Zscaler Private Access (ZPA) is a cloud service that provides secure remote access to internal applications and resources without bringing users directly on the corporate network. ZPA works by creating an application-specific tunnel between authorized users and internal applications, keeping organizational assets invisible and unreachable to anyone else.
With traditional VPN solutions, once users have VPN access, they potentially have access to the entire corporate network. This broad network access introduces security risks. ZPA takes an entirely different approach – it connects specific users to specific applications, without ever granting general network access.
Oke, Here I will provide you with what is ZPA, how it works, its key capabilities, and the problems it solves for organizations.
What Problems Does ZPA Solve?
Many organizations face challenges in providing secure yet seamless access to internal applications and resources across a variety of user populations, including employees, contractors, partners, and customers. Specifically, some of the key problems ZPA addresses include:
1. Securing Access to Internal Applications
Opening up applications to external access almost always comes with security risks. With traditional VPN solutions, users get broad network access just to access an individual application or resource. This expansive network access leaves organizations vulnerable to threats propagation, data exfiltration, malware, and other attacks.
ZPA solves this problem by only granting access to specific applications – users cannot access anything else on the corporate network. So organizations can provide application access without network access and the associated security risks.
2. Complexity of VPN Management
Traditional VPN infrastructure tends to be complex to scale and manage as the number of users, applications, and multi-cloud resources grow. Hardware VPNS often require significant CapEx investments.
In contrast, ZPA is delivered as cloud service, requiring no additional hardware. It is designed to easily scale up and down on demand. The cloud-based architecture reduces management overhead for IT teams.
3. Poor User Experience with VPN Connectivity
VPN connections negatively impact network performance and application speed because all traffic is backhauled via the corporate network. This leads to a poor experience, especially for mobility users on public internet connections.
ZPA overcomes these user experience challenges by establishing direct, application-specific connections. Traffic does not traverse centralized internet breakouts, so performance impact is minimized.
4. Lack of Visibility into Access
With VPN-based access, organizations often lack full visibility and control over who is accessing what applications and resources. Native reporting capabilities are usually limited.
ZPA provides rich visibility through its administration dashboard. Organizations can see stats such as user access patterns, policy changes, visibility into application health,Peak connection times, and more.
Read Also: What Is Remote Browser Isolation (RBI)?
Key Capabilities and Benefits
ZPA provides a robust set of capabilities to solve the application access challenges facing modern, distributed organizations. Key capabilities include:
Secure Application Access
- Application-specific micro-tunnel access: Users only access permitted applications, not the broader network
- Encrypted connectivity: Secure TLS-based tunnels between users, ZPA edges, and applications
- Invisible applications: Applications are hidden from unauthorized users
- Integrates with SSO: Support for SAML 2.0 enhances user experience
Simple, Flexible Architecture
- Delivered as cloud service: No additional hardware required
- Agent-based connectivity: Lightweight software agents connect users and applications
- Works across environments: Consistent access policies across on-prem, IaaS, PaaS, and SaaS
- Dynamic connectivity: Automatically adapts as users, applications or resources move
- Rapid deployment: Cloud delivery model speeds implementation
- Scales on demand: Cloud infrastructure scales up and down easily
- Centralized orchestration: Manage users, applications, policies from single portal
- Rich visibility: Admin portal provides detailed access and activity monitoring
- Optimized for performance: Direct connections minimize latency
- Native application experience: Behaves like native connection, no VPN required
- Context-aware policies: Define different access rules for groups/locations
- Works with modern apps: Enhances migration to cloud-based apps and resources
How Does ZPA Work?
ZPA is composed of three key components which work together to facilitate application access:
Zscaler Client Connector
This lightweight software agent runs on user devices across a variety of platforms including desktops, laptops, tablets, and smartphones. The Client Connector handles outbound connectivity to ZPA and tunnel establishment.
ZPA Public Service Edge
These are Zscaler’s globally distributed points of presence that are closest to an end user. The edges authenticate users, enforce access policies, and broker connections between users and applications.
ZPA App Connectors
Lightweight connector agents are installed on-premises alongside application servers or in public clouds to mediate connectivity from the ZPA edges to internal resources. App Connectors only accept outbound connections initiated by the ZPA edges.
