Hardware vs. Software Firewalls
At the most basic level, a hardware firewall is a physical unit, while software firewalls operate from inside your computer via an application. They have the same general mission, but they go about it in slightly different ways, giving them their own set of advantages:
- Cost less initially: When first purchased, a software firewall is relatively cheap. Some come with a free trial, and after that, a relatively low monthly fee. In the long run, however, the subscription expense may end up being more costly than what you would have paid for a hardware solution.
- Require little space: If space is a concern, software may be a better choice because, as an application, it has no footprint.
- Easy to install: Many software firewalls only require a few clicks to be up and running, whereas hardware firewalls require attaching wires, connecting to power, and proper positioning.
At the same time, the protection of a software firewall also comes with limitations. They have to be installed on every computer in the network. When it comes time to update your protection, if any of the units are not prepared to receive the update, they have to be updated manually. Since they don't have their own operating systems, software firewalls can also drain crucial computing power and memory, affecting user experience and network security.
What is a Hardware Firewall?
A hardware firewall acts as a gatekeeper and antivirus solution for your server. It sits directly behind the router and can be configured to analyze incoming traffic, filtering out specific threats as they come across the device.
A hardware firewall is a physical device much like a server that filters the traffic going to a computer. While a user would normally plug a network cable directly into a computer or server, with a hardware firewall, the cable is plugged into the firewall first. The firewall sits between the external network and the server, providing an antivirus solution and a hard barrier against intrusions.
A hardware firewall provides several benefits:
- Can be used to intelligently control the traffic that reaches your server
- Can be configured with specific rules for all traffic
- Can ease the burden on other server resources. For example, you can disable software firewalls, which can free up much-needed memory and processor power
How Hardware Firewalls Work
Although the specific setup depends on how your network is configured, all firewalls operate in a similar fashion. Positioned between your network and the internet, they help protect your network from potential harm or from being used by bad actors to spread malicious data elsewhere.
One simple type of firewall is called a packet filter, which examines the data itself. Because the data comes with information regarding its source and location, the firewall uses this to determine whether or not the data poses a threat to the system, then runs the information through a list of permissions. If the data does not pass the permissions checklist, it is not allowed through. If, according to the permissions, the data is safe, it is allowed to pass.
Modern hardware firewalls can examine data in both directions. Similar to the mechanism for scrutinizing incoming traffic, the firewall applies a set of permissions to outgoing data as well. In this way, it can catch data embedded in the coding designed to use your computer to spread malicious code to other computers on the internet.
Advantages of Physical Firewalls
- Single-device network control: A single hardware firewall provides protection for every computer connected to your server, cutting back on the time and resources it takes to install the software on each computer.
- Simultaneous updates and protection upgrades for all computers on the network: Update your protection settings once, and all computers on the network benefit at the same time. This ensures all devices are safe from compromise and saves IT teams from updating each computer manually, trusting that every computer will be free and ready for an automatic update, or trusting that each user will take the appropriate steps to implement an update.
- Constant protection: Hardware firewalls stay up and running unless you choose to turn them off. With no monthly payment plans or potential for fluctuations in computer memory or processing power, there is no chance of losing protection and dangerously exposing your server.
- Better security: Because hardware firewalls have their own, separate operating system, they are less prone to some of the attacks that software firewalls may suffer when a computer is compromised.
- Prevention of threats from reaching internal drives: Shield every facet of your computer from potentially harmful and costly invasions. A physical barrier between your computer’s internal drives and incoming, malicious code stops threats before they penetrate your computer.
Using Routers as Firewall Replacements
Many people wonder if their router can act as a firewall replacement. They reason that because many routers have protective capabilities, they provide an adequate solution. In some cases, a router may provide the protection you need, such as:
- Protection from data without a predesignated destination: Unless a router knows which computer incoming traffic is supposed to go to, it discards the data. In the case of malicious data directed at the router but not specifically requested by a computer on the network, the router would get rid of it because it would not know which computer to send it to.
- Blocking specific types of data: Some routers can be configured to block specific types of data exiting your computer. With this protection, your computer could not be used by malicious actors looking to make it a hub for attacks on other devices.
If a router is used in conjunction with another firewall, it can provide an extra layer of protection. It can also, if programmed properly, help prevent your computer from being turned into a “zombie” or “kidnapped” by malicious software.
However, routers are not well-equipped to provide a comprehensive security solution. For example, a router may allow malicious incoming traffic a user requests by clicking a link or visiting a site. It may not provide protection against this type of attack because it may interpret the click, or other action by the user, as a request for the malicious data. A firewall will block suspicious data even if it is “requested” by a user.
Choosing the Right Firewall for Your Business
Are physical firewalls good for small businesses? Yes, in most cases, because they provide dependable protection while saving memory and processing power, making them a powerful solution for enterprises, as well. With many devices getting data from the same server, a single physical firewall can provide valuable and convenient security to many devices at the same time, saving an IT team time and effort.
Hardware firewalls can also protect a home network. When put between your modem and wireless router, they help stop attacks from reaching your family’s devices and can protect devices where you cannot install your favorite trusted software firewall. Instead of obtaining and managing multiple software firewalls, you can use one physical firewall to protect all the devices that use the network.
Fortinet firewalls exceed many of the benefits of common hardware firewalls. They have deeper inspection capabilities that better equip them to identify attacks, malware, and other threats. They also include paths for future updates, which allow them to adapt to the ever-changing landscape of internet threats.