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What Is Zero Trust Network Access (ZTNA)? Practical Guide

Zero trust network access (ZTNA) solutions, previously known as software-defined perimeter (SDP), implement and enforce an organization’s zero trust policy. This policy is a fundamental component of a zero trust security architecture designed to enforce strict access control. The goal is to decrease an organization’s exposure to cyber threats.

The zero trust security model assumes all access requests are suspicious, regardless of whether the request is external or internal. A zero trust security policy ensures that any user attempting to connect to the organization’s applications is permitted access only if they require it to perform their job.

In this article:

How Does Zero Trust Network Access (ZTNA) Work?

ZTNA uses an entirely different approach than traditional network security solutions, emphasizing secure remote access to corporate applications. This approach uses a granular user-to-application access control system rather than relying on a network security perimeter.

ZTNA segregates access between the network and the connected applications and the network. Users who connect to the network might not have access to its applications. This isolated model helps reduce network risks and blocks threats from infected devices and compromised user accounts.

ZTNA doesn’t expose the IP address to the network. It makes exclusively outbound connections to ensure the application and network infrastructure are invisible to an unauthorized user. This dark cloud concept prevents malicious attackers from finding the network.

While traditional network access control systems allow devices and users to access the entire network after authentication, ZTNA uses additional measures like endpoint security to inform access decisions. It grants access based on the timing and frequency of access requests, the user’s location, timing, and resources requested. Thus, even verified users cannot access the network if they attempt suspicious actions or their devices are insecure.

A traditional corporate network uses private Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS)-based WAN connections. On the other hand, ZTNA uses TLS-encrypted public Internet connections, keeping the network traffic secure. The Internet is the corporate network, ensuring employees can access network resources and applications from distributed, remote locations.

ZTNA vs. VPN: 4 Key Differences

A virtual private network (VPN) is a popular alternative to ZTNA for controlling access to corporate resources. When users log in to a VPN, they can access the entire network and all its resources—a model known as a castle-and-moat security approach. On the other hand, ZTNA only allows users to access specific applications based on granular access rules, denying access to all data and applications by default.

VPNs have several drawbacks compared to ZTNA:

1. Resource Consumption

  • VPNs cannot handle large numbers of remote users, resulting in high latency and requiring the addition of extra resources to support spikes in usage. Managing VPNs to cope with dynamic loads is often time-consuming for IT teams.
  • ZTNA relies on the Internet, making it more open and flexible.

2. Agility and Flexibility

  • VPNs are less flexible. Installing and configuring the VPN software across end-user devices is often challenging compared to adding and removing security policies based on immediate business requirements.
  • ZTNA is more flexible and easier to manage with attribute-based access control (ABAC) and role-based access control (RBAC).

3. Granularity

  • VPNs lack the granularity of ZTNA-based access control. Once inside the VPN perimeter, users can access everything in the system.
  • ZTNA uses the opposite approach and doesn’t grant access to any asset without explicit authorization for the specific user. It continuously verifies the user’s identity, authenticating every device and user before granting access to a given system or application.

4. Security

  • VPNs are less precise than ZTNA because they don’t differentiate between devices and users based on location and access requirements. They are insufficient for organizations using a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) model, where employees access the network via their devices.
  • ZTNA is less vulnerable to attacks than VPNs and reduces the risks posed by compromised endpoints such as infected user devices.

For many organizations, it is not a matter of either/or—the combination of ZTNA with VPNs can help secure sensitive parts of the network. ZTNA provides an additional layer of security in case of a compromised VPN. Learn more in our detailed guide to zero trust security .

How Does Zero Trust Network Access Protect Against Cyber Attacks?

The basic premise of zero trust network access is that internal and external entities can cause cybersecurity attacks. A zero trust network architecture assumes that everything is a potential threat, including users, machines, systems, and software. In contrast, traditional corporate networks trust everything within the perimeter.

ZTNA works by verifying each user’s identity and access permissions, enforcing constant monitoring and re-verification of all devices and users to allow continued access.

