In the endless debate of hardware vs. software VPN, the question of which type of virtual private network (VPN) is best for remote work comes up frequently.
And this question now comes up considerably more frequently as companies are scrambling to build a secure remote access solution for their entire team during, and in the wake of, the COVID-19 pandemic.
In general, it seems that organizations are heading in the direction of having a permanent remote workforce. That being the case, finding the right solution to provide secure connectivity for each remote employee is of paramount importance as we move forward in this environment.
If you are looking for a direct comparison between hardware and software VPNs, you can learn more on our comparison page.
This article will help break down some of the reasons you may want to choose a hardware VPN for secure remote access.
VPN connection solutions vary greatly, and many of them can be complex and require significant effort to manage, monitor, and maintain.
In many cases hardware VPNs offer quite a few benefits for protecting devices used for remote work over typical software-based VPN solutions.
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Hardware VPN Benefit #1: No software is required for end-user devices
The elimination of software is one very clear benefit for both organizations and end users alike when it comes to using a hardware VPN.
For users, there is nothing to install, nothing that requires training, and nothing that requires maintaining updates on the end user device itself. This makes it very simple to connect both organization-provided devices and personal devices alike.
For organizations, this means better security, better adherence to security policy, as well as fewer headaches and effort in management
Hardware VPN Benefit #2: Centralized maintenance and management is much less involved
Because there is no need to install or maintain software (as described under benefit #1), IT departments usually love how much less is required of them to keep a hardware-based solution up and running effectively.
For instance, with Archon’s GoSilent hardware-based solution, there are virtually no patches or updates to keep track of. For the most part, once initial installation and setup of the server-side software is complete (usually in as little as 10 minutes) there isn’t much the IT department has to worry about.
Hardware VPN Benefit #3: No software compatibility concerns
Because no software is required on end user devices, there is no concern about which versions of applications or operating systems are running on those devices (and if you have hundreds of users to keep track of, many of whom also use personal devices to connect, this can be a real headache).
With a software-based solution, there are a whole host of those types of requirements to ensure the VPN solution can work correctly in the environment -- and that poses particular challenges, especially in cases where employees are using their own home computers or smartphones.
Again, in the case of GoSilent, our server-side software is built to run on a virtual machine, meaning it is agnostic of your existing central network environment, operating systems, or applications.
Hardware VPN Benefit #4: Firewalling and isolation
The remote access devices connected through our GoSilent Cube never actually touch the networks they connect to, and the GoSilent device works as a firewall between the device it is connected to and the outside world.
No other devices on the same network as that end user device can even see that the device itself exists. Instead, their view ends at the GoSilent Cube.
The end user remote work devices are completely isolated from any remote network they are using to access your internal systems.
This means your organization doesn’t have to worry about threats that may exist on the device itself or the potentially insecure networks being used to connect.
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Hardware VPN Benefit #5: Smaller attack surface
Because the end user device is completely obfuscated from the network, the applications and operating system that are running on that device no longer offer an attack surface for malicious actors.
Typically, operating systems and end user applications will have a large number of potential entry points because the software is doing so much. This means more opportunities for attack.
With a hardware-based VPN gateway and firewall, your attack surface becomes microscopic because it completely removes those openings from the picture.
Hardware VPN Benefit #6: Lower risk of “VPN hijacking”
Software-based VPNs make it much easier for VPN credentials to be stolen and used at a future date -- think something like your credit card number being stolen and then used to purchase items in the future.
Similarly, with software-based solutions, it becomes easier to steal VPN login credentials and save them for future use.
Hardware VPNs that offer a firewall help to protect against that because, again, the end user device is completely obfuscated from the network.
Hardware VPN Benefit #7: Greater control over where traffic is sent
A hardware-based VPN appliance can be configured to only allow traffic to flow to a single endpoint. Meaning, once connected to an end user device, it can ensure that any and all traffic can only go to the central network.
Software-based solutions don’t offer the same degree of control, and it is more difficult to be assured that traffic isn’t going somewhere it shouldn’t. They require significantly more configuration settings to achieve the goal and rely on the remote user to configure them properly.
Hardware VPN Benefit #8: Potential to connect multiple devices
Specific to the design and configuration of GoSilent, it is possible to use our hardware-based solution as a Wi-Fi hotspot and protect multiple end user devices (like a mobile phone, laptop and tablet) all at the same time.
By contrast, with software VPNs, each device needs to have a separate VPN client installed.
The ability to protect multiple devices with a single hardware VPN means less set-up and maintenance overall, and less concern about updating and patching (since all of those individual devices would have the concerns around software compatibility mentioned in benefit #3).
Hardware VPN Benefit #9: Reduced risk of misconfigurations and user error
Specifically for GoSilent, because there is really nothing to configure on the end user device, there is nothing to misconfigure. It is as simple as plugging the GoSilent Cube hardware VPN client into the end user device (or connecting the two over the GoSilent Cube's LAN) to achieve secure access.
With software, there are usually plenty of settings that can be set incorrectly and far more training a user will need in order to make sure they are using everything correctly.
If a user misconfigures the software or does not know how to use it, the risk of unauthorized access to your data increases considerably.
Most hardware VPNs offer simpler configuration settings on the client device, but not all hardware VPNs are created equal when it comes to the configuration settings at the management level.
Hardware VPN Benefit #10: Allows for BYOD
BYOD is commonly shunned by organizations that take security very seriously, ranging from large enterprises to government agencies and everything in between, because of their inability to manage and control operating systems, software patches and updates, and device usage.
With the right hardware-based VPN router, BYOD does not have to be a security nightmare.
The most common problems organizations face with the security of BYOD are:
- Malware on end user devices that may affect the central network if it can make the jump.
- The amount of effort, by both the user and the IT team, that must go into installation, set-up and configuration.
- The possibility for split tunneling, which allows a remote VPN user to access the internet through a public or unsecured network at the same time that they are allowed to access the corporate network through the VPN.
- The struggles with interoperability and selecting a security solution that is capable of working with anything that might be installed on a personal or mobile device.
Hardware VPNs can help alleviate these concerns in the following ways:
- Malware on the Remote Device: The end user devices connected through hardware VPNs with firewalls never actually touch the networks they connect to. This means that no malware can cross from the device to the network.
- Installation, Set-up and Configuration: Most hardware-based solutions are much easier for users to set up and use on a day to day basis to achieve a secure connection.
- Split Tunneling: Archon’s GoSilent hardware-based VPN by default only allows traffic to flow to a single endpoint (this may be different for other hardware VPN providers). Meaning, once connected to an end user device, it ensures that any and all traffic can only go to the central network through the VPN tunnel and traffic can go nowhere else.
If your organization is looking to implement a company-wide, secure solution for remote work that is not overly expensive, difficult to manage or maintain, and simple for end users, a combination of VDI remote desktop and a hardware VPN may be the right fit.
You can also review how one security-conscious organization made the transition to secure remote work quickly and effectively during the COVID pandemic to see a real-life example in action.