What is a VPN alternative
With remote work and cloud architectures becoming the norm, companies large and small are looking for an alternative to virtual private networks (VPNs). Brittle, underperforming, and unsecure this remote access technology has outlived its purpose. You have several VPN alternatives to choose from, but many hide similar weaknesses beneath modern technologies. We will help you understand VPN’s security and performance challenges and some VPN alternatives to consider. We will also explain why Zero Trust Network Access is the best way to replace your VPN system.
As computers entered mainstream business use, security frameworks aligned with physical infrastructure. Central computing resources were big, static, and company-owned. Only employees could access those resources through managed desktop computers attached to the office network. Like a castle’s walls, a secure perimeter kept threats outside the network while letting trusted employees work freely. Over time, portable computers gave employees the ability to work while traveling. But that required a way through the defensive walls.
Virtual private network technologies originally linked remote offices to corporate data centers over the internet. VPN became a secure remote access solution by adapting that model to let remote users through the secure perimeter. Connecting and authenticating with a VPN gateway makes user devices extensions of the protected network.
Things have changed over the past 30 years. A company’s resources are not confined to a central, on-premises data center. Business applications are hosted in the cloud or sourced from X-as-a-Service providers. Companies now rely on a mix of employees, contractors, and other third parties. As a result, resources are being accessed from a more diverse population of devices that are not under a company’s direct control.
These changes were well underway when the pandemic turned network traffic inside out. Before, most traffic originated on the company network and only a few employees needed remote access. Suddenly, everyone was working remotely — often from their personal devices. Suddenly, everyone was working remotely — often from their personal devices — and hitting the VPN gateway.
People have known about VPN’s weaknesses for a long time, but most organizations thought they could take their time migrating to something else. Now, everyone recognizes VPN’s growing limitations.
To let remote users connect, VPN gateways publish their presence on the internet. This makes every corporate gateway visible to anyone running simple scanning applications. Hackers can discover information about the VPN gateway just as easily. One unpatched VPN appliance is enough to expose the network.
Designed to link managed networks, VPN trusts any authenticated connection. An exploit or stolen credential lets hackers access the protected network as if they were trusted users. Once through the VPN gateway, they can use the network’s own tools to move laterally, escalate privileges, and expand their foothold.
VPN’s challenges are acutely felt with privileged users. Their credentials are the “keys to the kingdom” for cyber criminals. A compromised privileged account gives them the power to make system-level changes, grant escalated privileges, and worse. VPN only provides remote network access and does nothing else to keep privileged accounts secure.
Increasingly, the hub-and-spoke topology of VPN systems adds to network performance issues. VPN gateways concentrate all remote traffic through the private network even when the final destination is a cloud service. Data returning to the user also passes through the gateway.
Adding to the problem, VPN clients default to an all-or-nothing setting that routes all user traffic through the gateway. Video conferencing and other applications that could securely pass over the internet instead stream back and forth across the private network.
Finally, VPN gateways become chokepoints when accessed by too many remote users. They can only support a certain number of concurrent VPN connections before rationing bandwidth.
These issues were manageable when a fraction of the workforce needed remote access. Now, bandwidth pressures and rising latency worsen the user experience, both on-premises and remote.
VPN forces organizations to manage a fragmented access control infrastructure. An enterprise VPN solution only grants access to a company’s private network. Each cloud platform and third-party service has its own VPN solution. Managing consistent security and access policies across multiple systems is challenging. Any misconfiguration could open a vulnerability that hackers could exploit.
Several solutions compete as remote access alternatives to VPN. Most of them, however, use modern technologies to create the same challenges.
Microsoft’s Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) and other virtual desktop technologies give users the in-office experience while working from home. These solutions act like streaming services, sending the desktop operating system’s monitor output to the user’s device. A client app sends the user’s keyboard and mouse inputs back to the RDP server. This approach ensures that sensitive data never leaves the company.
However, RDP and similar technologies share VPN’s weaknesses. Users connect through publicly-visible gateways that are as vulnerable to exploits as VPN gateways. One leg of the round trip may have been eliminated, but traffic from cloud resources still burdens the private network.
Software-defined wide-area networks (SD-WAN) are an evolution of VPN’s original purpose. These cloud-native solutions rely on software-defined networking to link an organization’s various locations together. SD-WAN vendors offer two options for extending their solutions to manage remote access. The first is simply a VPN service with all the associated weaknesses.
The other approach requires deploying an SD-WAN appliance to the remote user’s location. The appliance offers better security on home networks and can provide better redundancy with LTE wireless connections. This approach, however, can be expensive and only works in a fixed location.
Secure access service edge (SASE) is a Gartner-developed framework for enterprise networking. SASE is a way to develop decentralized, cloud-based architectures. Remote access will be part of that design, but SASE encompasses much more. SASE is a work in progress as many of the component technologies are still being developed. The complexity and scope of such a large shift in architecture often limit SASE solutions to large enterprises with significant resources. Fortunately, the access control component of SASE — Zero Trust Network Access (ZTNA) — is fully accessible to companies at any scale.
