Virtual private networks (VPNs) are a popular tool for protecting privacy of online communications and business data. However, if a traditional VPN does not satisfy your network security needs for some reason, there are other choices. Here is a comparison of VPNs with three main alternatives plus one semi alternative.
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What is a Virtual Private Network (VPN)?
A VPN creates a secure encrypted tunnel between local or cloud network resources and remote users or networks. In a business environment, the VPN helps to protect sensitive data from cyber threats and unauthorized access, while allowing employees to securely access company resources and collaborate with each other remotely.
Is VPN obsolete?
Not at all. VPNs still have their place in the business security stack due to their ability to ensure the security and privacy of business communications and data in an affordable and easy-to-use way.
However, there are some reasons why businesses might consider replacing VPN with a different solution to serve the same need:
Limited functionality - In a traditional sense, VPNs provide basic connectivity and encryption, but they may not provide all of the features that a business needs to fully protect its network. Businesses may require more advanced features such as multi-factor authentication, endpoint protection, and network segmentation, which may not be available with traditional VPNs.
Security concerns - Without more granular access control in place, VPN grants users access to the entire network once they have been authorized (learn more in our blog on Static IP VPN). This creates a large space for lateral movement in case the user's account is compromised. Also, on-premise VPNs can be vulnerable to hacking and other security threats, which can compromise the security of data, apps, and systems.
Setup and maintenance - Setting up and maintaining your own on-premise VPN can be complex and time-consuming. This can place a significant burden on IT staff and opens up space for security faults. As a result, businesses may seek out simpler, preferably cloud solutions that require less maintenance and support.
The above-mentioned concerns may push businesses to seek out more secure and easy-to-use alternatives to traditional business VPN.
Before we take a deeper dive into these, let's clarify what can and what cannot be considered an alternative to VPN.
What cannot be considered as an alternative to VPN
When we think of alternatives to VPN technology, we think of solutions that elevate an organization's security by providing a secure (private) way to communicate and share data between employees, digital resources, and third parties.
This is why proxy servers cannot be considered a relevant VPN alternative, even though they are often brought up as a potential option.
Proxies work as an intermediary between a user and the internet, allowing the user to hide the original IP address e.g. to obfuscate geographic restrictions and unblock certain services such as Netflix.
To be fair, proxies might pass as a substitute for personal VPNs, but definitely not for a professional business VPN. Even though they add anonymity as of a means of internet security, there is:
- no encrypted connection between the user and private network/resource,
- limited options of authentication,
- limited user management,
- lack of other features important for business usage.
What can be considered as an alternative to VPN
Worthy alternatives to VPN must be solutions that focus on protecting connections from malicious activities (eavesdropping), and, if need be, also on safeguarding users and digital assets from cyber threats.
That being said, the following approaches can be considered alternatives to VPNs:
- Zero trust network access
Even though these alternatives for VPNs differ in architecture and technology, what they have in common is a high level of security, scalability to cope with evolving business needs, reliability, and compatibility with hybrid IT environments.
Each one of them differs by deployment complexity, feature set, ease of use, and costs.
Let's take a closer look at this topic and explore each alternative in more detail.
Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) network
MPLS is a type of network routing that uses so-called labels to prioritize and route network traffic across a private network. Its strength lies in the ability to interconnect geographically dispersed locations (such as branch offices or data centers) into a single, private network.
Setting up MPLS for a business requires dedicated lines or circuits to be installed between locations, and may require additional hardware and software to manage the network. Therefore, only ISPs or telecommunications companies are usually able to build and provide MPLS networks to a customer.
All of this results in higher costs of MPLS networks, which are usually justifiable only in the enterprise segment in return for the promise of higher security, performance, and greater visibility into network traffic.
What is the difference between MPLS and VPN?
VPN and MPLS are both network technologies that provide reliable network connections, usually together with additional security measures.
However, there are key differences in the routing mechanism, performance and costs.
VPNs are typically built on top of the public internet and they use IP (Internet Protocol) to route data packets. In contrast, MPLS is a private network that operates separately from the public internet, using LDP (Label Distribution Protocol), RSVP (Resource Reservation Protocol) to distribute labels to routers in the network and to establish the paths that traffic will take through the network. Label is a prefix header to the packet that MPLS uses to identify and forward data packets along a predetermined path.
These two different routing mechanisms draw the main difference between MPLS and VPN.
MPLS is considered to have the following benefits over VPN:
- High security - The MPLS network is isolated from the public internet and thus inherently more secure due to the private nature of the connections.
- Fast routing - The use of labels to route traffic through the network makes MPLS routing faster and more efficient than traditional IP routing
- Network management - ability to provide different QoS to different types of traffic and more granular control over network traffic
The drawback of MPLS networks is that all of this comes at much higher costs of building and operating MPLS networks than VPN (speaking of SaaS VPN delivered as a service by a third party).
Therefore, many businesses rather turn to a professional business VPN that utilizes modern protocols such as IPsec, OpenVPN or Wireguard, than to MPLS. Modern VPNs such as GoodAccess can offload tons of work to the provider, satisfy scalability needs and provide more or less the same security controls as MPLS, namely encryption, user authentication methods, firewall, end-point protection against online threats, zero trust access ,and other at the friction of the costs.
MPLS vs VPN: Comparison table
Software-Defined Wide Area Network (SD-WAN)
SD-WAN is becoming an increasingly popular choice for organizations looking to modernize their networks and improve connectivity capabilities. It is a networking technology built upon replacing traditional hardware routers with software-based routing which can be used by organizations of all sizes and with different network architectures.
