At the start of 2020, many ‘industry insiders’ would have told you that the VPN is dead, but like, seemingly, everything this year, expectations could not have been further from reality. COVID-19 and the expedited need for work-from-home solutions across practically all industries and verticals has clearly proven that notion wrong, and it would be a fair assumption that there are more client VPNs in use for enabling work-from-home and remote work solutions than at any other time in IT history – many of these hastily put-in-place or quickly expanded in their usage by urgent necessity. As more time passes, however, and we transition from solutions of ‘immediate need’ to ones of ‘long-term outlook,’ the new question may not be ‘Is VPN dead?’ but rather, ‘Should it be?’ In this post, we’ll review a few of the key concerns around a VPN-centric ‘work-from-home’ solution, and how Evolve IP’s Workspaces solution can help to address and alleviate these concerns.
Let’s start by addressing the elephant in the room. VPNs, by their very nature, present an inherent security risk for your network. There are a number of mitigating technologies and practices which can help to manage the level of risk involved, but the risk of allowing external machines to become an extension of your internal network still carries with it a number of concerns.
One of the most obvious ways that organizations look to secure their VPN is to ensure that when client devices connect, they are placed into a ‘quarantine’ network which exists adjacent to (rather than as part of) the internal network. The challenge, here, is that the whole purpose of the VPN is to enable access to those internal resources which reside on that internal network, so you still need to provide some form of crossover between those networks. Why is this risky? Simply, the biggest concern here is that any of those external devices that connect via VPN could be compromised; they could have viruses, malware, ransomware, or a range of other potential infections or issues that will attempt to propagate across whatever networks and devices they are connected to. This begs the question, ‘Can’t I just make sure that the devices have antivirus?’ Sure… you could, but now you have just expanded your role to managing and securing all of these devices as well. This comes with a cost, both financial and administrative. You now have to supply the licensing for the security software you choose to leverage, you need to ensure that users have installed it, you need to maintain definitions for it to keep it updated as well as ensure patching of the device Operating Systems in order to ensure no vulnerabilities there may be exploited. Many folks now turn to the idea of SDP, or a Software-Defined Perimeter solution, which provides Network Access Control and automates the process of ensuring the client devices meet certain minimum requirements like: running a supported OS, running approved antivirus/anti-malware, etc. Unfortunately, this then further increases the cost and complexity of a traditional VPN solution, and frankly, many organizations don’t take these additional needs into consideration as a result.
Many organizations tend to focus their time, attention, and finances on ensuring that their network is most secure at its assumed weakest point, the firewall. This makes a ton of logical sense because we can think of the firewall like the front door of your home. Naturally, you feel safer if that door has more and better locks or maybe a thicker or more secure door and door frame, but many organizations make these significant investments in providing the best door and best locks possible, but then, in the interest of providing simple and fast remote access simply leave the door unlocked so that everyone can come and go as they need.
Why not embrace a solution in which there is no need to actually establish a connection between the end-users’ devices and the internal network, though? This solves many of the aforementioned concerns because it effectively makes the user’s device simply a terminal to connect to published desktop sessions or applications, and internal company or organizational data never has to leave the datacenter and be processed locally on the client device. This is the type of solution afforded by Evolve IP’s Workspaces solution which even goes a step further by securing access to those applications and desktop sessions behind an included Identity and Access Management platform that can utilize both Multifactor Authentication and Single Sign-On capabilities.
VPN Reliability and Performance
As we established in the Security section, employing a VPN is, basically, extending your internal network to an external client device. Historically, this has worked well for things like access to file shares, network printers, and other internal resources, but what about actually running an application across the VPN? Some applications will perform fine and seem no different than when a user is in the office; however, many applications (especially some older apps) can be sensitive to latency. Let’s first establish what latency is.
Imagine driving on a highway from New York to Los Angeles. If you are the only car on that highway, then you can get back and forth as fast as your car will allow you. That is latency: the amount of time that it takes to travel the distance back and forth. Many people tend to confuse latency with bandwidth. In the same scenario, think of bandwidth as the number of lanes that the highway has. Once you introduce other traffic, beyond just your car, now, the more lanes there are, the faster you can make the trip, but you still can’t go any faster than your car can drive that road back and forth.
I bring this up because if you have a latency-sensitive application, the app performance will suffer simply because ‘the road’ between where your user is running the app and where the backend of that app is too long. In some cases, those two things not being directly adjacent (or within the same network) may be enough to cause significant performance issues, unresponsiveness, unreliability, or application ‘slowness.’ When this occurs, we often see IT teams mistakenly think that adding more bandwidth can correct this issue, but the problem isn’t that there’s ‘too much traffic’ it is just that ‘the road is too long’ for that application to function as intended.
