Software vs Hardware VPNs: Secure Networking 101

A secure network is a must. But what is the best way to accomplish that, with VPN software or VPN hardware? Take a look to discover which is right for your organization.

Man working in server room on the phone.It’s a debate that is often posed in the halls (metaphorical or literal) of the IT department, specifically among network professionals. Should we rely on software to support our network needs or is hardware the better solution? It’s a given that your network needs to be secured, but what is the best approach? To software or to hardware … that is the question.

With most technology, this debate comes down to what you hope to receive versus what you plan to pay. It’s a cost analysis, where you weigh the benefits and risks, compare that to what you’ll pay and then decide accordingly. Here’s what you need to know.

Why Use VPN?

The purpose of using a virtual private network (VPN) is exactly what the name states, to ensure secure communication between two or more devices. This helps users or enterprises to secure their network traffic over the internet or other forms of connectivity used in wide area network (WAN) connectivity scenarios. VPNs can provide assurance in keeping the network traffic between two or more individuals or organizations hidden from prying eyes.

Types of VPN Solutions

VPN solutions are usually available in two different forms:

  • Software based
  • Hardware based (physical or virtual appliances)

Software VPNs are usually set up using existing endpoints (servers, workstations, mobile phones) by installing an application that supports creating a VPN between two or more endpoints using the same application. This ensures the other who is connecting is known to the originator at all times.

Hardware VPNs can be implemented using different hardware or virtualized appliances within the private or public cloud infrastructure.

Hardware-based implementations are more commonly used in larger organizations. This is mainly due to higher level of customization and control required by organization, which a software VPN may not contain.

Software or Hardware-based VPNs? 5 Deciding Factors

There are multiple factors to consider when determining whether you need a software or hardware-based VPN solution. Both have benefits for particular situations. Here’s the rundown on what you need to consider before choosing your VPN solution.

  1. Cost: Cost is certainly a factor. Often, software is the cheaper option. Most organizations pay mere dollars per users, compared to hardware. Hardware VPNs are larger, dedicated pieces of equipment which can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. Also, choosing the software option usually allows you the opportunity to negotiate license pricing during the procurement process.
  2. Scalability: The scalability factor is subjective to the organization’s need since some software-based services are not able to scale beyond a given threshold. However, there are some use cases which it will suffice. Larger enterprises tend to use virtual appliances (virtual hardware) in private or public clouds as it provides better scalability based on demand. Before making a decision, it’s important to understand the needs and goals of the company.
  3. Deployment: As mentioned from the start, a software-based VPN is much easier to deploy as there are minimum prerequisites and it uses existing hardware. On the other hand, deploying a hardware-based VPN (virtual or physical) can be a very detailed exercise. Due to the multiple prerequisites necessary before implementation, this round easily goes to software-based VPNs.
  4. Administration: In most scenarios having a hardware-based VPN provides an added advantage as the deployment of the client configuration to the users are centralized and can be clearly controlled. The ability to make it independent from the users becomes the advantage since it would generate less calls to the help desk teams. On the other hand, using a software-based VPN could be considerable overhead as it the administration is mostly decentralized. This means it will be relying on the user to perform most of the activities that are automated in a hardware-based VPN. Lack of automated activities could result in configuration and installation failures and even more calls to the help desk. It is likely that network-pros would tend to opt for a hardware-based VPN solution.
  5. Security: Whether you select software or hardware, security of the solution and usage scenarios are very important. The security controls and implementation of a software-based solution will limit the inherent capabilities of the software. This is defined by the underlaying technology and network-pros do not have a choice in tweaking to cater to a security need. But using hardware (virtual or physical) will always have the upper hand when it comes to tweaking the environment to cater to security needs. This is another advantage when deciding on the right solution.

Choosing Your VPN

Choosing whether to implement software or hardware-based VPNs can be a tough decision. Both options have benefits and both have drawbacks. The final decision should factor in the business objectives, security, administration and cost.

When to Say Yes to Software VPN

A software-based VPN solution is the winner when you have an organizational need for a reduced cost, least time to production and less administration overhead. If these are your requirements, you are on track to evaluate software-based solutions.

When Hardware-based is Your Best Option

It’s pretty common for larger complex enterprises to use hardware-based VPN solutions. This is generally because it can cater to all security needs, complex global network designs and larger workforces with customized solutions that can be deployed and administered by the organization’s network pros. However, this is not always the case. Sometimes small and medium-sized enterprises use hardware-based VPNs due to specific needs. The bottom line is that it’s important to understand all the factors clearly before making a decision.

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