The rise of remote work

In recent years, a dramatic shift has occurred in the way we work. Remote work has become a mainstream practice, and the rapid maturing of digital technologies has, in many cases, enhanced efficiency, productivity, and flexibility for teams and businesses. This phenomenon is not just a passing trend; the global situation has accentuated the situation, and employers and employees choosing remote working is projected to rise steadily.

But the shift towards a decentralised work environment is not without its challenges. As the parameters of the traditional office boundaries blur, securing the new broader virtual workspace has become a central concern for individuals and businesses alike.
Navigating the complexities of cyber security is daunting. There are so many risks, and an even greater number of technologies claim to reduce those risks.

Two significant technologies that are often discussed in relation to securing remote workers are VPNs (public and private Virtual Private Networks) and DNS filtering (e.g. Cisco Umbrella). What exactly do these tools do? And more importantly, do we need both to ensure a secure remote working experience?

In this short article we aim to demystify these important tools. We'll delve into the world of VPNs, exploring their role, functionality and relevance in the cyber security space. We'll then turn our attention to Cisco Umbrella, a mature DNS filtering tool, to understand its features and how it provides a unique approach to securing your network. By comparing these two powerful solutions, we aim to provide clear guidance on their respective strengths, and whether both are necessary for bolstering the security of your office network and your remote working environment.

What is a VPN (Virtual Private Network)?

A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is a technology that creates a secure connection over a less secure network between your computer and the internet. It works by creating a secure, encrypted "tunnel" through which your data travels, hidden from anyone else who might be trying to see what you're doing.

This has several benefits:

  1. It can hide your browsing activity on a public Wi-Fi or any network, making it harder for anyone else to intercept your data.
  2. It can help you appear as if you're in a different geographic location for the purpose of watching region-locked content, or not tripping over detection systems that look for unusual activity on your accounts from countries other than your home country.
  3. It can protect sensitive data from being intercepted or compromised.

However, while a VPN connection provides a secure web gateway, encrypts your data in transit, and a VPN hides your IP addresses, it cannot protect you from all online threats such as malware, phishing, or websites that aim to collect your personal data, or even from the VPN provider itself.

Also, VPN’s are not a substitute for good anti-virus software. Their job is to ensure data leaving your computer destined for another computer the other side of the internet, is much safer than it would have been without a VPN.

You can learn more on VPNs and how it works for remote users in our blog article, Staying secure while working from home: The importance of using a VPN.

What is a DNS filter?

Think of a DNS filter like Cisco Umbrella as a digital bouncer for your business's internet use. It's a tool that works in the cloud and protects your business from online threats, no matter where your employees are located. Essentially, it's like a safety checkpoint that ensures all internet access and use of cloud apps (such as Microsoft 365, Dropbox, SalesForce etc.) within your business is secure, no matter where it's happening. This gives you peace of mind and keeps your business safe while online. The primary benefits of a DNS Filter like Cisco Umbrella include:

  1. The filter prevents harmful elements like malware or phishing attacks even before they try to connect to your network. It's like stopping a thief at the gates before they get into your house.
  2. The filter works at the level where internet domain names (DNS, website addresses) are translated into IP addresses. This means it can spot and stop threats before they get close to your network or devices.
  3. It can easily integrate with your existing systems, whether they are security tools, network management (like SD-WAN), or any special tools you have developed for your business. This means it complements what you already have, making it more effective on several fronts, including financially.

What is the difference between DNS filtering and a VPN?

Virtual Private Network (VPN) and a DNS filter like Cisco Umbrella are two distinct tools designed to enhance internet access and security in different ways.

A VPN works by establishing a secure and private connection between your device and the internet, shielding your online activity from prying eyes. This tool encrypts your data, making it less vulnerable to interception, especially on public Wi-Fi networks. Additionally, when you connect to the internet via a VPN it can disguise your geographic location, facilitating access to region-specific content.

However, it's worth noting that while using a VPN service hides your IP addresses and safeguards your data in transit, it doesn't provide complete protection from online threats like malware, phishing attempts, malicious domains, or dubious websites intent on capturing your personal information.

On the other hand, the Cisco Umbrella service operates as a proactive security platform. By acting as a secure internet gateway, it provides a first line of defence against online threats, blocking access to malicious destinations before a connection is established. This protective measure, which occurs at the DNS layer, enables threats to be stopped across all ports and protocols, enhancing the security of your network and devices. This happens whether the device is on the corporate network, or on a home network for a remote working employee.

To summarise:

  • A VPN is mainly used for ensuring the privacy and security of your internet connection by encrypting your data and hiding your online activity.
  • Cisco Umbrella, meanwhile, is primarily used to block threats from reaching your network or device, providing an additional layer of security especially against malware, phishing attacks, and command and control callbacks.

VPN vs. DNS filter - Do you need both?

Both tools can considerably bolster your internet security, albeit in unique ways. They can be used separately or, better still, in tandem, dependent on the extent of security required.

If you're dealing with highly sensitive data, or if you're running a business that requires maximum internet security, it can be beneficial to use both a VPN and a service like Cisco Umbrella together. Combined use offers thorough protection, with a VPN safeguarding the confidentiality of your data in transit and Cisco Umbrella warding off potentially dangerous internet elements. While you may not need to use both, both will work together and help keep you safer against internet based threats.

Essential for remote work

The rising trend of remote work has emphasised the necessity of robust internet security measures such as VPN and Cisco Umbrella for remote workers. Once off the corporate network, devices are far harder to secure. The integrated deployment of VPN and Cisco Umbrella affords remote workers with all-around protection, empowering them to work securely and confidently, no matter their geographical location.

To learn more about these two tools and how to implement them for your remote workers please get in touch.

If you are concerned about the security of your remote workers check out our guide - 10 Essential security practices for remote work.

July 19, 2023 — Paul Stanyer