This approach brings several benefits, such as:
- Improved network performance due to the dynamic, intelligent traffic routing that is based on real-time network conditions, application requirements, and business policies. In SD-WAN you can optimize the path for different types of traffic and thus reduce latency, improve application performance, and provide a better user experience.
- Centralized view and control of different networks, making it easier to configure, manage, and secure the entire environment
- Ability to support cloud environments, apps, and services
- Flexibility to run traffic over different platforms, including broadband internet, mobile networks (LTE, 4G, 5G), and even MPLS.
SD-WANs are designed to choose an optimal route for the traffic based on priority, security, and quality of service requirements (decentralization). Such deployment ensures that critical applications receive network performance they need and the bandwidth is not consumed by less important services.
SW-WAN vs VPN
SD-WAN and VPN are both technologies for connecting geographically dispersed networks or devices (users). Despite this similarity, there are several major differences from which the most important one is that SD-WAN is mainly networking technology while VPN is primarily security technology. Let's take a closer look.
Use case - SD-WAN is a networking technology that utilizes software-defined networking (SDN) to simplify the management and operation of a wide area network. VPN is more a security technology with the aim to create a secure and encrypted connection between two or more devices over the internet.
Routing principle - SD-WAN's routing principle is focused on optimizing network performance and improving application delivery. VPN's routing principle is focused on ensuring secure and encrypted communication between devices, networks and applications.
Transport networks - SD-WAN allows switching through various underlying transport technologies, such as public internet, 4G/5G cellular, and MPLS. VPN, on the other hand, transmits data securely over the public internet.
Cost - The cost of SD-WAN and VPN depend on various factors such as the size of the organization, the number of remote locations, security and performance required, etc. VPNs (especially business cloud VPNs such as GoodAccess) are generally less expensive than SD-WAN. SD-WAN solutions often require specialized hardware and software, such as SD-WAN controllers, edge devices, and WAN optimization appliances.
Both technologies have different use cases and can be used in conjunction with each other to provide secure and optimized connectivity for geographically dispersed networks or devices.
Zero trust network access (ZTNA)
Zero Trust is a security approach that utilizes software-defined networking. It's based on the assumption that all network traffic, whether originating from within or outside of the organization, is untrusted and must be verified and authenticated before access to network resources and applications is allowed.
ZTNA represents a major shift from traditional approaches to security, which typically assume that internal network traffic is trustworthy. It utilizes secure authentication methods to verify the user's identity and limits access privileges to only the necessary minimum through robust access controls (the least privilege principle).
In this model, there is no implicit trust, and all devices, users, and applications are treated as potential threats until they are authenticated and authorized. This is why ZTNA solutions require proof of the user's identity which is commonly reinforced by multi-factor authentication (MFA), SSO, or biometrics as well as context-based risk assessment. Additionally, the solution enforces adherence to policies, such as device security posture checks, to further minimize risks.
ZTNA vs VPN
Both VPN and ZTNA solutions provide remote access to network resources, but they differ in their approach to security, access control, authentication, and scalability.
In general, VPNs are better suited to providing broad network access, while ZTNA is a more granular and flexible approach that is better suited to modern, distributed environments. Let's take a closer look at key differences.
Flexibility - ZTNA solutions are cloud-based so they offer more flexibility than a traditional on-premise VPN. However, modern cloud VPNs provide an equal level of flexibility as ZTNA, albeit with a limited featureset (see the difference between hardware and software VPN).
Performance - ZTNA uses a cloud-based architecture that can scale to support a large number of users and devices, whereas VPN can suffer from performance issues due to the limited bandwidth and processing power of the local device.
Costs - ZTNA solutions are generally more expensive than traditional VPNs because they offer advanced security features such as micro-segmentation, multi-factor authentication, application-level access controls, etc.
When it is possible to compare ZTNA to VPN, it is important to keep in mind that VPN is a technology while ZTNA is a security approach built on software-defined networking that utilizes different technologies to reach its goals. Read more about the SDP vs VPN topic in our blog.
Secure Access Service Edge (SASE) - a semi VPN alternative
SASE is not a “pure” VPN alternative. It is more of an approach to networking and security that requires a combination of different technologies. But since it has capabilities to ensure secure connections between users and applications or systems, let's also list it here.
SASE, which stands for Secure Access Service Edge, is a modern cloud-based approach to network security. By integrating network technologies and principles of SD-WAN, ZTNA, CASB, Secure Web Gateway and Firewall-as-a-Service (FWaaS), SASE offers a comprehensive solution that enables smooth connectivity for remote users in today's multi-site and hybrid-cloud environment.
Since SASE integrates different technologies into one platform, it requires several, usually costly tools in place, so it is mostly implemented by large enterprises.
Wrapping up on VPN alternatives
While there are several alternatives to traditional VPNs available, it is always crucial to evaluate each option carefully and choose the most suitable one based on your needs and requirements.
For those who do not need a granular access control, VPN might be a perfectly fitting solution.
For those who strongly prioritize security and privacy, implementing a zero trust network access is their go-to solution.
With GoodAccess, you can enjoy both. Try GoodAccess Essential to get a full-featured business VPN equipped with advanced networking and security features. Or navigate directly to GoodAccess Premium and enjoy the security benefits of zero trust without the complexities.
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