The Difference Between Hardware and Software Firewalls

A firewall is a protective system that lies, in essence, between your computer network and the Internet. When used correctly, a firewall prevents unauthorized people from accessing your network. A firewall carefully analyzes data entering and exiting the network based on your configuration. It ignores information that comes from unsecured, unknown or suspicious locations. A firewall plays an important role on any network as it provides a protective barrier against most forms of attack coming from the outside world.


Firewalls can be either hardware or software. The ideal firewall configuration includes both types. In addition to limiting access to you computer and network, a firewall is also useful for allowing remote access to a private network through secure authentication certificates and logins.


Many people do not completely understand the importance and necessity of a firewall, but if your network or computer has access to the outside world via the Internet, then you need have a firewall to protect your network, individual computer and data it contains.


Hardware Firewalls

You can buy a hardware firewall as a stand-alone product, but more recently hardware firewalls are typically found in broadband routers, and 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 examines data packet to determine their source and destination. It compares this information to a set of predefined or user-created rules that determine whether the packet should be routed to its destination or blocked and dropped.


A person 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, you should learn its specific features, how to use them, and how to test the firewall to make sure it’s protecting your network.


Not all firewalls are created equal, and it’s important to read the manual and documentation. Additionally the manufacturer’s Web site usually provides a knowledgebase or FAQ to help you get started. If the terminology is a too tech-oriented, you can also use the Webopedia search to help you get a better understanding of some of the 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

Most people prefer a software firewall. You install a software firewall on individual computers (just like any software), and you can customize its function and protection features. A software firewall protects your computer from outside attempts to control or gain access your computer, and, depending on which firewall you choose, 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 to block unsafe applications from running on your system. Additionally, software firewalls may also incorporate privacy controls, Web filtering (i.e., making certain types of sites – adult content, gambling, shopping, for example — inaccessible) and more. The downside to software firewalls is that they only protect the computer they are installed on, not a network, so each individual computer needs to have a software firewall installed on it.


Like hardware firewalls, there is a vast number of software firewalls from which to choose. To get started you may wish to 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 requires and 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’s important to monitor a software firewall once installed and to download any updates available from the developer.


The best way to protect your computer and network is to use both types of firewalls, 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.

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