Secure Web Gateway vs VPN vs Proxy vs CASB: What's the difference?

VPN encryption explained in infographic
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Cloud computing has been around for over two decades and more and more businesses are choosing the cloud over on-site servers because of its scalability, cost-effectiveness, and overall business efficiency. However, cloud computing is not without its drawbacks, the scariest of them concerning security.

So, before shifting your business to the cloud, you should make sure that your systems are safeguarded from all sorts of invading cyber threats including hacking, malware, DDoS attacks, trojans, social media engineering attacks, bots, phishing, and other cunning schemes created by cybercriminals. And you’re not even safe from these cyber threats when you turn off your work computer, since all of your professional and personal smart devices are under almost constant attacks.

Thankfully, although no one is immune to cyber risk, several solutions can overcome these challenges and they’re more complex than much better-known firewalls. Since there is no one-size-fits-all kind of solution, we’re going to examine four of them and see which one of them is best suited for you and your business needs. 

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What is an SWG?

A secure web gateway (SWG) is a web security solution issued on-premise or via the cloud with an objective to stop unauthorized internet traffic from entering a network. SWG gives companies control over inappropriate websites or content according to their acceptable use policy (AUP), enforces their security policies ensuring their compliance, and safeguards sensitive data from unauthorized access and transfer. If you’re searching for a solution that’ll protect your users from data breaches, an SWG has more than a few tricks up its sleeves.

What is a VPN?

A virtual private network (VPN) is a service that secures your data through encrypted tunnels while making your online presence private and untraceable by hiding your IP address. This way, a VPN keeps your online activities from being tracked by your internet service provider (ISP), government, or cybercriminals. In addition to protecting your online privacy, there are plenty of reasons why one should pick out a VPN (yes, even non-techies), but we’ll come back to this later.

What is a proxy?

A proxy server (or proxy, for short) is a server that plays the role of the middleman by communicating between your device and servers of sites you are using, and it does that every time you use the internet. By retrieving data out on the internet on your behalf, a proxy will allow you to maintain your anonymity on the internet by hiding your IP address, speeding up the loading speed, saving bandwidth, and keeping activity logs.

What is a CASB?

A cloud access security broker (CASB) is an on-premises or cloud-based security solution that acts as an intermediary between cloud service users and cloud applications to ensure the enforcement of several security policies. The four foundational building blocks of a CASB solution include increased visibility, compliance, data security, and protection from various cyber threats.

Main similarities and differences

All of these solutions share the same purpose and that is to strengthen the security of your business while making the internet a little bit safer for everyone. Although some of these security solutions share core functionalities as well, they significantly differ when it comes to comprehensiveness, level of provided security, and aspects of security they prioritize.

Since VPNs and proxies are oftentimes a subject of comparisons, let’s take them as a case in point. Both a VPN and a proxy will reroute your network traffic through a remote server and hide your IP address, but a VPN will go a step further and encrypt your data as you’re browsing the web while protecting you from stealthy interlopers and sneaky hackers at the same time.

On the other hand, although a proxy redirects your traffic through an intermediary server, it won’t necessarily add an extra layer of security to it, leaving your systems vulnerable to cyber threats. Also, since you’ll have no way of no telling what proxy server provider will do with all the data it has collected, it might as well write it off as sold to a third-party company.

What’s more, a proxy will ignore everything besides application traffic, while VPN works on the operating system level to secure all of your inbound and outbound traffic, which makes them a superior security choice compared with proxies. However, in terms of securing online anonymity and avoiding geo-blocking, VPNs and proxies are pretty much on par.

SWGs and CASBs often turn up among top search results for the best solutions for data protection aimed at businesses of all shapes and sizes. If some of your concerns are visibility, identifying which applications are being used, and finding ways of protecting data as it travels through apps, you will do well to consider one of these solutions.

Several years ago, SWGs were commonly considered a standard security solution for businesses. However, since cloud apps came into the picture and brought new vulnerabilities with them, the business world had to come up with an updated solution to confront new challenges.

Although an SWG can do a superb job of securing devices within a company’s network, when it comes to personally owned devices (such as those that enable the enforcement of the bring-your-own-device policy) a company won’t have any control over the data that’s transmitted through those devices, or an option to profit from the visibility of data on them. In contrast, a CASB can watch over traffic going through any device (managed and unmanaged alike) and differentiate between various device types and security policies that apply to them. In short, a CASB can protect the data whichever it goes, while an SWG is concerned with devices inside a company’s network.

Can you and should you combine them?

Although VPNs and proxies can be used in combination, it’s not the most sensible solution since adding another middleman could slow down your network connection without bringing much novelty to the table. However, considering proxies can’t match VPN in terms of security, you could combine them with another solution or simply opt for a VPN.

On the other side, SWGs and CASBs work in similar ways, both are cloud-based, and are considered complete security solutions, meaning there's no need for combining them. Nevertheless, rather than forcing a “rip and replace” option for the current cloud infrastructure SWGs and CASBs can add additional layers of protection to it, as well as complement proxies and firewalls.

So, which one should you choose?

Well, if your sole goal is to hide your IP address for anonymous web browsing and getting past geo-blocking, proxies can do the trick. If you want to do the same yet in a more secure way and without being restricted to an app level, a VPN might be a better alternative. 

However, neither a proxy nor a VPN can safeguard your cloud infrastructure from all cybersecurity threats your company could face such as a ransomware attack, insider data theft, and systematic infiltration efforts. For that, you’ll have to go with an SWG and a CASB solution.

Sead Fadilpašić

Sead is a seasoned freelance journalist based in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. He writes about IT (cloud, IoT, 5G, VPN) and cybersecurity (ransomware, data breaches, laws and regulations). In his career, spanning more than a decade, he’s written for numerous media outlets, including Al Jazeera Balkans. He’s also held several modules on content writing for Represent Communications.