Zero Trust Network Access (ZTNA) vs. VPN: what’s the difference

Zero Trust vs VPN cover

The COVID-19 pandemic forced many businesses to remote work as, in most cases, it was the only way to continue operating. This led to the wild west of various experiments to set up remote work securely and in a way that didn’t interrupt work functions.

A trustworthy go-to solution always was a Virtual Private Network or VPN. It was commonly used to connect remote employees to the headquarters to share various resources. However, as more and more businesses rely on software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications, VPNs begin to show their age.

The new alternative was Zero Trust Network Access or ZTNA, operating on an adaptive model. This is considered a much more sophisticated secure connection approach. We’ve written a short outline to help you navigate VPN and ZTNA differences.

What is Zero Trust Network Access?

ZTNA is a cybersecurity solution based on multiple technologies creating a security model that isn’t based on the presence or protection of the perimeter. The solution heavily relies on implementing the Zero Trust model, stating that you shouldn’t trust any connection no matter its source. This model’s motto is no assumptions, only verification, enforced by strict checks at each access step.

The access provided by ZTNA is limited only to applications and data files. Therefore, this solution can control the user’s journey much more easily and doesn’t allow roaming the corporate network freely once the user has been authenticated. It’s also useful for cases when access to third-party hosted applications needs to be granted — the data doesn’t have to be backhauled to the headquarters server. This is especially relevant to businesses that heavily rely on SaaS applications.

What is VPN?

A VPN extends your current network by connecting to a remote server using tunneling protocols. The connection between your device and the VPN server is encrypted, closing it off from the public internet, making it much more secure than connecting directly.

The encryption keeps your identity secure by hiding your online activities from your internet service provider. At the same time, it also protects from hackers trying to snoop on your communications. In essence, it’s using private internet over public infrastructure.

Traditionally with a VPN, you only need to be authenticated once to be considered not a threat. Once you’re in, you can access everything available on the network. Therefore, there’s always a risk of getting your network infiltrated.

Zero Trust Network Access (ZTNA) vs. VPN comparison

Zero Trust vs VPN comparison table

While ZTNA and VPN technologies are used in similar contexts, they offer different routes to achieving the same goals. ZTNA is much more precise, giving only specific application permissions after authentication. It can also be customized to allow only secure devices, with much more detailed monitoring of what users are doing when connected to the network. These benefits are topped off with a cloud delivery model, which frees the users from on-premises hardware and increases flexibility.

Meanwhile, VPNs work in a much broader fashion. The tunnel is encrypted, but once the connection reaches the enterprise network, the user can access everything freely. Security is much looser as the device’s posture isn’t checked, allowing an easier gateway to hackers. Aside from performance hiccups due to increased latency, VPN cannot display high visibility into the user activity on the network. Finally, the solution isn’t easily deployable or scalable.

While VPNs were considered a go-to choice, the technical drawbacks and increasingly sophisticated threats are serious considerations. ZTNA provides a much safer and better-suited alternative to VPNs.

How does a Zero Trust Network Access work?

ZTNA combines the Zero Trust model that uses identity-based authentication to establish access to designated applications and data. It works by asking each user to authenticate to the ZTNA service. If the authentication is passed, the user can use a specific application via an encrypted tunnel.

Access rules can be altered based on the connecting device’s security posture, location, or other traits. The control is centralized and accessible from the network administrator’s dashboard.

ZTNA is a lean approach to ensure network security and make hybrid work possible for enterprises actively scaling their operations. It identifies abnormal network behavior alerting about attempted access to restricted data.

ZTNA benefits

While the drawbacks of a VPN technology could be a good reason to justify the transition to ZTNA, here are the principal benefits that the technology brings.

Secure remote access

ZTNA is perfectly suited to secure connections from remote employees. The deployment is almost instant, allowing control of the connection’s access with surgical precision. Not to mention that this also uses fewer resources than a VPN, with a lower impact on the connection’s performance.


In the ZTNA model, micro-segmentation gives a much more detailed overview of each connection. Users can be broken down into groups, and each specific user can be allowed to use only a specific list of applications. Even to get to this point of being allowed inside, authentication has to be passed, so it’s a much more secure network management approach.

Limit network infiltration opportunities

ZTNA eliminates common attack vectors that infiltrate an organization’s network systems. This is because ZTNA users are only granted permission to use an application — they’re not equal network members. Therefore, the threats that could spread through the network freely are not as dangerous on ZTNA. This can save large systems from ransomware multiplying through worms that infect every device connected to the network.

Lean onboarding

With ZTNA, it’s much easier to onboard new users. The whole setup requires inviting the user from the administrator’s side, while it only needs to download an app from the user’s side. This allows being done with the setup in minutes. At the same time, new users can be quickly added or removed. Plus, their usage patterns can be collected, painting a larger picture of their use habits.

VPN benefits

Although business VPNs are slowly being phased out, they still have redeeming qualities and have use cases in the workplace.

Secure access to office LAN

Your remote users can use encrypted tunnels to connect to LAN environments set up in the office securely. It’s also possible to connect two offices to create one joined LAN using Site-to-Site VPN. While there are many setup options, the bottom line remains that it’s still one of the most secure methods for network extension.

Helps to stay compliant

Most companies handling sensitive data must comply with GDPR and other data protection laws. Using a VPN can be justified as a method to secure customers’ data which may make your compliance process easier. In addition, employees using VPNs to access work resources doesn’t endanger sensitive data and documents.

Cheap alternative to leased lines

As technology, VPNs are much cheaper than other methods to set up private WANs across great distances. MPLS leased lines would require a physical deployment between two business sites. A VPN achieves optimal security by using the public infrastructure but securing the exchange channels. The price difference and its flexibility are much bigger than physical alternatives.

Benefits pulling industry to ZTNA

The shift towards ZTNA is an industry-wide phenomenon, as most businesses are ditching VPNs for their alternatives. Here are a couple of advantages that ZTNA has over traditional setups.

Zero Trust framework — as the backbone of ZTNA design philosophy, this approach keeps each user isolated in their micro-perimeter. This protects the company data at large, as the access is granted only need-to-know basis. The reduced lateral movement of users results in fewer opportunities that could endanger your organization’s safety.

Device posture check — device security is an integral part of authentication. Not meeting the minimal security requirements is a good argument to deny the connection attempt. This eliminates additional attack vectors for hackers and minimizes security risks.

Better transparency — while the VPN setups can be cluttered, ZTNA is a much more precise network management tool. Applying security policies, traffic filtering rules, and monitoring is much easier. Not to mention that each user’s connection is sandboxed and has logs of connection initiation, usage activities, duration, and termination.

Can ZTNA replace VPNs?

ZTNA can be a VPN replacement as it provides much deeper controls into the organization’s network. It’s a much more comprehensive approach to organizing users’ traffic and access rights. While VPNs as technology aren’t finished, ZTNA delivers all the functionality of VPNs and greatly expands on them. Forward-thinking businesses should keep this in mind when creating IT development plans for their organizations.

How can NordLayer help?

NordLayer provides Security Service Edge as one of the parts of the Secure Access Service Edge framework. Based on cloud infrastructure, NordLayer provides solutions for secure remote work, relying heavily on the ZTNA framework.

It provides the next generation of cybersecurity rivaling old-fashioned VPN providers, from team segmentations to secure remote access. You get a comprehensive cybersecurity package that tackles sophisticated threats as an enterprise.

Flexible scalability that doesn’t rely on additional hardware deployment and high-speed performance ensures smooth business operations. Get in touch with our team and discover more about our approach that could improve your organization’s cybersecurity.

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