When it Comes to ZTNA, Buyer Beware

ZTNA network computing

Originally posted by Network Computing

With traditional perimeter-based defenses proving inadequate thanks to the rise of remote and hybrid work policies, organizations are turning to the concept of zero trust to fortify their security postures. At its core, zero trust centers on the idea that no user or device should be automatically trusted, even when connected to internal networks.

In the initial fury to implement zero trust to combat the security risks posed by dispersed workforces, businesses turned to Zero Trust Network Access (ZTNA) solutions. ZTNA tools exploded onto the scene in the last few years, and the technology was originally pitched as a replacement to virtual private networks (VPNs). The replacement pitch was not without merit. VPN remains ubiquitous, but its broad network-level, encryption-based security is thin and has the potential to expose entire corporate networks to malware, distributed denial of service (DDos), and spoofing attacks.

Instead, ZTNA offered a “never trust, always verify” security approach that requires constant authentication, which spoke to CISOs and their teams looking for a silver bullet to the head-spinning number of new access threats that emerged after the pandemic. And although it’s true – you must start somewhere–the hasty embrace of ZTNA was shortsighted, and has led to further complication, false starts, and budget waste for early adopters.

99 Security Problems, Now ZTNA is 1

While initial ZTNA solutions have undoubtedly marked a notable step forward in addressing remote access security concerns and generally popularizing the concept of zero trust, the technology itself is problematic on several fronts:

Implementation is a Bear

If you’ve implemented a ZTNA solution, you know it’s not a “plug and play” operation. Far from it. Instead, you’ll be sidelined by the need to redesign your network architecture from the outset. That may sound dramatic, but it’s true. Chances are that your perimeter-based security apparatus can’t immediately secure individual applications and verify every access request no matter the network location of the user. So, you’re forced to establish an encrypted tunnel between the user and the target application. This means sending traffic externally (likely to a third-party cloud service), and then back to your network to verify the request and authenticate the user.

In short, you’ve got your work cut out for you from a re-engineering perspective. You also have a greater chance of dealing with latency due to the external traffic routing, which can disrupt productivity. For many, these issues make ZTNA implementation a non-starter, which means it’s actually hampering the growth of zero trust adoption.

Physical Networks Are Ignored

Sure, securing access for your remote workforce needs to be a priority – that’s not a question. People still work in the office and rely on your organization’s physical wired and wireless networks, however. While a balance has largely been struck on hybrid work across most industries, many companies have tamped down on full-time remote work.

This is really just to say that ZTNA misses the mark when it comes to the reach of its zero trust coverage. The same “trust no one, ever” policy needs to be applied to those plugged into the ethernet or connected to the Wi-Fi at the office. Without support for these access layers, companies using ZTNA are forced to adopt another tool (or set of tools) – primarily network access control (NAC) – to define and enforce authentication, authorization, and accounting (AAA) policies for its on-site users. As anyone in IT knows, the more tools you have to manage, the greater the threat surface.

You’re Blind to Endpoint Risk

This is perhaps the most egregious miss for ZTNA. Authentication is great, but as everyone knows, devices are the most used vehicle to compromise enterprise networks and systems. So, if you can’t monitor the risk posture of an endpoint after it connects, you’re out of luck if the device is vulnerable because its anti-virus is out of date, or its firewall is turned off.

Traditional ZTNA does not deliver endpoint risk monitoring or remediation. And since it’s really only focused on applications, it’s not outside the realm of possibility for a device to move laterally across the network after it’s authenticated if the user is sophisticated enough. In this sense, ZTNA can actually make you more vulnerable than you even realize. Again, as with the previous problem, this security gap necessitates a solution like NAC, which can monitor endpoint risk and remediate devices that fall out of compliance.

Think Bigger, Think Universal Zero Trust

Despite all these problems with ZTNA, there is hope for zero trust, it just requires those considering a move to this security model to expand their mindset. It also means that instead of patching together a portfolio of highly focused security tools like ZTNA or NAC, companies need to invest in unified, cloud-native, and friction-less solutions that can address all key zero trust use cases in a centralized and scalable fashion.

Fortunately, emerging technology is bridging these gaps to deliver “universal zero trust,” which extends zero trust access control to networks, applications and infrastructure for employees, guests and contractors working on-campus and remotely. This is the holy grail of zero trust – where all critical IT assets are covered by a never trust, always verify security model. This is something ZTNA alone cannot do.

About the Author

CEO Headshot Denny LeCompete is the CEO of Portnox. He is responsible for overseeing the day-to-day operations and strategic direction of the company. Denny brings over 20 years of experience in IT infrastructure and cyber security. Prior to joining Portnox, Denny held executive leadership roles at leading IT management and security firms, including SolarWinds and AlienVault. Denny holds a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology from Rice University.

Denny can be reached online at [email protected] and at our company website https://www.portnox.com/.

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