The top VPN alternatives for the manufacturing industry

April 15, 2020//Tony Howlett

Last Updated: November 19, 2020

The manufacturing industry, like so many others, is undergoing massive change. With the introduction of technologies like 3D printing, Internet of Things (IoT) and Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), companies have been able to disrupt the industry extremely quickly with creative ways to manufacture products. However, these new tools, increasingly connected to global networks, have created heightened vulnerabilities to cyberattacks.

Industrial Control Systems (ICS), the computers that support manufacturing networks and allow for management and control of various, connected production systems have been the key to the automation revolution, but they also represent a huge target for cyber attacks. VPNs often allow for remote access to ICS around the world, but this strategy sometimes connects VPNs to the IT network, meaning if hackers can access one point of the system, they can access it all.

These vulnerabilities have been well-publicized, including the recent revelations that Iranian hackers have been planting backdoors in companies’ systems around the world, simply by hacking their VPNs. With all these security risks, it would initially seem an obvious solution to simply cut off these vulnerable access points – but that’s simply not an option in many cases. Manufacturing systems have grown far too complex and many now rely far too heavily on remote access to step away from the global network the industry has come to rely on.

The challenge manufacturers are left with is this: 

It’s crucial to maximize uptime and maintain security standards. But for most companies, that combination is paradoxical, if not impossible. The tighter security is, the harder it is to respond to downtime. But the faster the downtime response, the harder it is to maintain security. 

For example, when vendors need access to production floor equipment, manufacturers will grant them access through a VPN or via a desktop sharing tool such as TeamViewer. The main issue with this system is that the company’s IT department has little to no visibility into these sessions. They might know who is accessing the network and when they are doing it, but they don’t know what they are doing once they’re in. Companies have little way of knowing the answer to any of these questions through a VPN or desktop sharing tool.

In most manufacturing systems, these challenges can seem daunting, but it’s imperative to address them to maintain a secure network while still having efficient, modern manufacturing processes. Nearly two-thirds of all companies have experienced a data breach due to third-party vendor access. And while security is paramount, downtime is incredibly expensive in manufacturing concerns. 

In order to both minimize downtime and uphold security standards, companies have four main needs:

  1. Visibility into not only who is accessing the network and when, but granular context to that access. This includes real-time oversight, as well as recordings of all sessions in the system
  2. Controls and limits to system and network access. Companies should be able to create custom access permissions for each user and each context – what specific hosts and application ports they are allowed access to and even when they’re allowed. 
  3. Standardization of connectivity methods. IT manages the process, but it can also delegate to application managers as needed, both remotely and in-person.
  4. Minimizing downtime when it occurs. Providing immediate vendor access to equipment when needed, while concurrently maintaining security through visibility, control, and standardization.

VPNs don’t provide the necessary security features to respond to all four of the needs outlined above, meaning that manufacturers still using VPNs are more likely to experience a costly data breach, a prolonged instance of downtime, or both. Luckily, there are alternatives to VPNs that provide varying degrees of solutions to the problems outlined above.

Privileged Access Management (PAM)

Privileged access management (PAM) takes credential management to another level. PAM tools help regulate privileged credentials that present the greatest security risks to a company, because of their high-level access.

PAM works to combat these vulnerabilities by providing advanced credential security: frequent rotation of complex passwords, password obfuscation so that credentials are never visible to the user, and privileged account activity monitoring. These features make it far more difficult for privileged credentials to get into the wrong hands or be used by them if they do.

But even with all of these expanded protections, PAM solutions don’t address the most difficult (and arguably the most important) element of maintaining security in the manufacturing industry. Granular least privilege permissions and abstracting the access from a network connection is the most dangerous thing a VPN provides. This allows you to implement additional protections for third-party users, treating them differently than internal employees.

Vendor Privileged Access Management (VPAM)

We’ve examined at length the simultaneous importance and riskiness of third-party vendor access. Now it’s time we offer a security solution that addresses the tricky nature of this issue. More than 65% of organizations “rely heavily” on third parties, so vendors certainly aren’t going anywhere any time soon – and they shouldn’t. Most remote access solutions are designed for internal users, VPNs and even most PAM solutions.

Rapid access for third-party vendors is the solution for minimizing downtime, and the right vendor management platform is the solution for maintaining security so vendors can get in and fix problems.

VPAM solutions provide all the benefits of PAM, along with a more secure connection, granular least privilege controls, controlled onboarding and easy termination of access privileges for vendors. In addition, VPAM gives companies complete visibility through its centralized vendor management platform. The VPAM auditing controls help IT managers know exactly who is accessing the network, when they’re accessing it, and what they’re doing while they’re in.  And doing all this efficiently, with vendor self-registration and onboarding automation so that users have the ability to provide quick, immediate access to vendors whenever something goes wrong.

Additionally, vendor management tools offer the benefits of least privilege permissions, allowing companies to define exactly which privileges are required for a certain job.

By using the concept of least privileged permissions, vendor management tools allow users to be given only the necessary privileges for a job. Those users are denied access to every other part of the system, helping provide robust protections against unauthorized access to sensitive areas of a network.

In short, implementing a vendor management program is the only way to protect your company from data breaches and minimize downtime, simultaneously. To learn more about the top remote access threats in manufacturing, download our infographic to understand the scope of the threats to help you identify key vulnerabilities in the effort to protect critical systems and minimize business disruptions.

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