ZTNA vs. VPN for remote access: how these solutions differ

Anton P. | October 04, 2023

ZTNA vs. VPN discussion focuses on two solutions designed to support safer remote access. 

The Zero Trust Remote Access (ZTNA) option follows a “trust nothing, verify everything” principle. Thus, it treats all attempts to access specific resources in a network as hostile until proven otherwise. 

While a Virtual Private Network (VPN) also deals with safer remote access, it implements a more trusting system. Once you connect to a remote VPN, your experience grants access to most resources, as if you worked from the office. 

Let’s see how the ZTNA model differs from the VPN approach. 

See how ZTNA vs. VPN solutions work and differ.

What is ZTNA? 

ZTNA (Zero Trust Remote Access) is a remote access solution implementing the idea of zero-trust security. The main principle of this option is not to trust any person or device by default. 

Thus, if someone attempts to access some resources, they do not have immediate access. Instead, user authentication occurs via a series of steps. That refers to role-based controls, IP addresses, location, and time limits. 

ZTNA and other zero-trust solutions follow the idea of least privilege. It refers to, say, employees having access to only those resources necessary for their job. 

What is a VPN (or remote access VPN)? 

A VPN is a security solution that encrypts and reroutes internet traffic through VPN servers. In this case, we discuss remote access VPNs, which are common for organizations. 

Remote access VPNs generate a secure tunnel between users working in any location and the corporate network. Thus, connecting employees have the same access privileges as if they were in the office. 

These VPNs are an excellent option for securing remote workers and enabling them to use necessary applications. 

ZTNA vs. VPN: a comparison based on different factors

ZTNA and a remote VPN achieve the same goal of granting more secure access. However, their operation differs significantly, and we discuss them by looking at the following aspects: 

  1. The principle of trust 

A remote VPN usually grants equal access to all connected users. Thus, the access rights are broad, and they can view all available resources. In other words, once users connect to a remote VPN, the accessed system trusts them. 

ZTNA follows a different idea: trust nothing until proven otherwise. The access privileges can have many restrictions. For instance, a particular user can only have a few resources available to them. So, ZTNA does not grant immediate and free access to all resources. It verifies the user and opens only the assigned paths. 

  1. Protection against unauthorized access

The aftermath of someone gaining unauthorized access to resources differs in the access process. If unknown entities were to infiltrate other remote VPN users, they would have access to everything.

ZTNA can minimize the risks of unauthorized access as the invader would not gain entry to all resources. Instead, they would only access a portion of apps or data. Thus, having smaller segments could reduce the risks of attackers moving from one system to another. 

  1. Security 

Both ZTNA and VPN solutions are secure and improve users’ access to resources. They have deserving roles in network security. However, with zero-trust principles gaining popularity, we might see more companies moving towards ZTNA. 

  1. Potential for tracking 

ZTNA does provide a favorable environment for tracking connected users. Since it logs and verifies access, it provides visibility into the user behavior. The collected information can also supply real-time insights into possible threats. 

Nowadays, some remote access VPN providers do provide more options for monitoring users’ behavior. However, these logs might have limits, like gathering mostly metadata on connections. 

  1. User experience 

Modern remote VPN services provide high-speed connections to all users and have improved their scalability efforts. Therefore, even big corporations have options for supporting productive remote workers. ZTNA can also be an option for handling high numbers of employees. 

Does ZTNA replace VPN solutions? 

ZTNA has the potential to replace remote VPNs in specific settings. For instance, organizations might prefer ZTNA due to its stricter user authentication.

Additionally, this solution performs more health checks during the time someone uses the system. 

However, remote VPNs will always be a place for achieving secure remote access. Furthermore, an increasing number of remote VPN services offer better conditions for organizations.

For instance, VPNs also allow companies to segment access to resources, divide privileges, and overview devices on the network.

Anton P.

Anton P.

Former chef and the head of Atlas VPN blog team. He's an experienced cybersecurity expert with a background of technical content writing.


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