Zero Trust vs. VPN

Zero Trust vs VPN

Two prominent strategies have emerged in ensuring network security: Zero Trust and Virtual Private Networks (VPNs).

While both aim to protect sensitive data and prevent unauthorized access, they operate on fundamentally different principles. Zero Trust architecture advocates for a strict verification process for every user and device attempting to access the network, regardless of their location, while VPNs establish secure connections between remote users and corporate networks.

Understanding the distinctions between these approaches is essential for organizations striving to fortify their defenses against the increasing number of cyber threats.

What’s Better: VPN or ZTNA?

If your biggest concern is providing remote access solutions for remote employees, then a VPN may be your best option.

On the other hand, if you’re looking at an option for strict verification that limits the attack surface and potential security risk for your company network, then Zero Trust may be your option.

What Is a VPN?

A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a technology that creates a secure, encrypted connection over a public network such as the Internet, allowing users to securely access private networks and resources as if they were directly connected to them from a remote location.

VPNs are commonly used to enhance privacy and security, particularly for:

  • Remote workers accessing sensitive corporate data and remote access to applications
  • Individuals seeking to browse the internet anonymously

What Is Zero Trust?

Zero Trust is a cybersecurity framework centered on the principle of not automatically trusting any user or device, whether inside or outside the network perimeter. Instead, it requires continuous verification of identities, strict access controls, and thorough monitoring of network traffic to ensure security against potential threats.

VPN vs. Zero Trust: The Key Differences

VPNs establish encrypted tunnels for remote access technologies, whereas Zero Trust implements a rigorous verification process, irrespective of user or device location.

Here are the key differences between VPN and Zero Trust

1. Conceptual Approach:

  • VPN: Extends a private network across a public network, allowing users to securely access and transmit data over the internet as if they were directly connected to the private network.
    • A company might deploy a VPN to allow its remote employees to securely connect to the corporate network from various locations, ensuring encrypted transmission of sensitive data and maintaining privacy over public networks like the Internet without limiting user access. By implementing VPNs, organizations can extend their network boundaries securely, enabling seamless collaboration and access to internal resources while mitigating the risks associated with remote work. 
  • Zero Trust: Assumes that no entity, whether inside or outside the network, should be trusted by default. It requires strict identity verification for every person and device trying to access resources, regardless of their location.
    • An organization may implement Zero Trust principles to enforce strict authentication and access controls for all users and devices attempting to connect to its network, regardless of their location or trust level. By adopting a Zero-Trust model, the organization ensures continuous monitoring and verification of identities, minimizing the risk of unauthorized access, threats of malicious activity, and potential security breaches in an ever-evolving cybersecurity landscape.

2. Perimeter Focus

  • VPN: Typically focuses on securing the perimeter of the network, creating a secure tunnel between the user’s device and the corporate network.
    • With this focus, an organization may establish secure tunnels between its central network and remote locations or external partners, effectively extending its network perimeter to encompass these connections. By encapsulating traffic within encrypted channels, VPNs enable organizations to enforce perimeter-based security policies, safeguarding data as it traverses between different network segments and ensuring secure communication across distributed environments.
  • Zero Trust: Dispenses with the concept of a trusted internal network perimeter, enforcing security policies based on identity, device health, and other contextual factors regardless of location.
    • From a zero-trust viewpoint, an organization establishes stringent access controls and continuous verification mechanisms at the network’s edge, ensuring that only authenticated and authorized users and devices can gain entry. This strategy enhances security by scrutinizing all traffic attempting to cross the perimeter, effectively safeguarding against external threats while maintaining a granular level of control over network access.

3. Access Control

  • VPN: Often grants broad network access once the user is authenticated, potentially exposing sensitive resources to unauthorized users who have gained access.
    • An organization may configure role-based permissions within the VPN client, allowing different users or groups access to applications and specific resources based on their authorization levels. This ensures that only authorized individuals can establish VPN connections and access designated network resources, bolstering security while enabling efficient management of user activities and access rights.
  • Zero Trust: Enforces granular access controls, restricting access to specific resources based on the principle of least privilege, ensuring that users only have access to the resources necessary for their roles.
    • Organizations implement dynamic policies that continuously verify and restrict connected users’ access to resources based on contextual factors such as device health, user behavior, and location. By employing granular access controls, Zero Trust ensures that only authenticated users with the necessary privileges can access specific assets, reducing the attack surface and enhancing security posture against potential threats.

4. Network Visibility

  • VPN: Provides limited visibility into network traffic once the encrypted tunnel is established, making it challenging to detect and respond to potential threats.
  • Zero Trust: Offers enhanced visibility into user and device behaviors, allowing organizations to monitor and analyze network traffic for suspicious activities in real time.

