Understanding VPNs: The Pros and Cons of IPSec and SSL

With a growing need for secure virtual access and privacy across networks, the virtual private network (VPN) has established itself as a business staple, particularly in the era of remote work. A VPN provides a virtual way for users to connect securely to a network server, regardless of their location or internet service provider (ISP). 

Enterprises can choose from several types of VPNs, with IPSec and SSL being the most popular. IPSec and SSL offer different pros and cons for network administrators and users alike, so it’s important to know their key differences and determine which option best fits your network topology. In some cases, your enterprise could benefit from both IPSec and SSL VPNs.

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IPSec and SSL VPNs: the Pros and Cons

A VPN establishes a private, secure connection that only certain users can access.

What is IPSec?

IPSec, or internet protocol security, is a type of VPN connection that happens over the IP, or at the greater network level. Once the necessary client software is installed in both the sending and receiving devices, these devices can share a public key to authenticate the outside device and give it full access to the network. Since this connection occurs at the IP level, network administrators can see the IP addresses of the devices that access their network through this method.

There are two primary options to choose from with an IPSec VPN:

  • Transport: in this type of IPSec VPN, not all of the data is encrypted; instead, components like the header are transported as is from device to device.
  • Tunnel: in this type of IPSec VPN, all of the transmitted data is encrypted, even the headers and titles.

Pros of IPSec VPNs

Built-in Security Features

Many enterprises implement an IPSec VPN because of its high-level security protocols. You can only set up a device with IPSec VPN if you install the appropriate client software and establish an authentication certificate

The software and authentication certificate establish an identity for that device on the VPN, which means the VPN can shut out a device that is not appropriately set up or registered. If you have secure information that your employees should only access on approved workplace devices, the IPSec VPN format will not allow them to access your network via personal devices.

Scalability Through Stable Connections and Network Visibility

Once a device is connected to the network through IPSec client software, that device will remain connected to the entire network. It won’t have to log back in or reauthenticate its credentials on a momentary basis. This is a great option for remote power users who access several parts of your network on an ongoing basis.

These stable connections are also predictable, making it obvious which IP addresses and which users are connected to the network. Connection at the IP level gives your network administrators greater visibility within the network. If something goes wrong, it’s much easier to pinpoint which user or device may be connected to a breach or other network issue.

Cons of IPSec VPNs

Cost and Complexity of VPN Maintenance

Authentication certificates allow remote devices to establish connections in an IPSec VPN, and these certificates must be renewed often. It can get expensive to renew these certificates, especially if you have several devices that require a VPN connection. It also requires a lot of coordination to maintain a renewal schedule for several authentication certificates at a time. When you add in other client software needs and the installation process every time you need to add a new device to the VPN, costs and complexity can skyrocket quickly.

Additional Software Requirements and Lack of Mobility

If a user’s sole IPSec-enabled device experiences technical difficulties, they will not have access to the VPN until the device is fixed or replaced. It could be complex and expensive to fix the device, not to mention the downtime that the user experiences. 

If the device needs to be replaced, it will also be an expensive and extensive process to get the IPSec client software installed on the new device. Users are tied to their IPSec VPN devices because they are the only devices with the software to connect to the VPN. This requirement makes it difficult for users to move to new devices when necessary.

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What is SSL?

SSL, or secure socket layer, is a type of VPN connection that offers permissions and access at the application level. This type of connection is not IP-dependent, so as long as a user has any device that can access the portal or tunnel entry points for individual applications, they can anonymously access each of those applications freely.

There are two primary options to choose from with an SSL VPN:

  • Portal: If you’re using a portal SSL VPN, you launch your secure connection via a specific website portal where you enter your credentials. This will often connect you to your enterprise’s home network page, or some other web build that gives you secure access to predefined applications.
  • Tunnel: this advancement beyond portal SSL allows users to access non-web applications via the VPN connection.

Pros of SSL VPNs

Lower Costs and Complexity: No Client Software Additions

Client software can be both expensive and complex to install and maintain. If your network regularly purchases, replaces, and upgrades devices, it can become complicated to make every client software update needed in the IPSec VPN model. With SSL VPNs, there are no extra software costs and the setup is relatively simple.

Scalability Through Quick Mobile Deployment

Does your enterprise hire a lot of new employees on a regular basis? Are they spread all over the country or the globe? It would take time, installation teams, and strong coordination to make sure all of their devices get what they need in an IPSec VPN model. Since SSL VPN connections can be established quickly and without additional software, SSL is a great approach for organizations that need to do a quick mobile deployment of VPN connection.

Cons of SSL VPNs

Optional Authentication Features Lead to Security Concerns

Security features are built into the IPSec model, with data encryption, client software, and authentication certificates that need to be renewed regularly. In the SSL model, you can add in some of these features, but it requires additional work on the part of your team and may require third-party configurations or applications. This can get expensive, and you risk security measures that are not set up appropriately. 

Complexity Related to Application Management

You don’t have to manage client software or installation with SSL VPNs, but application management still requires a lot of work and coordination in this model. Your applications will need to be monitored and regularly updated to ensure that they are secure and working properly. 

Your employees might also discover that they need access to additional applications or services over time, which will require you to change permissions and settings in the SSL VPN. Since your users do not automatically have access to your entire network with the SSL VPN, you could be making frequent changes at the application level to give them what they need.

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Should I Use IPSec or SSL?

Both IPSec and SSL VPNs have advantages and disadvantages that can complicate networking for your remote users. IPSec is a great option for organizations with high-security needs or several power users who need constant full access to the network. But SSL could be a better option for companies with employees who travel frequently and only need casual access (i.e., email) to the network. Many networks use both options for different employees and situations, so think about what your users need before making a final decision.

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Shelby Hiter
Shelby Hiter
Shelby Hiter is a writer with more than five years of experience in writing and editing, focusing on healthcare, technology, data, enterprise IT, and technology marketing. She currently writes for four different digital publications in the technology industry: Datamation, Enterprise Networking Planet, CIO Insight, and Webopedia. When she’s not writing, Shelby loves finding group trivia events with friends, cross stitching decorations for her home, reading too many novels, and turning her puppy into a social media influencer.
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