areas.

Device security check: Zero Trust vs VPN


  • ZTNA weaves device safety into its access rules. This keeps control tight and security high.

  • It checks devices for updated antivirus and secure settings before allowing access.

  • ZTNA's thorough checks catch risky devices early, keeping your network safe.


  • VPNs don't usually check the security of connecting devices.

  • They focus more on keeping data safe during its journey, not on the device's security.

  • So, a device with viruses or outdated software could still get into your network.

  • Some VPNs might have extra security features, but it's not typical.

  • Often, you'll need extra steps to make sure your devices are secure with VPNs.

Network presence


  • ZTNA solutions use several locations to stay available and perform well.

  • Its many points make it strong against local outages or attacks.

  • Spread out, ZTNA balances loads well and keeps connections fast, everywhere.


  • VPNs depend on one network point.

  • This can lead to slowdowns when lots of users connect at once.

  • If this single point has issues, remote users might lose access to the network.

Visibility into user activity


  • ZTNA improves visibility with micro-segmentation. This lets us see each connection in detail.

  • It organizes users into groups, limiting access to certain apps. Everyone must authenticate first for better security.

  • ZTNA's clear management approach makes enforcing policies and monitoring easier. Each user's activity is tracked and recorded.


  • VPNs offer a basic view of user activities. They usually log when and how much data is used.

  • However, VPNs might not give detailed insights like ZTNA solutions do.

  • This can make it hard to spot misuse or unusual behaviors, which are key for keeping networks safe.

Connection routing


  • ZTNA smartly guides connections to where they're needed. It picks the nearest service point for quicker data travel.

  • This straight path to resources cuts down on unnecessary steps, making things faster and more efficient.


  • VPNs can slow things down. Data usually goes through the VPN server first, which can lengthen its journey.

  • If many users are on the VPN, it can get crowded and slow, especially during busy times.

Performance: Zero Trust Network Access vs VPN


  • ZTNA boosts performance by using many service points and sending data straight to where it needs to go.

  • It avoids extra network traffic, saving bandwidth. This makes ZTNA more efficient than traditional VPNs.


  • VPNs might be slower due to using just one main service point, which can get overwhelmed.

  • Encrypting and decrypting data in VPNs can slow things down, especially if the data's path is roundabout.

Ease of setup and management


  • ZTNA is cloud-based, so setup and management are straightforward. It simplifies adding new users.

  • Admins usually just invite users, who then download an app. Setups are quick, often just minutes.

  • Adding or removing users is fast. ZTNA also tracks how they use the network.


  • Setting up VPNs can be more complex and harder to scale. They're cost-effective for connecting distant networks.

  • VPNs use existing internet channels, adding a layer of security. They're more affordable than physical connections.

  • Despite being trickier to manage, VPNs offer flexibility and are a secure way to extend your network.

In the end, ZTNA or VPN? 

ZTNA is great for giving precise, secure access to apps and data. It uses the trust-no-one Zero-Trust approach. With identity checks and safe tunnels, it's ideal for corporate network safety and modern working styles. Quick to set up, it's perfect for remote workers and is more resource-friendly than VPNs. ZTNA also lets you see what users are doing in detail. It's efficient, with many connection points and direct routes, saving bandwidth.

VPNs give wide access, connecting offices securely across distances. They show basic user activity and are budget-friendly for big networks. But, VPNs might need extra security checks, as they don't always check devices. Sometimes, they can be slow and hard to reach, especially with a lot of users. VPNs can be slower because they scramble and unscramble data, and don't always take the direct route. Yet, they are flexible and secure for certain needs.

In short, ZTNA offers detailed, safe, and efficient network access, especially for mixed office/remote setups. It's great for managing and watching network use closely. VPNs are still good for simpler tasks, like connecting big networks, but might need more security work. The best choice between ZTNA and VPN depends on what your business specifically needs.

Choosing between ZTNA and VPN

Securing remote access is key, and knowing how VPN and ZTNA differ aids in smart choices. As we saw, they each have their own strengths for boosting security, flexibility, or meeting rules in your corporate network. Let's explore when to use ZTNA or VPN, or maybe both.

When to use VPN

  • Broad network access. Use a VPN for wide network access, like linking remote workers to your entire office network.

  • Site-to-site connections. VPNs are great for connecting different office locations into one network.

  • Budget-friendly. If you're watching costs, VPNs are a good, less expensive way to extend your network.

  • Simple setups. For basic network needs without detailed user checks, VPNs are a practical choice.

  • Meeting standards. Choose VPNs to meet specific data encryption rules for compliance.

When to use ZTNA

  • Access to certain apps. ZTNA solution is best when you need to give access to specific apps or data.

  • Strong security. For better security, ZTNA's Zero-Trust model checks each device's safety.

  • Flexible work models. ZTNA is ideal for organizations with hybrid working styles.

  • Watching user actions. If you need to closely monitor what users do, ZTNA gives you that detailed view.

  • Saving resources. ZTNA is efficient with network resources, making it a smart choice for saving bandwidth.

When to consider using both

  • Best of both worlds. Sometimes, you might need VPN's broad access and ZTNA's tight security together.

  • Step-by-step security upgrade. Start with a VPN and slowly add ZTNA for more sensitive parts of your network.

  • Different needs for different teams. If your team has varied access needs, a mix of VPN and ZTNA can work well.

  • Complex networks. For tricky networks needing both wide and tight security, using VPN and ZTNA together is smart.

  • Backup plan. Using both can be a safety net, ensuring ongoing access and security if one has issues.

Can ZTNA replace VPNs?

ZTNA could replace VPNs as it offers more detailed control over a network. It organizes secure remote access more thoroughly. VPNs still have their uses, but ZTNA adds more features. Businesses planning their IT future should consider ZTNA's broader capabilities.

How can NordLayer help?

NordLayer provides Security Service Edge as one of the parts of the Secure Access Service Edge framework. It uses cloud-based technology for secure remote work, mainly focusing on the ZTNA framework.

NordLayer brings modern cybersecurity, going beyond traditional VPNs. It offers team-based controls and secure remote access. You get a comprehensive cybersecurity package that tackles sophisticated threats as an enterprise.

It's scalable without extra hardware and provides fast performance, keeping business operations running smoothly. Reach out to learn how NordLayer can boost your organization's cybersecurity.

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