A hardware VPN is a type of VPN that is built on hardware, as opposed to relying on software. Like any VPN, a hardware VPN creates a secure encrypted tunnel for traffic between two or more private networks using the internet. Hardware VPNs are often used by organizations to provide remote access for employees, to interconnect branch offices, or to securely connect cloud-based services to their internal networks.
Hardware vs Software VPNs
A software VPN uses a software client on a general-purpose computer or server to create a VPN tunnel. Software VPNs are typically used by individuals to secure online transactions and communications, or to access resources that would otherwise only be available in a remote private network. The software VPN acts as the endpoint of the VPN, encrypting and decrypting data as it is transmitted over the internet, and securely forwarding traffic between the private networks.
Several factors come into play when comparing hardware and software VPNs. On the surface they both provide the same service, securing the transmission of data over the internet. But there are several important aspects to consider when choosing between a hardware and a software VPN:
Hardware VPNs offer better performance than software VPNs because they are specifically designed for VPN purposes. The dedicated hardware uses most or all of its resources towards encryption and decryption, where a software VPN only uses a portion of the resources of a general-purpose server.
Hardware VPNs scale better than software VPNs. With hardware, you can always add more devices to increase capacity. Software VPNs, on the other hand, may require additional software licenses and increased computing resources. Software VPN can still be scaled, but is more cumbersome to maintain that configuration for a larger organization.
Hardware VPNs offer improved security compared to software VPNs. As mentioned previously, hardware VPNs are purpose-built machines that are hardened security appliances. These offerings can include more robust security features, such as hardware-based encryption and firewalls.
Because hardware VPNs are designed to operate 24/7, they are less prone to crashes and other issues that may impact software VPNs. Additionally, a software VPN is only as reliable as the underlying general-purpose machine that hosts it.
Hardware VPNs are typically the more expensive option between the two. Software VPNs are typically sold as software licenses or subscription services. Without the cost of hardware, the price is significantly cheaper.
Typically, hardware VPNs are more complex to set up and manage than software VPNs. Hardware VPNs are marketed towards larger businesses with more complex requirements, and their manufacturers assume the buyer has the technical knowledge to manage a more complex product. Software VPNs, on the other hand, are usually targeted towards individuals for personal security purposes.
Both hardware and software VPNs can offer quite a bit of flexibility regarding protocols supported or custom options allowed. This really comes down to the different offerings of VPN you are considering for your business needs.
Upgrading a hardware VPN is more complex, time-consuming, and costly than a software VPN. An upgrade would consist of purchasing additional hardware to replace or add to the existing hardware VPN. Like most software, a software VPN is typically upgraded through a patch.
What to Consider When Buying a Hardware VPN
Hardware VPNs are tailored to medium to large deployments, especially for permanent VPN installations. If you need to connect two physical sites together to expand a LAN (or MAN) then a hardware VPN is the best option. In that scenario, you would need two VPN devices to create a site-to-site VPN tunnel for long-term operation. Many businesses with geographically dispersed sites take advantage of this configuration.
Aside from the primary concerns listed above when in the market for a VPN there are other factors that should be considered when considering a VPN purchase.
- Compatibility – Make sure that the VPN solution you choose is compatible with your existing network infrastructure, as well as with any other devices, software, or services that you plan to use it with.
- Ease of Use – Consider the ease of use of the VPN solution, including the user interface, the installation process, and the management and monitoring tools available. As mentioned above, a hardware VPN will almost always have a more complex initial setup, demanding networking expertise. Beyond the setup, ease of use depends on your needs. A permanent VPN tunnel between two or more sites might call for 24/7 uptime. If the use case entails remote access to employees during the workday, the interface would have to be intuitive enough for these general users.
- Technical Support – Not all vendors are built the same. Most of the larger reputable companies have a very well-documented history of how they provide technical support. Do your research on how responsive, knowledgeable, and helpful the technical support of the vendor is before purchasing your solution. Through online reviews and forum discussions, you will likely very quickly see what others have experienced through their technical support.
- Protocols – Consider the types of protocols supported by the VPN solution, such as IPsec, PPTP, L2TP, or OpenVPN, and make sure that the solution supports the protocols you need. Most enterprise-level offerings include a multitude of options. But if you need a specific protocol, make sure the product you are looking at has support for it.
- Remote Access – If you need to provide remote access for employees or other users, make sure that the VPN solution you choose supports this functionality, and consider any additional security or management requirements.
- Customization – Consider the level of customization available with the VPN solution, such as the ability to configure specific settings or protocols, and make sure that the solution meets your specific requirements.
- Future Needs – Consider your future needs, such as the potential for growth, the need for additional functionality, or the need for increased security or performance, and make sure that the VPN solution you choose is flexible enough to accommodate these needs.
Recommendations for Hardware VPNs
Fortinet FortiGate is a line of multi-functional network security appliances that provide advanced security features, including hardware-based VPN functionality, as well as easy management and scalability. They offer various sizes of security appliances that are suitable for different throughput needs. Although Fortinet is regarded as one of the leaders in the Next Generation Firewall (NGFW) space, according to Gartner they are still reasonably priced. They offer both small SOHO and large enterprise-level devices for different throughput needs.
Juniper Networks SRX is a line of network security appliances that provide advanced security features, including hardware-based VPN functionality, as well as easy management and scalability. Juniper security appliances are very reliable and offer an easy-ish-to-learn CLI for configuration, but lack in the GUI area. If you rely heavily on graphical user interfaces, this may not be the best option for you. This line of products is better suited for enterprise-level networking.
SonicWall TZ is a line of firewall and VPN appliances that provide robust security features, including hardware-based VPN functionality, as well as easy management and scalability. Although SonicWall is no longer leading the pack in terms of innovation for NGFWs, they still offer a solid security appliance in various throughput sizes for both SOHO and large enterprise settings.
Software VPN Recommendations
Mullvad is often considered one of the best VPNs by many experts and users. It is known for its strong security features, such as using the WireGuard VPN protocol, which provides fast and secure connections. Mullvad also offers a large network of servers, a user-friendly interface, and a no-logs policy, which means that they do not collect or store any information about their users’ online activity. Additionally, Mullvad has a strong commitment to privacy and provides easy-to-use tools to enhance privacy and security.
NordVPN is a popular VPN software that provides strong security features, a large network of servers, and a user-friendly interface.
I have personal experience working with all the hardware and software VPNs listed above and find each of them useful depending on your needs. When comparing the two types, hardware VPNs offer better performance, scalability, security, and reliability, but are more expensive and complex to set up or manage. For individual or small use case needs a software VPN is a more cost-effective option. The decision on which type of VPN to choose comes down to the specific needs of your business.