One of the best ways to solve these types of reliability and performance issues is to continue to actually run the application in the same location where its servers, data, and backend reside. With Evolve IP’s Workspaces solution, the users’ applications are running within the same datacenter where their servers, databases, files, etc are located even though, from a look and feel perspective, it appears that the applications are running directly on the end-users’ devices.
Virtual Private Network Cost
A common misconception is that a client VPN solution is cheap and easy to integrate. This might be true if you are only considering the costs associated with whatever VPN concentrator device or VPN-enabled firewall and the per-user licensing for the VPN solution. Once you begin to add all of the additional costs around ensuring the security and integrity of your organization’s network, data, and devices, however, these costs quickly begin to mount.
Here are some of the ancillary cost considerations required when attempting to properly secure and manage a client VPN solution:
- VPN Concentrator / Firewall
- VPN client licenses
- Network devices capable of and licensed to allow network segmentation (quarantine networks)
- Reactive client antivirus
- Proactive client threat protection
- Client Firewall solution
- Software Defined Perimeter solution / Network Access Control solution
- Client OS Patching Solution
- Remote Monitoring and Management Solution
- Enhanced Intrusion Detection and Prevention on your company network
There are more solutions that can be added to this list and constant new technologies coming to market to counter new, emerging threats which can threaten your end-user devices but consider the above to be a good starting point for at least some of the things that you would need in order to ensure a client VPN solution that is as secure as possible. With the threat of new zero-day attacks and additional threat vectors always being discovered, even with all of these solutions in place, there is still some risk in expanding your organization’s network to allow access to these external devices.
While I will never say ‘Client security doesn’t matter,’ I can say that with a solution like Evolve IP’s Workspaces, client security CAN significantly become less of a concern for your organization. While you certainly want your users to protect themselves, their devices, and their personal information, most organizations don’t want to take on the burden and cost of ensuring these things. By separating your organization’s data, applications, client information, etc, and ensuring that these things never actually leave the data center and do not end up being processed or stored on your users’ devices, you can let your users manage their own security needs while you ensure your data center and internal network are meeting your security needs and compliance standards. Even in the event that a user’s device may be compromised, by putting access to BOTH your internal data and applications AS WELL AS your external applications behind the Evolve IP Workspace Identity Management platform, you are ensuring that a user’s compromised credentials without the Multifactor Authentication are, effectively, useless and ensure the security of your data and that of your clients.
Virtual Private Network Support
Obviously, the long list of additional considerations above suggests a complex interwoven mix of technologies. Each of these disparate platforms and solutions will require configuration and administration from a knowledgeable IT team. Couple this with the need to be prepared to support multiple different user devices, multiple Operating Systems, users of varying skill levels, and a myriad of potential issues on end-user devices, and it is easy to see the difficult nature of supporting a client VPN solution.
If an application isn’t performing well, is it because of latency? Is it because of the end user’s hardware? Does that user not have fast or reliable enough internet connectivity? These are the types of challenges that IT teams come across on a daily basis when managing this type of Work-From-Home solution. Couple this with the need for password resets for not only general access and internal applications but all of the different external applications that your users regularly use, and it isn’t difficult to imagine an IT team or helpdesk becoming quickly overburdened. This has been the reality for many organizations that have adopted this type of solution due to the current pandemic.
Imagine, instead, a single user experience – that no matter what type of device a user is connecting from or where they are, everything looks, feels, and most importantly, behaves the same way. Imagine enabling user self-service account administration for things like password resets and being able to only log in once in order to launch your desktop, your softphone, an internal application that lives on your servers/network, an external application like SalesForce. Evolve IP’s Workspaces makes this a reality. By providing a unified cross-platform user experience and leveraging the tools of our Identity Management solution, supporting Work-From-Home users has never been easier. As an added bonus, even when your users return to the office, they will still access all of their resources the same way which makes user onboarding, training, and support and optimized and simplified experience.
So, no… the VPN is definitely not dead, but there are a lot of reasons that, for many organizations, it can and should be. We would love to speak with you further about how Evolve IP’s Workspaces solution can better enable your organization to provide a highly-secure, reliable, predictable-cost-conscious, and easily-supportable Work-From-Home solution that will both solve your immediate needs and provide a strategic long-term solution that will take your productivity and mobility to the next level.