What is remote access security?

Remote access security enables users and devices to securely access internal resources from beyond the enterprise network.

Learning Objectives

After reading this article you will be able to:

  • Define “remote access security”
  • Understand how remote access security works
  • Discover the use cases and benefits of remote access security

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What is remote access security?

Remote access security (sometimes called “secure remote access”) comprises technologies and processes that help ensure only authorized users and devices access internal resources from outside the enterprise network. With the expansion of remote and hybrid work, remote access security has increased in importance.

Many organizations have implemented remote access security capabilities as part of a broader security transformation. In the past, enterprise security often used a castle-and-moat model: Everyone inside the network (the “castle”) could freely access data, apps, and other resources. Perimeter security (which included the “moat”) kept others out, preventing access to resources — unless the guards decided to lower the drawbridge.

Organizations now have numerous people working beyond the castle walls every day. Deploying remote access security capabilities as part of a Zero Trust security model enables those organizations to better support distant users without putting apps and data at risk.

How does remote access security work?

Remote access security can employ multiple capabilities, including:

Role-based access management

IT or security teams can set policies that grant users access to particular resources based on their roles. For example, a member of the finance team working from home might be given access to accounting software but not the content management system (CMS) used to modify the company website. Role-based access policies follow the principle of least privilege, which asserts that users should have access only to what they absolutely need to perform their job, and nothing more.

These policies help prevent insider threats and can limit the damage of breaches by external attackers: If someone steals an employee’s credentials, the thief would only be able to access a limited selection of resources.

Strong and adaptive authentication

Remote access security should require more than simple usernames and passwords. Most remote access security implementations include multi-factor authentication (MFA), which requires users to verify their identity with one or two additional authentication factors. Users might need to employ a one-time passcode sent via text, a physical USB key, or a facial recognition function. MFA helps ensure that stolen passwords alone will not enable criminals to access enterprise networks.

Remote access security can also include adaptive authentication or conditional access policies. For example, if someone is logging in from an atypical location, they might need to re-authenticate to gain resource access. If they are traveling to a country that has a high risk of cyber attacks, they might be prevented from accessing very sensitive systems.

Virtual Private Network / Zero Trust Network Access

Some organizations continue to employ traditional virtual private network (VPN) services. But remote access security is better served with Zero Trust Network Access (ZTNA) technology — a core element in a Zero Trust security model. VPN services operate similarly to the outdated castle-and-moat model: Once users log in, they have free rein within an enterprise network. By contrast, ZTNA gives connected users and devices access only to the resources they have requested and are allowed to access.

Single sign-on

For remote users, logging into multiple applications separately can seriously slow workflows. Single sign-on (SSO) functionality enables users to log in just once to access multiple software-as-a-service (SaaS) and on-premises applications.

Behavior monitoring and analytics

Remote access security can benefit from tools that monitor and analyze user and device behavior, flagging behaviors that are atypical or potentially dangerous. For example, organizations might adopt user and entity behavior analytics (UEBA) capabilities, secure service edge (SSE) platforms, security information and event management (SIEM) systems, and extended detection and response (XDR) tools. When they identify atypical behaviors, these tools could automatically block access to resources, alert administrators, or set other responses into motion.

Remote access security use cases

Remote access security is essential for any organization that has users accessing internal resources from outside the corporate security perimeter, including:

  • Remote and hybrid employees: The primary reason to implement remote access security is to protect resources while supporting employees who are working outside of corporate offices at least some of the time.
  • Traveling employees: Even employees who typically work from a corporate office might occasionally need to travel for work. Remote access security can help them access many or all of the same resources they use while in the office.
  • Third-party access: Remote access security can support contractors and partner organizations. Granular access controls can ensure that these users and their devices only access particular resources, possibly for a limited amount of time.

What are the benefits of remote access security?

Remote access security capabilities can help organizations strengthen their overall security posture while supporting greater work flexibility. With the right implementation, organizations can:

  • Better protect internal resources: Remote access security helps safeguard the data, apps, and other resources that are at the heart of an enterprise.
  • Shrink the attack surface: The growth of remote and hybrid work has expanded the attack surface for many organizations. Remote access security capabilities can help address the vulnerabilities that are created by a rising number of remote endpoints.
  • Tighten control and governance: Remote access security capabilities help IT and security teams regain control of their geographically distributed network. Administrators can give employees access to only the essential resources they need to do their jobs.
  • Empower remote employees: Remote access security enables employees to be productive from anywhere. They can access the internal resources they need without jeopardizing security.
  • Maintain compliance: Remote access security capabilities help organizations maintain compliance with strict regulations for data privacy and security. They can support a remote or hybrid workforce while minimizing the risks of insider threats and breaches by external attackers. In addition, they can provide visibility into user activities and maintain audit trails that can help demonstrate compliance.
  • What are the limitations of remote access security?

    The effectiveness of remote access security depends largely on its implementation. If an organization fails to implement key capabilities, or fails to integrate remote access into a larger security framework, the organization could experience security gaps while frustrating users and adding complexity for administrators.

    Organizations might encounter the following issues:

    VPN vulnerabilities

    Organizations still using traditional VPN services for remote access security leave too much of their network exposed. If an attacker steals VPN credentials for an employee, the attacker might be able to access the entire enterprise network. ZTNA is a better alternative to VPNs because it limits network access according to an employee’s role and privileges.

    Poor user experiences

    MFA can be frustrating if users are constantly asked to verify their identity in multiple ways. To improve the user experience, administrators could implement adaptive authentication to limit MFA to particular situations (such as when users are working outside their usual locations) and implement SSO to reduce the number of authentication requests.

    Management complexity

    Some organizations might purchase multiple solutions or services from multiple vendors. Doing so can increase management complexity while also potentially leaving security gaps. Implementing remote access security capabilities within a single platform can reduce or eliminate those challenges.

    Focus on remote verification

    Remote access security capabilities are designed to address users and devices operating beyond the corporate network perimeter. But many organizations also need to manage access for entities within the network as well. Most organizations are best served by implementing tools that can handle users and devices no matter where they are.

    Remote access security vs. ZTNA

    Remote access capabilities support a Zero Trust model by verifying people and devices operating outside the corporate network. Still, remote access capabilities are not enough for a full Zero Trust implementation. Organizations need to supplement remote access security with capabilities that verify entities within the network.

    ZTNA can grant people and devices access to applications whether those entities are inside or beyond the corporate perimeter. In addition to verifying the user’s identity and role, ZTNA evaluates the device, the user’s location, the timing and frequency of requests, the apps and data requested, and other factors.

    ZTNA solutions provide several additional capabilities that are also essential for remote access security. For example, they can offer MFA capabilities plus integration with identity providers (IdPs), SSO platforms, or both. With the right ZTNA solution, organizations can strengthen verification of entities while streamlining user experiences.

    Remote access security vs. identity and access management (IAM)

    Identity and access management (IAM) verifies user identities and controls user privileges. It might be delivered through a single product or a combination of processes, applications, cloud services, and hardware.

    IAM is a component of remote access security. But while remote access security focuses on remote users, IAM can be used for all users, wherever they may be working.

    Does Cloudflare support remote access security?

    Cloudflare’s ZTNA service enables organizations to implement remote access security as part of their Zero Trust security model. Remote employees, traveling employees, contractors, and partners can securely connect to corporate resources from anywhere — whether resources are in corporate data centers or in the cloud. Learn more about Cloudflare Access.