For instance, a user might log in to a bank account with a laptop or smartphone, check the balance, and continue to other applications or tabs without signing out. After a specified period of inactivity, the app produces a timeout warning and ends the session automatically if the user doesn’t respond in time. The user must log in again to access the account.

Continuous monitoring limits users’ exposure and protects the network from external and internal attacks. The zero trust security model is essential given the popularity of cloud-hosted systems and applications. It helps prevent, contain, and mitigate the impact of a cyberattack, regardless of its source, and restricts lateral movement.

Key Considerations for Choosing a ZTNA Solution

A zero trust network access solution must ensure the following:

Support for All Devices and Users

The ZTNA solution must provide secure access for every entity, including managed devices, BYOD or mobile devices, and third parties. It should provide seamless connectivity for DevOps and engineering teams.

Client-based access controls help secure access via managed devices, while clientless controls can secure access to databases, web apps, databases, secure shell (SSH) servers, and remote devices. The solution should cover the privileged access management (PAM) requirements for users accessing multi-cloud environments. Another advantage is single sign-on (SSO), which provides easier access to authorized users.

Support for All Resources

The solution must support all private resources and applications and resources, not just web apps. It should let users access SSH servers, remote devices, servers, and SQL databases. Other resources available to engineering and DevOps teams must include infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) products, cloud environments, virtual private clouds, and microservices.

Service Availability and Performance

The ZTNA solution should enable identity provider (IdP) integration via standards like SAML 2.0. It should enable granular, intuitive policy configurations.

A high-performing solution requires little maintenance or additional personnel to manage. For example, a cloud-based solution with a centralized may be a user-friendly option providing deep visibility. The solution must deliver high performance and uptime (99.999%) with Service Level Agreements (SLAs) and multiple points of presence (PoPs) to increase redundancy.

A Robust Zero Trust Security Model

The ZTNA solution should have separate data and control planes to enforce a least-privilege access model. Applications should have fine-grained, built-in controls—for example, read, write, and admin privileges. The system should enforce policies at the query and command levels.

Another important aspect of zero trust is visibility—the solution must enable reports on users, groups, and application activity (for example, via video recordings). Other useful security capabilities in ZTNA solutions include cloud IPS, sandboxing, and data loss protection (DLP).

Securing Your Business Against Cyber Risks with Cynet

Beyond XDR-Autonomous Breach Protection

Cynet 360 AutoXDR™ is the world’s first Autonomous Breach Protection platform that natively integrates the endpoint, network and user attack prevention & detection of XDR with the automated investigation and remediation capabilities of SOAR, backed by a 24/7 world-class MDR service. End to end, fully automated breach protection is now within reach of any organization, regardless of security team size and skill level.

XDR Layer: End-to-End Prevention & Detection

  • Endpoint protection-multilayered protection against malware, ransomware, exploits and fileless attacks
  • Network protection-protecting against scanning attacks, MITM, lateral movement and data exfiltration
  • User protection-preset behavior rules coupled with dynamic behavior profiling to detect malicious anomalies
  • Deception-wide array of network, user, file decoys to lure advanced attackers into revealing their hidden presence

SOAR Layer: Response Automation

  • Investigation-automated root cause and impact analysis
  • Findings-actionable conclusions on the attack’s origin and its affected entities
  • Remediation-elimination of malicious presence, activity and infrastructure across user, network and endpoint attacks
  • Visualization-intuitive flow layout of the attack and the automated response flow

MDR Layer: Expert Monitoring and Oversight

  • Alert monitoring-First line of defense against incoming alerts, prioritizing and notifying customer on critical events
  • Attack investigation-Detailed analysis reports on the attacks that targeted the customer
  • Proactive threat hunting-Search for malicious artifacts and IoC within the customer’s environment
  • Incident response guidance-Remote assistance in isolation and removal of malicious infrastructure, presence and activity

Simple Deployment

Cynet 360 AutoXDR™ can be deployed across thousands of endpoints in less than two hours. It can be immediately used to uncover advanced threats and then perform automatic or manual remediation, disrupt malicious activity and minimize damage caused by attacks.

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