Here is how the components work together to facilitate secure application access:
- A user attempts to access an internal application via the Zscaler Client Connector on their device
- Authentication against the organization’s IDP validates the user’s identity
- The Client Connector discovers the nearest Zscaler Public Service Edge
- An outbound TLS tunnel is established from the client to the Public Service Edge
- The Edge consults policy and determines if the user is authorized to access the application
- An outbound TLS tunnel is established from the Edge to the application’s ZPA App Connector
- App traffic flows across both tunnels to its destination
This architecture means applications are never exposed directly to the open internet. Connections must be brokered through ZPA edges which evaluate policies before allowing access. Direct app-to-app tunnels also ensure optimal performance.
Key Differentiators from VPN Access
While traditional VPNs and ZPA both aim to provide external access to internal applications, ZPA differs from VPNs in some important ways:
|Provides network access, users tunnels all traffic
|Application access only, tunnels app traffic only
|Broad access after initial authentication
|Continuously authenticated, user tied to app context
|Backhauls traffic through central internet breakout
|Direct application tunnels for better performance
|Connects on demand when apps accessed
|Requires hardware or software VPN infrastructure
|Delivered as a cloud service; no infrastructure reqs
|Limited visibility into user activity
|Detailed usage and access visibility
Fundamentally, the biggest difference is VPNs grant network access through broad tunnels that carry all user traffic. ZPA only allows access to specific applications and creates tunnels to those apps on demand. This shifts the security model from perimeter-based access to application-specific access.
Common Use Cases
Organizations are using ZPA today to solve an array of remote access challenges including:
Secure access for remote employees
- ZPA provides employees seamless yet secure connectivity to internal business apps for remote work
- Performs just like direct network connections but with layered security controls
- Better experience than VPNs for remote staff working off networks across locations
Connect partners & suppliers
- Companies need to collaborate with external partners and suppliers
- Partners demand access to tools, apps, data to conduct business
- ZPA lets organizations quickly onboard and offboard external parties
- Provides access only to resources each partner needs
Support hybrid multi-cloud
- Applications now span on-premises datacenters, multiple public clouds
- Consistent access policy is required irrespective of app location
- ZPA gives same application connectivity & experience everywhere
- Allows organizations take advantage of cloud without security tradeoff
Streamline M&A integration
- Mergers require rapid combination of disparate IT environments
- Direct application integration is key goal to achieve synergies
- ZPA accelerates post-merger alignment of networks/apps
- Easy onboarding of new users during organizational change
Simplify regulatory compliance
- Many businesses operate in regulated industries (finance, government, etc)
- Must control and audit access to applications holding sensitive data
- ZPA strengthens auditable access controls with least privilege model
- Reduced regulatory risk as users only access apps explicitly allowed
These are just some examples of typical use cases. Many organizations are running ZPA side-by-side with existing remote access infrastructure while others are adopting it as a complete replacement for legacy VPN technology.
ZPA Public Service Edges
The ZPA Public Service Edges (PSE) are a global network of access hubs managed within Zscaler’s infrastructure. When a user attempts to reach an application, the nearest public edge is dynamically determined.
Public edges provide the following functions:
- User Authentication: The edges integrate with an organization’s IDP/federation service to validate user identities using SAML 2.0. This simplifies policy definition.
- Policy Enforcement: User attributes and context are evaluated against administrator-defined access policies which stipulate permitted applications. Only authorized connections are proxied.
- Secure Transport: The edges establish mutually-authenticated outbound TLS tunnels with users and applications to broker approved access. Tunnels provide encryption in transit.
- Logging & Monitoring: Edges generate logs allowing detailed monitoring of user, application, and system activity within the ZPA service.
ZPA public edges relay user traffic via shared infrastructure monitored by Zscaler. For some highly regulated sectors like government and financial services who require air gap separation, the ZPA Private Service Edge provides single-tenant edge hardware within the customer’s own data centers.
