zero trust vs. vpn

Zero Trust vs. VPN: A Comprehensive Comparison for Secure Remote Access

In this post, we’ll dive into the Zero Trust vs. VPN security model differences and why the former is ultimately the far superior choice for secure, seamless remote access. 

Traditional VPNs: An Aging Technology

VPNs have long been the standard for secure remote access.

By virtue of being private, they create a point-to-point tunnel with encryption to secure data transmission between networks, effectively routing between a plurality of networks securely. This effectively shields the data from external threats when transiting over insecure links or the Internet. However, while VPNs offer a certain level of security over the tunnel itself, they are not without their vulnerabilities:

  • VPNs operate on the principle of ‘trust but verify’, a model of implicit trust that can lead to significant security risks. If an attacker manages to gain access to the VPN, they can move laterally across the network, potentially causing significant damage. In this approach, the traffic remains secure over the VPN but the traffic payload itself has become malicious.
  • VPNs often lack granular access controls, meaning that once a user is inside the network, they often have access to more resources than necessary. And when these controls are available, they are often complex and require frequent updates.
  • VPNs can also be complex and cumbersome to manage, requiring detailed configurations and continuous management. This exposes an organization’s security posture when their configurations become out of sync with the latest security best practices.
  • VPNs also often lead to complications with firewall rules and access control lists. This complexity not only places a significant burden on IT teams but also increases the likelihood of configuration errors, which can lead to security vulnerabilities.
  • Efforts to simplify and make VPN usage more efficient through techniques such as split tunneling have been demonstrated to be a potential and exploitable attack surface for nefarious actors.

The True Cost of VPNs

But surely VPNs are budget-friendly, right?

Traditional VPNs may appear cost-effective, but hidden costs from security breaches, user frustration, and IT management can quickly add up from a financial and reputational perspective. Let’s delve deeper into what these hidden costs could look like:

Security Breaches

The average cost of a security breach through a VPN can be substantial. Assuming that a company with around 200 employees experiences two security breaches per year, each costing $50,000 in damage and mitigation efforts, the total cost would be $100,000. This doesn’t even account for the potential damage to a company’s reputation and customer trust, which can be immeasurable.

User Frustration

Traditional VPNs can often frustrate remote employees due to the need to manually connect and disconnect based on their remote location and tasks. If each remote employee spends about 15 minutes daily dealing with VPN-related connection and access issues, this translates to 6,500 hours lost annually for an organization with 100 remote employees. Assuming an average hourly rate of $25 for these employees, this results in $162,500 lost annually due to user frustration.

IT Management Overheads

Managing traditional VPNs is a continuous and tedious process. Assuming IT teams spend around 10 hours weekly managing VPN configurations, troubleshooting connectivity issues, and addressing firewall rule changes, this accumulates to 520 hours per year. With an average hourly rate of $40 for IT specialists, the annual cost of IT management for VPNs reaches $20,800. Not to mention, these management tasks also carry the risk of human or configuration errors that can compromise security and increase costs further.

Add all of this up, and the true total cost of a VPN can be as high as $283,300 per Year.

Zero Trust: The Future of Secure Remote Access

In contrast to traditional VPNs, Zero Trust Network Access offers a fundamentally different approach to secure access. This architecture operates on the principle of ‘never trust, always verify.’ Every user and device, whether inside or outside the network, is assumed to be a potential threat. Every access request is treated as originating from an untrusted network, and the identity and level of permission of the user or device must be verified before access is granted. This effectively removes the traditional network perimeter where users and devices are implicitly trusted.

As a result, the overall attack surface is reduced because the concept of trust has been eliminated from the network altogether. There is no implicit trust granted to users or devices based on their network location or login credentials. Instead, access is automatically granted based on the user’s identity and the context of the access request. 

This approach significantly enhances security by preventing unauthorized access, even from within the network. In addition, VPN-less Zero Trust implementations simplify the management of remote access by eliminating the need for complex VPN configurations and firewall rules, ultimately reducing the burden on IT teams.

Zero Trust vs. VPN: At a Glance

When it comes to infrastructure network security, Zero Trust significantly outperforms traditional VPNs in a number of ways: 

VPNSZero Trust
Operate on a ‘trust but verify’ model that typically grants access at the network layer, leading to potential security risks and lateral movement within the network.Built on a ‘never trust, always verify’ philosophy, continuously verifying the identity of users and devices, preventing unauthorized access.
Can be complex and frustrating for end users, requiring them to repeatedly manage connections based on where they are and what they’re doing.Provides a seamless user experience, eliminating the need for manual connections and granting access to only the necessary resources across networks.
Requires tedious and constant attention, making it easy for configuration errors to occur and persist. Simplifies remote access management, eliminating the need for complex configurations and reducing the burden on IT and OT teams.

Getting Started with Agilicus

As the network security landscape continues to evolve, it’s clear that the ‘trust but verify’ model of traditional VPNs is no longer sufficient to maintain security best practices on IT and OT networks. As we’ve described in detail above, the ‘never trust, always verify’ approach offers a more secure, efficient, and manageable alternative. 

While traditional VPNs have served us well in the past, the increasing sophistication of cyber threats necessitates a more robust and secure solution. Agilicus’ Zero Trust solution, with its superior security, simplified management, and granular access control, offers a compelling alternative for IT and OT professionals. By choosing Agilicus, you’re not just choosing a product; you’re choosing a partner committed to securing your network and safeguarding your data.

Discover the transformative impact of our client-less Zero Trust Architecture to safeguard your critical infrastructure, simplify access, and reduce the burden on your team.