Zero Trust Network Access is a modern security framework that eliminates the weaknesses of legacy secure perimeter approaches like VPN. ZTNA unifies access control for all users and all resources no matter their location by building a framework based on three concepts.
First, assume that security breaches are always present. Attack surfaces have grown dramatically since the days of the secure perimeter. Social engineering attacks, stolen credentials, and exploits can give hackers instant access to a protected network. ZTNA assumes that any network, device, credential, user, or resource could already be compromised.
Second, explicitly verify every attempt to access a protected resource. As its name implies, Zero Trust does not assume anything can be trusted. Instead, trust must be earned through identity verification and a careful evaluation of device posture, connection source, and other contextual factors.
Third, only grant the degree of access users need in each session. This principle of least privilege requires granular, role-based access rules. Unlike the permissive access of a VPN gateway, ZTNA grants users enough access to get the job done and no more.
Combined, these three principles drive a new approach to securing access to an organization’s assets. Unlike VPN which allows access to any resources on the network, Zero Trust only grants access to specific resources based on a user’s role. Granular access controls based on principles of least privilege prevents hackers from moving laterally through a compromised network.
Explicit verification further mitigates cyber attacks. Hackers may compromise a user’s account, but identity is only one of the criteria ZTNA systems use during authentication. Device posture checks, for example, can recognize a compromised user device and block access.
Cloud-native ZTNA solutions avoid the performance bottlenecks that VPN technologies create. Direct connections between users and the resources relieve the bandwidth pressure on private networks. The user experience also improves with more performant routing.
Twingate’s implementation of Zero Trust adds more security and performance benefits over legacy VPN technologies. Our solution creates software-defined perimeters around protected assets. Administrators can create micro-segmented network architectures that protect on-premises and cloud resources within the same system.
Granular access control rules are enforced on user devices before making any connections. Access to protected resources happens only when all identity verification, device posture, and other checks are complete.
Connections between user devices and protected resources pass through direct, encrypted tunnels along the most performant routes. Proxy apps on user devices and in front of resources allow traffic to pass back and forth securely. All connections are ephemeral. Once a session ends, all information about the connection disappears.
Unlike VPN gateways, Twingate’s solution does not broadcast its presence. On-premises resources disappear from the private network and cloud resources disappear from the public internet. The scanning tools hackers use to target VPN vulnerabilities have nothing to see so your attack surface shrinks dramatically.
By replacing VPN’s hub-and-spoke topology with direct tunnels, Twingate makes private networks more performant. User traffic destined for cloud resources never hits the private network. Data no longer round trips on the company infrastructure. There is no more gateway-driven congestion. Replacing VPN with a Twingate remote access solution alleviates bandwidth pressure on managed networks.
Direct tunnels between devices and resources also improve the user experience. Eliminating the round trip imposed by VPN gateways reduces latency. Twingate’s client app also uses split tunneling by default. Video conferences, web browsing, and other use cases that do not need extra encryption simply pass over the public internet to give users a better experience.
Granular access control makes privileged access management easier. Twingate’s access rules apply for both on-premises and remote network access. Unlike VPN’s all-or-nothing approach, you can limit privileged accounts to specific resources. Twingate also adds MFA and other security features to SSH and other tools to keep them out of the wrong hands.
Managing secure access is much easier with Twingate than with legacy VPN systems. Our software solution works with your CI/CD pipelines so you can deploy, maintain, and release Twingate proxies programmatically. You no longer need to juggle separate VPN policies for the private network and each cloud platform. Instead, deploying Twingate in front of every on-premises and cloud resource lets you manage access within a single system. Administrative consoles simplify on-boarding, off-boarding, and changing user permissions.
Migrating from your existing VPN system to Twingate’s ZTNA solution is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Twingate co-exists with your existing network infrastructure. Starting with the teams that benefit the most, you can implement Zero Trust in phases. Rolling out Twingate over time lets you build upon earlier successes without disrupting business operations.
VPN technologies were developed when the idea of a secure perimeter meant something. They create a portal through a private network’s defenses so a few remote users can access centralized information resources. That framework no longer works in today’s decentralized, cloud-enabled ecosystem.
- Resources and users can be anywhere.
- Access can be through public or private networks.
- More people use personal devices to access company resources.
- Users may not be employees, yet they still need access.
Increasingly, VPN makes remote access expensive and difficult to manage. It creates bottlenecks that make networks less performant and interfere with user productivity.
Most importantly, VPN itself has become a significant attack vector for today’s sophisticated cybercriminals. Other technologies, from virtual desktops to secure access service edge, try to replace VPN. These alternatives, however, either suffer weaknesses similar to VPN or require expensive changes to an enterprise’s network infrastructure.
Twingate implements Zero Trust Network Access to create a modern approach to security and access control. Software-defined perimeters and least-privilege access policies will shrink your attack surface dramatically. At the same time, encrypted tunnels passing directly between user devices and protected resources improve performance dramatically. Phased deployments, compatibility with your CI/CD pipelines and security stack, as well as simple administrative tools take the risk out of replacing your VPN system with a more secure, performant Twingate solution.
Use our free Starter plan to get Twingate remote access working for yourself or a small team. Then contact us to learn how easy replacing your VPN system can be.