Christian M. 7 min read

Zero Trust Network Access (ZTNA)

Zero Trust Network Access (ZTNA) represents a paradigm shift in cybersecurity. Instead of “simply asking for ID at the entrance,” it transforms security into an “Orwellian monitoring system” that continuously tracks the activities of even the most trusted users.

While granting such powers to a real-life government would be alarming, applying this level of scrutiny to your digital network significantly deters malicious cyber attackers, whether insiders or outsiders.

This article introduces ZTNA to UK businesses aiming to enhance cybersecurity by empowering IT staff to act as ‘Big Brother’ and turning your digital network into a fortified stronghold of continuous verification and minimal trust.

💡 Key contents:

What is Zero Trust Network Access (ZTNA)?

Zero Trust Network Access (ZTNA) is a security framework that requires all users, whether inside or outside the organisation’s network, to be authenticated, authorised, and continuously validated for security configuration and posture before granting or maintaining access to applications and data.

It operates on the principle of “never trust, always verify,” assuming threats could be external and internal. This novel approach minimises the risk of data breaches by restricting access to only necessary information and continuously monitoring for anomalies.

The history and evolution of ZTNA

ZTNA evolved in response to the increasing sophistication of cyber threats and the limitations of traditional perimeter-based security models. Innovations in connectivity speed, such as full-fibre broadband and satellite broadband, and increases in processing power are pillars of ZTNA, which requires constant online verification to function.

The table below summarises the principal developments of ZTNA over the last 20 years:

Time periodDevelopments
Early 2000sTraditional perimeter-based security model relied on strong perimeter defences like firewalls and VPNs.
2009John Kindervag of Forrester Research coined the term "Zero Trust" and proposed eliminating trust within the network.
2010sAdvanced threats, cloud services, and mobile devices highlighted the limitations of perimeter security models.
2014Google introduced BeyondCorp, shifting access controls to individual devices and users without relying on VPNs.
Late 2010sCybersecurity vendors developed zero trust solutions, and NIST provided guidelines for zero trust architectures.
2020The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated zero trust adoption due to the need to secure a remote workforce.
PresentZTNA is integrated into modern cybersecurity strategies, focusing on continuous verification and strict access controls.

The core principles of zero trust

There are seven core principles of “zero trust” systems such as ZTNA:

  1. Never trust, always verify: No user or device is trusted by default, whether inside or outside the network. Continuous verification is required.
  2. Least privilege access: Users and devices are granted the minimum level of access necessary to perform their tasks, reducing potential attack surfaces.
  3. Micro-segmentation: The network must be divided into small, manageable segments to limit the lateral movement of threats and contain breaches when they occur.
  4. Continuous monitoring and validation: Regularly inspect and log all network activity to detect and respond to real-time anomalies.
  5. Strong authentication: Implement multi-factor authentication (MFA) to ensure robust user verification processes.
  6. Secure access to resources: Control access based on contextual factors such as user identity, device health, software updates and location.
  7. Data Protection: Encrypt data at rest and in transit to safeguard sensitive information from unauthorised access.

💡 Key components of ZTNA: The key components of a ZTNA system are based on these core principles.

Benefits of ZTNA

Zero Trust Network Access (ZTNA) is replacing traditional perimeter-based security systems, which rely heavily on firewalls, VPNs, and network access control (NAC) systems.

Here are the benefits of implementing ZTNA over these traditional security systems:

Enhances security

Traditional security systems trust internal network traffic by default, creating vulnerabilities if the perimeter is breached. In contrast, ZTNA continuously verifies users and devices, ensuring that every access request is authenticated and authorised, thus significantly reducing the risk of breaches and unauthorised access.

💡 Adaptive security: ZTNA continuously monitors network activity and can adapt to emerging threats in real time, providing a more dynamic and responsive security posture than traditional systems, which are often more static and rely on manual updates.

Minimises attack surfaces

In traditional systems, users often have broad access to the network once inside the perimeter, increasing the attack surface. Least privilege access in ZTNA gives users only the permissions they need and uses micro-segmentation to limit potential attack vectors, significantly reducing the places the attacker can access.

Makes compliance easier

Traditional security systems may struggle with consistent policy enforcement and detailed activity logging, which is essential for regulatory compliance. ZTNA enforces consistent security policies and maintains detailed access logs, making meeting regulatory requirements and passing audits easier. Its vast superiority means it will almost certainly become a cybersecurity compliance requirement.

Better UX

Traditional VPNs can be slow and cumbersome, negatively impacting the user experience of remote workers. ZTNA offers seamless and secure access to applications and data from anywhere, improving connection speeds and user productivity without cumbersome VPN connections.

