VPNs, or Virtual Private Networks, are a decades-old building block of IT environments. VPNs have existed since the mid-1990s, and they haven’t really changed much since then. The VPN protocols and software you used with Windows XP are still basically the same as the VPN tools you might run today.
There’s reason to believe, however, that VPNs will finally go the way of other 1990s-era technology and recede into history in the near future. The reason, in a nutshell, is that Desktop-as-a-Service, or DaaS, is growing increasingly popular, which is in turn freeing businesses of their dependence on VPNs.
To understand why, let’s take a look at how VPNs work, what their drawbacks are and why DaaS offers an alternative that provides the same benefits as VPNs, but without the drawbacks.
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Vinod Jeyachandran is CTO of Anunta Tech
What is a VPN?
A VPN is a software-defined networking layer that isolates the resources running on a private network, such as a company’s internal corporate network, from the public internet.
What that means is that, with a VPN, you can use a public network connection to gain access to the resources that would otherwise be available to you only if you were connected directly to a local, private network.
VPNs offer several benefits. Chief among them is the ability to access resources on a local network from an offsite location. This is why you typically need a VPN in order to log into your work computer when working from home. By giving you a VPN to connect to, your company is able to provide you with a way of logging into the local, on-site network from a remote location, without having to expose your work computer directly to the internet (which would be a security nightmare).
VPNs also offer the benefit of encryption. Because traffic routed through a VPN is encrypted, no one can eavesdrop on your emails, voice conversations or other communications when you use a VPN. This is a powerful security feature, given that most public networks do not encrypt traffic by default. If you connected directly to your work computer from home without using a VPN, anyone else sharing the same public network could potentially gain access to data passed between your company PC and your at-home device.
VPNs provide a variety of other advantages, too, such as the ability to anonymize users’ identities in some cases. Within a business environment, however, remote access and data encryption are the main benefits of VPNs.
The problem with VPNs
VPNs have become massively popular because of the advantages discussed above. Yet there are critical drawbacks that can make VPNs a hassle to use.
One is that, with a VPN, you need to set up a VPN server as well as VPN client software. The VPN server has to run on the local network, and any users who will be connecting to the VPN need to install a VPN client locally on their own devices.
Both types of VPN software can be difficult to set up. Configuring a VPN server that is secure and routes traffic efficiently is no simple task, even for an experienced IT team. And although in theory VPN client software is easy to install, in practice it can be challenging for users to set up. There are a variety of different VPN protocols, versions and authentication methods, and not all VPN clients work with all VPN setups. Users’ devices may come with one VPN client preinstalled, but it may not work with their company’s VPN configuration. Or, users may not know which information to enter when configuring a VPN client. Your typical end-user doesn’t know whether to select IKEv2, IPSec, or L2TP as the VPN encryption protocol, for example.
A second drawback of VPNs is that they are not always as secure as they seem to be. VPNs can be hacked in ways that allow intruders to gain unauthorized access to private network resources or to intercept sensitive network traffic. Just because you give your employees a VPN hardly means you can guarantee secure communications.
The DaaS alternative to VPNs
Given these drawbacks, there’s good reason to think that DaaS will spell the end of widespread use of VPNs.
When a business migrates to DaaS, it replaces its physical, on-premises workstations with virtual workstations that are hosted in the cloud. Those virtual, cloud-based desktop environments can be accessed from anywhere, without requiring any special networking software like a VPN. All you need is a Web browser to log in. And because network communications are fully encrypted at the browser level, communications between a cloud desktop and a remote device are secure, even when users connect directly over the public Internet.
This means that DaaS gives companies the same core benefits as VPNs -- secure access to desktop environments from any location -- without the need to configure special software or worry that flaws in a software protocol could lead to a breach. With DaaS, companies simply turn on a cloud desktop service, spin up the desktop environments they want and let their users get to work.
DaaS has been around for years. However, the coronavirus pandemic, and the explosive demand for remote-work solutions that it engendered, has turbocharged interest in DaaS solutions. Gartner expects spending on DaaS to more than quadruple by 2022, relative to what it was in 2019.
The short future of VPNs
To be sure, the problems with VPNs are not the main reason why companies are turning to DaaS. The primary drivers of DaaS adoption likely have more to do with DaaS’s ability to eliminate the need to maintain physical workstations and to provide employees with secure anywhere, anytime access to corporate software.
Still, the decline of VPNs is likely to be one major side-effect of surging DaaS adoption as we enter 2021. Avoiding the hassle and security risks of VPNs will become another selling-point for DaaS, even among companies that don’t currently realize just how much risk is associated with their VPNs.
VPN use by individuals who want to anonymize themselves online or access resources that are not available in their home country will probably continue. But, as noted above, these are use cases for VPNs that are outside the scope of VPN adoption by businesses and their employees. People who need VPNs for work don’t need them when their company moves to DaaS.
So, if you have to use a VPN client to connect to your office today, take a good look at it the next time you log in. There’s a decent chance that, a year from now, it will be history.
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