Microsoft’s cloud-first strategy enables most Microsoft employees to directly access applications and services via the internet, but remote workers still use the company’s virtual private network (VPN) to access some corporate resources and applications when they’re outside of the office.
This became increasingly apparent when Microsoft prepared for its employees to work remotely in response to COVID-19. VPN usage increased by 70 percent, which coincides with the significant spike in users working from home daily.
So then, how is Microsoft ensuring that its employees can securely access the applications they need?
With split tunneling and a Zero Trust security strategy.
As part of the company’s Zero Trust security strategy, employees in Microsoft Digital redesigned the VPN infrastructure by adopting a split-tunneled configuration that further enables the company’s workloads moving to the cloud.
“Adopting split tunneling has ensured that Microsoft employees can access core applications over the internet using Microsoft Azure and Microsoft Office 365,” says Steve Means, a senior service engineer in Microsoft Digital. “This takes pressure off the VPN and gives employees more bandwidth to do their job securely.”
Eighty percent of remote working traffic flows to cloud endpoints where split tunneling is enabled, but the rest of the work that employees do remotely—which needs to be locked down on the corporate network—still goes through the company’s VPN.
“We need to make sure our VPN infrastructure has the same level of corporate network security as applications in the cloud,” says Carmichael Patton, a senior program manager on Microsoft Digital’s Digital Security and Resilience team. “We’re applying the same Zero Trust principles to our VPN traffic, by applying conditional access to each connection.”
Securing remote workers with device management and conditional access
Moving most of the work that employees require to the cloud only became possible after the company adopted modern security controls that focus on securing devices.
“We no longer rely solely on the network to manage firewalls,” Patton says. “Instead, each application that an employee uses enforces its own security management—this means employees can only use an app after it verifies the health of their device.”
To support this transformed approach to security, Microsoft adopted a Zero Trust security model, which manages risk and secures working remotely by managing the device an employee uses.
“Before an employee can access an application, they must enroll their device, have relevant security policies, and have their device health validated,” Patton says. “This ensures that only registered devices that comply with company security policies can access corporate resources, which reduces the risk of malware and intruders.”
The team also recommends using a dynamic and scalable authentication mechanism, like Azure Active Directory, to avoid the trouble of certificates.
While most employees rely on our standard VPN infrastructure, Microsoft has specific scenarios that call for additional security when accessing company infrastructure or sensitive data. This is the case for Microsoft Digital employees in owner and contributor roles that are configured on a Microsoft Azure subscription as well as employees who make changes to customer-facing production services and systems like firewalls and network gear. To access corporate resources, these employees use Privileged Access Workstations, a dedicated operating system for sensitive tasks, to access a highly secure VPN infrastructure.
Phil Suver, a principal PM manager in Microsoft Digital, says working remotely during COVID-19 gives employees a sense of what the Zero Trust experience will be like when they return to the office.
“Hardened local area networks that previously accessed internal applications are a model of the past,” Suver says. “We see split tunneling as a gateway to prepare our workforce for our Zero Trust Networking posture, where user devices are highly protected from vulnerability and employees use the internet for their predominant workload.”
It’s also important to review your VPN structure for updates.
“When evaluating your VPN configuration, identify the highest compliance risks to your organization and make them the priority for controls, policies, and procedures,” Patton says. “Understand the security controls you give up by not flowing the connections through your internal infrastructure. Then, look at the controls you’re able to extend to the clients themselves, and find the right balance of risk and productivity that fits your organization.”
Keeping your devices up-to-date with split tunneling
Enterprises can also optimize patching and manage update compliance using services like Microsoft Endpoint Manager, Microsoft Intune, and Windows Update for Business. At Microsoft, a split-tunneled VPN configuration allows these services to keep devices current without requiring a VPN tunnel to do it.
“With a split-tunneled configuration, update traffic comes through the internet,” says Mike Carlson, a principal service engineering manager in Microsoft Digital. “This improves the user experience for employees by freeing up VPN bandwidth during patch and release cycles.”
At Microsoft, device updates fall into two categories: feature updates and quality updates. Feature updates occur every six months and encompass new operating system features, functionality, and major bug fixes. In contrast, monthly quality updates include security and reliability updates as well as small bug fixes. To balance both user experience and security, Microsoft’s current configuration of Windows Update for Business prompts Microsoft employees to update within 48 hours for quality updates and 7 days for feature updates.
“Not only can Windows Update for Business isolate update traffic from the VPN connection, but it can also provide better compliance management by using the deadline feature to adjust the timing of quality and feature updates,” Carlson says. “We can quickly drive compliance and have more time to focus on employees that may need additional support.”
Evaluating your VPN configuration
When your enterprise evaluates which VPN configuration works best for your company and users, you must evaluate their workflows.
“Some companies may need a full tunnel configuration, and others might want something cloud-based,” Means says. “If you’re a Microsoft customer, you can work with your sales team to request a customer engagement with a Microsoft expert to better understand our implementation and whether it would work for your enterprise.”
Means also said that it’s important to assess the legal requirements of the countries you operate in, which is done at Microsoft using Azure Traffic Manager. For example, split tunneling may not be the right configuration for countries with tighter controls over how traffic flows within and beyond their borders.
Suver also emphasized the importance of understanding the persona of your workforce, suggesting you should assess the workloads they may need to use remotely and their bandwidth capacity. You should also consider the maximum number of concurrent connections your VPN infrastructure supports and think through potential seasonal disruptions.
“Ensure that you’ve built for a snow day or a pandemic of a global nature,” Suver says. “We’ve had to send thousands of customer support agents to work from home. Typically, they didn’t use VPN to have voice conversations with customers. Because we sized and distributed our infrastructure for a global workforce, we were able to quickly adapt to the dramatic shift in workloads that have come from our employees working from home during COVID-19. Anticipate some of the changes in workflow that might occur, and test for those conditions.”
It’s also important to collect user connection and traffic data in a central location for your VPN infrastructure, to use modern visualization services like Microsoft Power BI to identify hot spots before they happen, and to plan for growth.
Means’s biggest piece of advice?
Focus on what your enterprise needs and go from there.
“Identify what you want to access and what you want to protect,” he says. “Then build to that model.”
Tips for retooling VPN at your company
Azure offers a native, highly-scalable VPN gateway, and the most common third-party VPN and Software-Defined Wide Area Network virtual appliances in the Azure Marketplace.
For more information on these and other Azure and Office network optimizing practices, please see:
- Office Connectivity Principles
- Network considerations for Teams
- Azure OpenVPN client
- Azure VPN Gateways
- Azure Point-to-site VPN
- VPN Network Virtual Appliances in the Azure Marketplace
- Publishing web applications using Azure Active Directory’s Application Proxy
- VPN split tunneling for Office 365
- How-to guides for common VPN platforms
- Updates for improving work-from-home employee access
Here are additional resources to learn more about how Microsoft applies networking best practices and supports a Zero Trust security strategy:
- Learn how Microsoft rebuilt its VPN infrastructure.
- Learn how Microsoft transitioned to modern access architecture with Zero Trust.
- Read how Microsoft is approaching Zero Trust Networking.