Streamlined IT Management

Managing security in traditional systems can be complex and labour-intensive, involving multiple disparate tools and manual configurations. ZTNA centralises policy enforcement and management, simplifying the administration of user access and security settings and reducing IT teams’ overall complexity and workload. It is a very typical tech stack for cloud-based cybersecurity software companies.

Improved data protection

ZTNA brings in more encryption than traditional systems, mandating it for data in transit and at rest. This ensures that sensitive information remains secure even if intercepted or accessed by unauthorised users.

Use cases for Zero Trust Network Access

As a security improvement, it’s important to highlight the new use cases that ZTNA offers compared to traditional perimeter-based security systems that use firewalls and VPNs. Here are the key things it facilitates:

The safest remote access solution

Traditional Solutions rely on VPNs, which can be slow, cumbersome and more insecure. ZTNA provides secure, granular access to specific applications and data without a VPN. Continuously verifies user identity and device security posture, enhancing security and user experience.

Equal protection for on-site and cloud infrastructure

Traditional controls like firewalls struggle to enforce consistent policies across on-premises and cloud environments. ZTNA, often based in a cloud environment itself, revolutionises this by applying consistent security policies across all environments plugged into it. Controls access based on identity and context, ensuring secure and seamless access to cloud resources.

The best protection for sensitive data

Perimeter security does not encrypt all data at all times, leaving it vulnerable once an attacker has breached the perimeter. ZTNA enforces strict access controls (and continuously verifies them) and ensures data encryption both in transit and at rest. This means that insider and outsider threats have very little to work with if they get in, and encryption makes whatever they find inaccessible.

Insider threats become significantly more ineffective

We’ve all seen how internal access granting in traditional cybersecurity is a literal pain for employees and IT staff. It significantly slows project work (“Access denied, contact your IT providers”) while being a constant hassle for IT staff. As a result, many companies opt to grant too much access to internal users, improving the user experience at the expense of cybersecurity.

ZTNA applies the principle of least privilege, ensuring users have minimal necessary access. Continuous monitoring and behavioural analytics detect and respond to suspicious activities in real time.

Enables BYOD (Bring Your Own Device)

If you’ve ever had to connect your laptop to a company’s internal network (at least one that takes cybersecurity essentials seriously), you know you’re in for a hassle. The presentation starts in 5 minutes, but IT staff must respond and manually configure your connection.

ZTNA fast-tracks this process by verifying any device’s “security posture” before granting access. This ensures that all devices meet security standards automatically, without extensive red tape.

Easiest compliance with cybersecurity regulations

Traditional solutions can be inconsistent in enforcing access controls and maintaining detailed logs, complicating compliance efforts. ZTNA enforces consistent access controls, maintains detailed logs of user activities, and ensures data protection through encryption, greatly simplifying compliance with regulatory requirements.

Secure DevOps environments

Perimeter-based controls do not adapt well to the dynamic nature of DevOps (developer operations) environments. ZTNA ensures secure, dynamic access to development and production systems and continuously validates user and device identities, preventing unauthorised access to critical infrastructure and code repositories.

Protecting mergers and acquisitions

During mergers or acquisitions, there is a heightened risk of a breach due to changes in network access rights and data movement from one server to another. This is difficult to do securely with traditional permit-based solutions but much easier within a ZTNA framework. Implementing zero trust principles to share information securely can minimise the data breach risk.

Safer access to third parties

Third parties often require access to your business’s supply chain management software to work effectively. In traditional cybersecurity, this requires providing broad network access to them at the expense of increasing the risk of security incidents. ZTNA manages third-party access with granular control, enforcing strict access policies while continuously monitoring activities. This leaves any malicious third parties with limited options.

Challenges of ZTNA

Implementing Zero Trust Network Access (ZTNA) in 2024 comes with several challenges and considerations that organisations need to be aware of:

Integration with existing infrastructure

It’s all good if you’re a company just implementing ZTNA without a history of cybersecurity. However, integrating ZTNA with legacy systems and security infrastructure can be complex and time-consuming. Organisations need a clear integration plan and may require hybrid approaches during the transition period to ensure continuity and compatibility. The result is worth it, though!

User experience depends on foundations

When ZTNA is implemented with the best network connectivity and hardware under the hood, it reaps all the benefits with a few drawbacks. However, strict access controls and continuous verification will impact user experience when built on shaky foundations, leading to frustration and reduced productivity. In most cases, it’s important to balance security with usability by implementing user-friendly authentication methods and minimising friction through single sign-on (SSO) and adaptive authentication.

