Do You Know — Firewalls

By Vangie Beal | Posted November 12, 2004

A firewall is a protective system that sits between your computer network and the Internet. Firewalls can be either hardware or software, and the ideal firewall configuration consists of both. When used correctly, it prevents unauthorized access to your network and provides a protective barrier against most forms of attack coming from the outside world.

A firewall carefully analyzes data entering and exiting the network and rejects information that comes from unsecured, unknown or suspicious locations. In addition to limiting access to your computer and network, a firewall also allows remote access to a private network through secure authentication certificates and logins.

Many people don't completely understand the importance and necessity of a firewall, or they think it's something that only businesses need. If your computer (networked or not) accesses the outside world via the Internet, then you need a firewall to protect your computer(s) and data.

Hardware Firewalls
You can buy a hardware firewall as a stand-alone product, but now it's more common to find them in broadband broadband routers. A hardware firewall should be considered an important part of your system and network set-up, especially for anyone on a broadband connection.

Hardware firewalls can be effective with little or no configuration, and they can protect every machine on a local network. Most hardware firewalls will have a minimum of four network ports to connect other computers, but for larger networks, business networking firewall solutions are available.

A hardware firewall uses packet filtering to examine the header of a packet to determine its source and destination. The firewall compares the information to a set of predefined or user-created rules that determine whether the packet will be forwarded or dropped.

Anyone with general computer knowledge can plug in a firewall, adjust a few settings and have it work. To ensure that your firewall is configured for optimal security and protect however, consumers will no doubt need to learn the specific features of their hardware firewall, how to enable them, and how to test the firewall to ensure its doing a good job of protecting your network.

Not all firewalls are created equal, and to this end it's important to read the manual and documentation that comes with your product. Additionally the manufacturer's Web site will usually provide a knowledgebase or FAQ to help you get started.

If the terminology is a bit too tech-oriented, you can also use the Webopedia search tool, located on the SmallBusinessComputing.com Web site, to help you get a better understanding of some of the tech and computer terms you will encounter while setting up your hardware firewall.

To test your hardware firewall security, you can purchase third-party test software or search the Internet for a free online-based firewall testing service. Firewall testing is an important part of maintenance to ensure your system is always configured for optimal protection.

Software Firewalls
For individual home users, the most popular firewall choice is a software firewall. Software firewalls install on your computer just like any other software program. You can then customize it to control some of its functions and protection features.

A software firewall will protect your computer from outside attempts to control or gain access to your computer, and, depending on your choice of software firewall, it could also provide protection against the most common Trojan programs or e-mail worms. Many software firewalls have user-defined controls for setting up safe file- and printer-sharing and controls to block unsafe applications from running on your system.

Additionally, software firewalls may also incorporate privacy controls, Web filtering and more. The downside to software firewalls is that they will only protect the computer they are installed on, not a network, so each computer needs its own software firewall installed on it.

Like hardware firewalls, there is a vast number of software firewalls from which to choose. To get started, read reviews of software firewalls and search out the product Web site to glean some information first. Because your software firewall will always be running on your computer, you should make note of the system resources it will require to run, and check for any incompatibilities with your operating system.

A good software firewall will run in the background on your system and use only a small amount of system resources. It is important to monitor a software firewall once installed and to download any updates available from the developer.

The differences between a software and hardware firewall are many, and the best protection for your computer and network is to use both, as each offers different but much-needed security features and benefits. Updating your firewall and your operating system is essential to maintaining optimal protection, as is testing your firewall to ensure it is connected and working correctly.

Adapted from webopedia.com.

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!

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