ZPA App Connectors are simple, lightweight agents that get installed on application infrastructure like virtual machines, containers, and cloud instances. App Connectors serve two primary functions:
1. Mediate Connectivity
Application Connectors only accept outbound tunnels initiated by authorized ZPA edges. The Connectors block all direct inbound connections from users or devices. This isolates access through ZPA to protect applications.
2. Bridge Intra-Application Traffic
Once an initial connection is approved by ZPA edges, Connectors intelligently handle intra-app flows across multi-tier applications. For example, App Connectors automatically bridge traffic across web, app, and database tiers. This avoids hairpinning flows through ZPA edges when not necessary.
Connectors contain small-footprint code without agents or additional libraries that could impact application hosts. Organizations can strategically place connectors between trust zones rather than directly on sensitive application servers.
Connectors are invisible to end users – the ZPA architecture ensures applications behave natively without VPN tunnels or other changes. App teams can continue using their standard tools to monitor, manage and update applications with no modifications.
Administration & Policy Configuration
ZPA provides administrators a centralized web-based portal to define policies and gain visibility across users, applications, and system activity. Key admin capabilities include:
- Leverage existing directories like AD, LDAP, SAML for authentication
- Automate group assignment for access policy rules
- SSO configuration for streamlined user access
Application Discovery & Segmentation
- Agentless discovery of web-based apps via proxy traffic
- IP Scanner finds hosts not generating web traffic
- App groups let admins segment apps for policy flexibility
Access Policy Management
- Create allow/deny policies by user, group, location, app
- Time-bound policies (repeating schedules or temporary)
- Emergency lockdown of application access
- Consistent policies across hybrid or multi-cloud
- Dashboards track system capacity, events, user sessions
- Monitor performance; troubleshoot issues
- Audit logs record administrative changes
- Extension framework streams logs to SIEM/monitoring tools
Fine-grained policy management is essential to unlock the full value of ZPA for contextual, secure application access.
Leading organizations in industries from healthcare to high tech manufacturing rely on ZPA to enable workforce mobility while protecting valuable applications and data assets. Some examples include:
Global 500 Manufacturing Company
- 150,000 employees across hundreds of sites
- Relies on thousands of legacy applications for operations
- Adopted ZPA for employee remote access during COVID-19 crisis – reduced risk surface by eliminating VPNs
- Plans to expand ZPA connectivity to partners & suppliers in future
State Government Agency
- Needed to provide field inspectors access to internal policy/record databases
- VPN solution provided too much network access; risky from regulatory audit perspective
- Leverages ZPA to grant restricted database application access to personnel in field
- Added monitoring & control has reduced agency’s audit deficiencies
Leading Financial Services Firm
- Traders need access to proprietary risk modeling applications
- Legacy Citrix solution lacked scalability to address dynamic access patterns
- Switched to ZPA improve trader productivity with better application reliability under high demand
- Near-immediate access revocation for employees leaving company mitigates security threats
Top Healthcare Provider
- Merger with another hospital network required rapid, secure connectivity to new systems
- 50,000 employees across hundreds of offices and practice locations
- ZPA enabled accelerated application integration post-merger by isolating access challenges
- Significantly simplified administration with flexible contextual policy configuration
These examples showcase why modern organizations turn to ZPA for mission-critical application access scenarios.
Conclusion & Next Steps
ZPA provides a transformative approach to enabling authorized external connectivity to internal applications and resources. Using a software-defined perimeter model, ZPA delivers policy-based access on a per-application level. This ensures organizations can provide access without implicitly enabling risky network access.
Now that you have an overview of ZPA, key next steps include:
- Documenting current remote application access pain points related to performance, complexity, policy control, user experience, costs or security
- Identifying priority applications which need external access along with corresponding user populations
- Engaging with Zscaler for a personalized demonstration highlighting ZPA capabilities aligned to your use case
- Discussing a potential ZPA proof of concept deployment focused on high-value applications to demonstrate capabilities
- Assessing long-term plans to phase ZPA into the organization’s overall application access infrastructure strategy
Application and data security are too important today for legacy network remote access models. Purpose-built for the cloud, ZPA applies a completely fresh approach optimized for modern user productivity, IT agility, and enterprise security in a hybrid world.