What is Zero Trust Network Access

Zero trust network access (ZTNA) is an approach to enterprise IT security that provides secure remote access to a company’s data, applications, networks, and services based on defined access control policies.

ZTNA establishes multiple layers of protection by assuming that any connection will be malicious. Therefore, it places various security mechanisms between the user and the organization’s resources. As a result, authentication can occur at each layer and not just once at a centralized point.

Also see: Top Zero Trust Networking Solutions 

How Does ZTNA Work?

The fundamental concept of ZTNA is to segregate critical assets on a network by not trusting the endpoint devices. Therefore, when accessing a resource, an end-user device must authenticate before being allowed access to the resource or part of the network.

A zero-trust network assumes that any device can potentially be compromised, so it restricts access to resources based on user location, authentication level, and risk assessment of the endpoint accessing the resource. For example, with ZTNA, access to a specific service is granted when successful authentication.

ZTNA operates on the principle of “zero trust, always verify.” A zero-trust approach requires all users, devices, systems, networks, and resources to be treated as untrusted outsiders. It asserts that IT should move away from the monolithic model where all devices have unrestricted access to all applications, and the “always verify” part means that there’s no such thing as an implicitly trusted insider or external system. Every identity is presumed to be risky until proven otherwise by authentication from an acceptable source at the appropriate level.

ZTNA technologies, in contrast to VPNs, have a “deny by default” policy and only allow access to the services for which the user has been granted access. If one area becomes compromised, attackers are not automatically given full access to other areas of the organization.

When implementing ZTNA, organizations should take a layered security approach with multiple controls between the outside world and their sensitive data or infrastructure. The different layers act as obstacles, making it difficult for attackers to reach their target.

Also see: Secure Access Service Edge: Big Benefits, Big Challenges

Benefits of ZTNA

ZTNA offers enormous benefits to organizations. They include:

Enhanced compliance

Enhancing compliance can be a difficult task because it needs many different measures. ZTNA allows an organization to more easily adhere to regulatory requirements, such as PCI DSS, GDPR, HIPAA/HITECH, and NIST SP 800-53A. It adheres to these requirements without compromising data protection.

Securing access to legacy applications

By enabling encrypted connections and providing the same degree of security benefits as web apps, ZTNA could be used to enhance the security of legacy applications running in private data centers or on-premises servers.

Application microsegmentation

With ZTNA, companies can create a software-defined perimeter (SDP) that utilizes identity and access management (IAM) technologies to segment their application environments. This technique allows companies to divide their network into multiple microsegments to prevent lateral threat movement and reduce the attack surface by compartmentalizing business-critical assets.

Agile security posture

The agile security posture provided by ZTNA enables companies to quickly change their defense tactics based on an evolving cyber threat landscape.

Makes applications invisible

ZTNA provides the necessary protection for a network because it creates a virtual darknet that prohibits app availability on the public internet. In addition, ZTNA monitors the data access patterns of all applications, which helps minimize risk and secure enterprises against distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, data leakage, and other cyberattacks.

Also see: Containing Cyberattacks in IoT

Common ZTNA Use Cases

Authentication and access

Rather than a single credential or point of access, users in a zero-trust network have to authenticate themselves at every login session to gain access to specific data resources on a given system. So, for example, they might be able only to see certain files stored on one server rather than having all files visible.

User account management

ZTNA changes how user accounts are managed by creating different control and access policies for different types of users, such as contractors, suppliers, vendors, customers, and partners, with varying levels of access to sensitive information within an organization’s network.

Visibility and analysis

A zero-trust approach enables tracking of both authorized and unauthorized activity across the enterprise’s various assets (systems and databases). This enables organizations to detect anomalous behavior to protect against threats before any damage occurs.

Integrating ZTNA into a secure access service edge (SASE) solution helps organizations to get the most out of their investment in this technology. When implemented correctly, SASE solutions will provide granular visibility and automate actions based on preconfigured rules around risks and vulnerabilities. As a result, security teams can now manage risk proactively through automation rather than reactively through manual intervention.

Real-time data loss prevention (DLP) inspection and enforcement

ZTNA offers organizations real-time DLP inspection capabilities. Continuous monitoring enables detection and mitigation of internal threats without needing constant scanning that could overwhelm IT infrastructure.

Organizations can identify who is accessing what content, when it was accessed and where it came from with greater detail, empowering them to make better decisions about what should be shared internally and externally.

Remote access from any device, including unmanaged BYOD devices

Mobile employees, remote office workers, and visiting guests may be required to access company networks remotely through the internet or a VPN. Zero-trust networking can support this requirement by implementing two-factor authentication (2FA) for remote connections and encrypting traffic to protect intellectual property.

With the help of strong authentication, enterprises can maintain strict compliance requirements and data privacy laws while preventing malicious attacks and unwanted malware on their networks.

Also see: Steps to Building a Zero Trust Network

Differences Between VPN and ZTNA

VPNs grant access to the entire network, while ZTNA grants access to specific apps or services. In addition, VPNs are often used when users need remote access to the entire network. Meanwhile, ZTNA requires individual app approval, meaning that, before the user can access the apps or services on their network, they must complete an authentication process. This could be a combination of user identity, user or service location, time of the day, type of service, and security posture of the device.

Network-level access vs. application-level access

The main difference is that VPNs grant network-wide access, while ZTNA only grants access to specific applications or services. In other words, VPNs typically allow users to log in remotely and have full control over the network, while ZTNA allows users to log in remotely. Still, the users’ access is limited to a need-to-access basis.

Endpoint posture assessment

After granting device access to enterprise network applications through either a VPN or ZTNA, it’s important to assess its endpoint posture. An endpoint’s posture refers to how compliant an endpoint is with corporate policy security requirements. These include: 

  • Antivirus software
  • Anti-spyware software
  • Password complexity requirements
  • Software update frequency settings

While VPNs don’t consider the risks posed by end-user devices and apps after access, ZTNA does. ZTNA continuously monitors all endpoints after connecting to the enterprise network by validating their security posture.

Visibility into user activity

ZTNA provides a granular level of visibility into user activities across apps and services, making unusual behavior and malicious intent easier to detect. When an employee takes actions outside of approved apps or services, there’s a better chance that IT will know about it because ZTNA operates at the level of individual applications or services. However, VPN doesn’t offer application-level control, which means it lacks visibility into users’ actions once they are inside the private network.

Also see: Best IoT Platforms for Device Management

How to Implement ZTNA

Enterprises should follow the ZTNA principle to identify, classify, and authenticate users accessing their networks. ZTNA can be deployed as a stand-alone ZTNA or ZTNA as a service.

The former requires organizations to build their ZTNA infrastructure and work independently in configuring an identity management system and deploying network access control devices. At the same time, the latter offers a quick way to deploy ZTNA via third-party vendors.

With this approach, organizations must purchase a software license from these providers and install it on their servers to enable centralized management of all endpoints in the organization’s network.

Also see: Best Network Management Solutions 

Aminu Abdullahi
Aminu Abdullahi
Aminu Abdullahi is an experienced B2B technology and finance writer and award-winning public speaker. He is the co-author of the e-book, The Ultimate Creativity Playbook, and has written for various publications, including eWEEK, Enterprise Networking Planet, Tech Republic, eSecurity Planet, CIO Insight, Enterprise Storage Forum, IT Business Edge, Webopedia, Software Pundit, and Geekflare.
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