💡Superfast broadband: ZTNA thrives under business broadband providers‘ fastest leased-line broadband deals. These offer dedicated cables with immense bandwidth and super-low latencies, allowing for uninterrupted monitoring of devices using your network, big brother style.

It may prove expensive at first

Implementing ZTNA may require significant investment in new technologies, training, and ongoing management. While it eventually pays off in enhanced user experience and significantly better security, businesses should evaluate the total cost of ownership and ensure that they have the necessary budget and resources to support its implementation and maintenance.

Potential scalability issues

ZTNA is relatively new, and many solutions are realistically still battle-testing their system when accommodating large and diverse user bases, including remote workers, contractors, and partners. Organisations need to understand where they stand regarding scalability and ensure that the provider in question has a track record of handling their expected growth and adapting to changing organisational needs without compromising performance or security.

It’s a paradigm shift for your staff

Employees may resist change or lack understanding of new security protocols at first. You will need to deploy significant resources to conduct thorough training and awareness programs to educate employees about the tremendous benefits of ZTNA, especially when it comes to enhancing cybersecurity. Most employees don’t understand the nature of cybersecurity threats or the financial and reputational consequences of surviving a cyberattack by the skin of their teeth.

ZTNA best practices

Great, you’ve decided to deploy ZTNA. However, doing so effectively requires careful planning and adherence to best practices.

Here are some key best practices for a successful ZTNA deployment:

Make a comprehensive assessment beforehand

Start by thoroughly assessing your security posture to identify gaps and determine how ZTNA can address these issues. Define clear security objectives, such as protecting sensitive data or supporting remote work, and create a detailed implementation plan with timelines, milestones, and responsibilities. Prioritise high-risk areas and consider using a hybrid approach to integrate ZTNA with existing security infrastructure during the transition.

Defining clear access policies upon set up

The quality of your ZTNA implementation depends on the effort you put into setting it up. Develop and implement access policies that are as granular as possible based on user roles, device types, and contextual factors.

The benefits become clear once policy enforcement is automated and working consistently across your entire network. The setup will require some training and battle-testing before being effective, but once its setup, your networks will become easier to use and more secure at the same time.

Regularly update and patch the system

Even if the system is well set up, it still requires some upkeep despite working like a well-oiled machine. Regularly review and update your ZTNA implementation to address new threats and evolving business requirements. Ensure you have some spare capacity to monitor network activities, endpoint behaviours, and access logs to ensure the algorithms detect anomalies in real time. Supervise your unsupervised system.

Education and incident preparedness

As good as ZTNA is, it is still necessary to have everyone on board and understanding how it all works. Conduct security training sessions to educate employees about ZTNA principles and the importance of security practices, fostering a culture of security awareness and responsibility. Develop and regularly update an incident response plan to handle potential security breaches and conduct regular drills to test and ensure preparedness. It will pay off!

Future trends in Zero Trust Network Access

Just like the entire technology scene, ZTNA is changing at breakneck speeds. Here are some key trends to watch:

AI and machine learning integration

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) will play an increasingly significant role in ZTNA. These technologies can enhance threat detection and response by analysing vast amounts of data to identify patterns and anomalies that indicate potential security threats. AI and ML can also automate policy enforcement and adapt real-time security measures, improving overall security efficacy.

All cybersecurity SaaS providers have implemented this to some extent but expect major leaps in automation capacity as these tech companies develop.

Evolution of cyber threats

As cyber threats evolve, more organisations must adopt zero-trust principles beyond traditional IT environments to remain relatively secure. This includes healthcare, finance, and critical infrastructure sectors requiring stringent security measures. Adopting ZTNA will become more common in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) as solutions become more accessible and scalable.

Zero trust for IoT and edge computing

As the Internet of Things (IoT) and edge computing grow, ZTNA will expand to secure these environments. Implementing zero trust principles in IoT and edge computing will involve verifying the identity and security posture of potentially thousands of devices, ensuring that only authorised devices can access network resources. This trend will be crucial for industries relying on IoT, such as manufacturing, healthcare, and smart cities.

Increased focus on endpoint security

As endpoints (the entrances and exits of a network) remain a significant attack vector, future ZTNA solutions will emphasize endpoint security more. This includes continuously monitoring endpoint health, ensuring compliance with security policies, and isolating compromised devices. Enhanced endpoint security will be critical in preventing breaches and maintaining network integrity.

How much could you save?

Start saving now

If you have multiple properties, please put post code of your head office.