5. Security Posture

  • VPN: Focuses on securing data in transit between the user’s device and the corporate network, often leaving endpoints vulnerable to attacks.
    • When focusing on network visibility, organizations using a VPN solution might deploy monitoring tools to analyze traffic passing through the VPN tunnels, providing insights into network activities and potential security threats. This approach enables administrators to detect anomalous behavior, identify unauthorized access attempts, and maintain oversight of data flows within the encrypted VPN connections, enhancing overall network security and performance without compromising access to critical resources.
  • Zero Trust: Takes a holistic approach to security, considering all devices, users, and applications as potentially untrusted, and continuously verifies trust before granting access to resources.
    • In a Zero Trust framework with network visibility, organizations leverage advanced monitoring solutions to scrutinize all network traffic, allowing for real-time detection of suspicious activities and potential security breaches. By combining continuous authentication with comprehensive visibility into network behaviors, Zero Trust ensures proactive threat identification and response, fortifying defenses against evolving cyber threats while maintaining a high level of situational awareness.

6. User Experience

  • VPN: This may introduce latency due to the encryption and decryption process, potentially impacting user experience, especially for bandwidth-intensive activities.
    • In a user-centric VPN approach, organizations prioritize simplicity and accessibility by offering user-friendly VPN clients and intuitive interfaces. By minimizing configuration complexities and providing seamless connectivity, VPNs enhance user experience, facilitating effortless access to secure networks while ensuring productivity and satisfaction among remote workers.
  • Zero Trust: Offers seamless and consistent access to resources regardless of the user’s location or device, improving user experience while maintaining security.
    • In a Zero Trust model prioritizing user experience, organizations deploy seamless authentication methods such as single sign-on (SSO) or multi-factor authentication (MFA) to minimize user friction while ensuring robust security. By streamlining access processes and offering intuitive interfaces, Zero Trust enhances usability without compromising on stringent security measures, fostering a positive user experience while maintaining a high level of protection against cyber threats.

7. Adaptability

  • VPN: Often requires additional security measures to adapt to evolving threats, such as implementing multi-factor authentication or endpoint security solutions.
    • An organization can utilize the adaptability of a VPN is its capacity to seamlessly integrate with various devices and operating systems, enabling users to establish secure connections from desktops, laptops, smartphones, and other platforms regardless of their location.
  • Zero Trust: Built on the principle of continuous adaptation, leveraging dynamic policies and risk-based authentication to respond to changing security landscapes effectively.
    • Zero Trust has the capability to dynamically adjust access permissions based on changing contextual factors such as device status, user behavior, and network conditions, ensuring continuous protection against emerging threats.

8. Scope

  • VPN: Primarily addresses remote access and connectivity needs, providing secure access to corporate resources for remote workers or branch offices.
    • In a VPN deployment focusing on scope, organizations might implement split tunneling to route only specific traffic through the VPN connection, optimizing bandwidth usage and minimizing latency for users accessing non-sensitive resources. By tailoring the VPN scope to include only necessary traffic, organizations can improve network performance while still ensuring secure access to critical assets.
  • Zero Trust: Provides a comprehensive security framework that extends beyond remote access, encompassing all aspects of network security, including endpoint protection, data security, and identity management.
    • In a Zero Trust implementation with a scope-focused approach, organizations may segment their network into micro-perimeters, applying strict access controls and monitoring to each segment based on the sensitivity of the data and the risk profile of users and devices within that segment. By limiting access to resources according to predefined scopes, Zero Trust ensures that only authorized entities can interact with specific assets, minimizing the potential impact of security breaches and maintaining granular control over network access.

Zero Trust Network Access Is Dominating

A recent CyberRisk Alliance study on Zero Trust challenges found that ransomware attacks and remote worker risks are driving current and planned zero trust strategies.

Specifically, 55% said an increase in ransomware is a motivating factor, 53% point to the increased risks from remote workers, and 32% are driven to implement zero trust out of concern for potential supply-chain attacks.

While only 36% of participants had implemented zero trust at that point, another 47% planned to adopt it in the next 12 months.

Create a Bulletproof Security Strategy with Perimeter81

When it comes to securing your organization’s network, a modern approach utilizes either Zero Trust or VPN. Understanding the differences of how these two security solutions work can help you best protect your network and allow a great user experience for your employees while maintaining a safeguard over your network.

Perimeter81 offers solutions for both Zero Trust and VPN and can work to help you deploy the solution that will allow your organization to grow and maintain network security.

Reach out to Perimeter81 today so we can discuss which option may be best for you to deploy!


Why is VPN not Zero Trust?
The difference between VPN and Zero Trust lies in their principles. VPN allows remote access to a network and groups all users into one system. Zero trust utilizes robust MFA to provide network security.
Does ZTNA replace VPN?
Not necessarily. ZTNA and VPN have different security principles and can be used on their own or together.
Which principle differentiates ZTNA from VPN?
ZTNA is founded on the principle of “never trust; always verify,” while a VPN will always trust a user or device once it has been connected to the network.
What is the difference between VPN and Zero Trust?
ZTNA requires much more limited access only to applications and services that are explicitly authorized.
Why do companies use VPN or Zero Trust?
Companies will deploy VPN or zero trust to help increase the overall security of their network and will choose one option over another based on their specific needs.

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