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Maybe it’s time to replace your VPN with a better secure remote access solution

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There’s no doubt that secure remote access has become a critical table stake for today’s businesses. Digital transformation, cloud migrations, the rise of Software as a Service (SaaS) platforms and new remote and hybrid workforces have spread users, applications, data and endpoints across the Internet. 

These interconnected entities need to communicate back and forth, often perpetually in real time, to keep workflows moving and to enable agility. However, limiting this connectivity to authorized entities in a safe and secure manner without impacting productivity has proven to be much more difficult than in the past.

The Virtual Private Network (VPN) used to be the solution of choice for secure remote access, but the challenges organizations faced during the global pandemic laid bare the limitations of this decades-old technology. Security teams are looking at VPN replacement strategies to meet new secure remote access requirements in a more efficient, effective manner.

The downfall of the VPN

The global pandemic showed the world why VPNs are ill-suited to enable secure remote access policies for the modern enterprise. At the beginning of 2020, about 10 percent of users worked from home. By April, nearly 100 percent found themselves working outside the office. The massive expansion of bandwidth requirements created scalability challenges that created traffic bottlenecks while poor latency led to lag and a poor user experience.

At the same time, VPNs presented a major security risk. VPNs are set up to connect users to the entire network, rather than a specific application. So, any threat actor who was able to breach the VPN by stealing a users’ credentials through a well-executed phishing campaign, would suddenly have the keys to the kingdom to access any business system without having to go through another authorization process.

You better believe that threat actors took advantage of these security loopholes and continue to do so today. Just in the first several months of 2024, Ivanti has had to disclose five major vulnerabilities in its Connect Secure VPN devices. Three of those vulnerabilities are actively being exploited, according to multiple threat intelligence sources, and, once breached, give threat actors unfettered access to entire corporate networks – including critical finance, HR and engineering systems.

During the pandemic, giving users remote access to the tools and information they needed to keep the business up and running was more critical than keeping unauthorized entities out. Now, four years later, organizations are starting to reconsider their VPN investments and whether they meet their productivity and security needs.

Zero Trust Network Access requirements

Fortunately, there are other secure remote access solutions available today. A recent Gartner report says that Zero Trust Network Access (ZTNA) is the fastest growing network security segment and predicts that the technology will completely replace VPNs by 2025. Growing by 31 percent in 2023, the ZTNA market enables organizations to implement a zero trust security framework. 

Zero Trust works by requiring that all entities – whether they are inside the network or not – continuously authenticate themselves whenever they connect to a known asset. This “trust no one” approach prevents the spread of attacks inside the network – even if an endpoint has been breached.

But not all ZTNA strategies are created equal. Here are three things to consider when considering a secure remote access solution:

1. Granular policy controls

ZTNA solutions need to give people access to the tools and information they need – and nothing more. Security analysts should have the ability to set policies that limit unauthorized accessibility. These rules can then be automatically applied to groups of users, endpoints, applications, devices – even specific IP addresses and geographies.

Imagine setting up a policy that blocks all login attempts from Albania – a hacker hotspot. It wouldn’t matter if the attempt came from a corporately-owned laptop using legitimate credentials. The authentication would automatically fail, preventing an attacker from gaining an initial foothold in the network.

2. Network separation

Unlike most ZTNA solutions that provide direct connectivity between the client/device and the applications, you should look for a solution that provides network separation. Network separations means the user will never directly access the application. Requests are not executed in the local browser, preventing malicious users and content from reaching your application. 

3. Near-native user experience

Security is important, but keeping the organization safe from malicious threats shouldn’t impact people’s ability to do their jobs. Users need to access websites, web apps, SaaS platforms and distributed devices through the Internet, so simply blocking everything that seems suspicious isn’t a viable secure remote access strategy.

At the same time, secure remote access solutions shouldn’t slow performance or add unnecessary steps or roadblocks to getting things done. Otherwise, users will just find a workaround or ignore security policies altogether. Choose a ZTNA solution that has a large global footprint so users can access the information and tools they need from anywhere in the world without blocking or limiting productivity.

Enabling a Zero Trust approach to security

Existing VPN infrastructure allowed many organizations to keep operations running during the global pandemic, but recent security concerns are forcing security teams to re-evaluate whether the decades-old technology provides the security or performance organizations need in today’s accelerated digital transformation environment. ZTNA solutions are a more apt solution given today’s security requirements. Designed to force all entities – whether they are in the network or outside the network – to continuously authenticate themselves can help prevent both initial access and lateral spread.

To learn more about VPN replacement and how Menlo Security can help, attend our upcoming webinar here

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