When it comes to remote work, the employee experience and security are equally important. Individuals need convenient access to apps to remain productive. Companies need to protect the organization from adversaries that target remote workers. Getting the balance right can be tricky, especially for entities that run hybrid environments. By implementing Zscaler Private Access (ZPA) and integrating it with Azure Active Directory (Azure AD), Johnson Controls was able to improve both security and the remote worker experience. In today’s “Voice of the Customer” blog, Dimitar Zlatarev, Sr. Manager, IAM Team, Johnson Controls, explains how it works.

 

Building a seamless and secure work-from-home experience

By Dimitar Zlatarev, Sr. Manager, IAM Team, Johnson Controls

 

When COVID-19 began to spread, because of our commitment to employee safety, Johnson Controls transitioned all our office workers to remote work. This immediately increased demand on our VPN, overwhelming the solution. Connections speeds slowed, making it difficult for employees to conveniently access on-premises apps. Some workers couldn’t connect to the VPN at all. To address this challenge, we deployed an integration between Azure AD and ZPA. In this blog, I’ll describe how ZPA and Azure AD support our Zero Trust journey, the roll-out process, and how the solution has improved the work-from-home experience.

 

Enabling productive collaboration in a dynamic, global company

Johnson Controls offers the world’s largest portfolio of building products, technologies, software, and services. Through a full range of systems and digital solutions, we make buildings smarter, transforming the environments where people live, work, learn and play. To support 105,000 employees around the world, Johnson Controls runs a hybrid technology environment. A series of mergers and acquisitions has resulted in over 4,000 on-premises applications for business-critical work. Some of these apps, like SAP, include multiple instances. Our strategy is to find software-as-a-service (SaaS) replacements for most of our on-premises apps, but in the meantime, employees need secure access to them. Before coronavirus shifted how we work, the small percentage of remote workers used our VPN with few issues.

 

To centralize authentication to our cloud apps, we use Azure AD. The system for cross-domain identity management (SCIM) makes it easy to provision accounts, so that employees can use single sign-on (SSO) to access Office 365 and non-Microsoft SaaS apps, like Workday, from anywhere.

We deployed Azure AD Self-Served Password Reset (SSPR) early in 2019 to allow employees to reset their passwords without helpdesk support. With this deployment, we’ve reduced helpdesk costs for password resets, account lockouts by 35% within the first three months and 50% a year later.

 

Securing mobile workers with a Zero Trust strategy

When employees began working from home, there were no issues accessing our Azure AD connected resources, but our VPN solution was significantly stretched. As an example, it could only support about 2,500 sessions in the entire continent of Europe, yet Slovakia alone has 1,700 employees. To expand capacity, we needed new equipment, but we were concerned that upgrading the VPN would be expensive and take too long. Instead, we saw an opportunity to accelerate our Zero Trust security strategy by deploying ZPA and integrating it with Azure AD.

 

Zero Trust is a security strategy that assumes all access requests—even those from inside the network—cannot be automatically trusted. In this model, we need tools that verify users and devices every time they attempt to communicate with our resources. We use Azure AD to validate identities with controls such as multi-factor authentication (MFA). MFA requires that users provide two authentication factors, making it more difficult for bad actors to compromise an account. Azure AD Privileged Identity Management (PIM) is another service that we use to provide time-based and approval-based role activation to mitigate the risks of unnecessary access permission on highly sensitive resources.

 

ZPA is a cloud-based solution that connects users to apps via a secure segment between individual devices and apps. Because apps are never exposed to the internet, they are invisible to unauthorized users. ZPA also doesn’t rely on physical or virtual appliances, so it’s much easier to stand up.

 

Enrolling 50,000 users in 3 weeks

To minimize disruption, we decided to roll out ZPA in stages. We began by generating a list of critical roles, such as finance and procurement, that needed to be enabled as quickly as possible. We then prioritized the remaining roles. This turned out to be the hardest part of the process.

 

Setting up ZPA with Azure AD was simple. First, Azure AD App Gallery enabled us to easily register the ZPA app. Then we set up provisioning, targeted groups, and then populated the groups. Once the appropriate apps were set up, we piloted the solution with ten users. The next day we rolled out to 100 more. As we initiated the solution, we worked with the communications team to let employees know what was happening. We also monitored the process. If there were issues with an app, we delayed deployment to the people with relevant job profiles. Zscaler joined our daily meetings and stood by our side throughout the roll out. By the end of the first week we had enabled 7,000 people. We jumped to 25,000 by the second, and by the third week 50,000 people were enrolled in ZPA.

 

Simplifying remote work with SSO

One reason the process went so smoothly is because the ZPA Azure AD integration is much easier to use than the VPN solution. Users just need to connect to ZPA. There is no separate sign-in. When employees learned how convenient it was, they asked to be enabled.

 

With ZPA and Azure AD, we were quickly able to scale up remote work. Employees are more productive with a reliable connection and simplified sign-in. And we are further down the path in our Zero Trust security strategy.

 

Learn more


In response to COVID-19, organizations around the world have accelerated modernization plans and rapidly deployed products to make work from home easier and more secure. Microsoft partners, like Zscaler, have helped many organizations overcome the challenges of remote work in a hybrid environment with solutions that integrate with Azure AD.

 

Learn how to integrate ZPA with Azure AD

Top 5 ways you Azure AD can help you enable remote work

Developing applications for secure remote work with Azure AD

Microsoft’s COVID-19 response