Hardware Firewalls: Better Than Software?

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:

  1. Can be used to intelligently control the traffic that reaches your server
  2. Can be configured with specific rules for all traffic
  3. 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

What is a Hardware Firewall?

A hardware firewall acts as a gatekeeper 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 provides protection from both directions, to and from the server. Every time data crosses the physical firewall, it is inspected according to predesigned criteria. In this way, the firewall detects and stops threats before they reach internal drives.

How Hardware Firewalls Work

Although each hardware firewall’s setup depends on how your network is configured, all firewalls operate in a similar fashion. The firewall is positioned between your network and the internet. This helps protect your network from potential harm or from being used by bad actors to spread malicious data elsewhere. To provide internet security, hardware firewalls examine data coming in from the internet and determine whether or not it is safe. 

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. The firewall 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

Many people considering the advantages of a hardware vs. software firewall may need clarification on why they would consider getting an external device to protect their server. There are several benefits:

  1. Single-device network control: With a hardware firewall, you have one device that protects every computer connected to your server. With a software firewall, you have to install the software on each computer to make sure they all get the same protection. Each installation takes time and valuable human resources.
  2. Simultaneous updates and protection upgrades for all computers on the network: With a hardware firewall, you can update your protection settings once, and all computers on the network benefit at the same time. With a software firewall, the IT team would have to update each computer manually, trust that every computer will be free and ready for an automatic update, or trust that each user will take the appropriate steps to implement an update. If something goes wrong, one or more devices can get compromised. A hardware firewall eliminates these factors.
  3. Constant protection: A hardware firewall is, in some ways, a more dependable solution than a software firewall. Some software firewalls require monthly payment plans, so forgetting a payment may mean dangerously exposing your server. A hardware firewall, on the other hand, stays up and running unless you choose to turn it off. Also, with a software firewall, the end-user trusts it to start up when the computer boots and continues to function properly despite fluctuations in memory or processing power. With a hardware firewall, you do not have to worry about your computer not running the firewall properly.
  4. 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. Software firewalls have to depend on a computer’s operating system to function. If that is compromised, the firewall goes down with it.
  5. Prevention of threats from reaching internal drives: With a software firewall, there is no physical barrier between your computer’s internal drives and incoming, malicious code. The threat is only detected once it has penetrated your computer. A hardware firewall acts as a physical barrier, shielding every facet of your computer, including its internal drives, from potentially harmful and costly invasion.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Hardware vs. Software Firewalls

Hardware and software firewalls have the same general mission, but they go about it in slightly different ways.

How Hardware Firewall Works and the Advantages of Hardware Firewall

A hardware firewall is a physical unit that sits between your server and the dangers inherent to an internet connection. Hardware firewalls provide the following advantages:

  1. They take up less computing power than software firewalls. They have their own processors, so they will not slow down your computer’s operation.
  2. They prevent attacks and unwanted traffic from ever reaching your computer. This can not only keep malicious code away from your drives and operating system, but prevent extraneous, memory-clogging traffic from slowing down your computer.
  3. They allow for the protection of all the devices using the same server simultaneously.

Advantages of Software Firewalls

What are software firewalls and how are they different from hardware firewalls? Software firewalls primarily operate from inside your computer via an application. Some people prefer software firewalls because:

  1. They are often cheaper, at least initially: 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.
  2. They take up no space: If space is a concern, a software firewall may be a better choice because, as an application, it has no footprint.
  3. 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.

Hardware firewalls sometimes cannot be as quickly installed as software ones. If you are in a time crunch and need instant protection, a software firewall may be a better choice. Hardware firewalls also tend to cost more upfront than software ones, which often come with a free introductory period.

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. Software firewalls can also drain crucial computing power and memory.

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. For enterprises, hardware firewalls are also a powerful solution. With many devices getting data from the same server, a hardware firewall can provide valuable and convenient security. A single hardware firewall can protect 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. In some cases, it is useful to use a hardware firewall in conjunction with a software one. A hardware firewall can protect devices where you cannot install your favorite trusted software firewall. Instead of obtaining and managing multiple software firewalls, you can use one hardware firewall to protect all the devices that use the network.

Hardware Firewalls at Fortinet

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. In the long run, hardware firewalls cost less than many software solutions. They are also easy to install, so users can be up, running, and protected in no time.