What is a Firewall?
Firewalls are software programs that filter information coming through the Internet to a network or individual computer. Firewalls keep destructive external forces away from your personal data. The name “firewall” comes from the idea of an actual physical firewall, a strategy used among firefighters to keep a fire from spreading from one area to another.
For companies with hundreds of employees, it’s more common for a firewall to be used at the network level. Without a firewall, every computer at a company would be directly accessible by anyone using the Internet. Hackers could easily probe the computers, create FTP connections to download data from the computer and so on.
With firewalls in place, a company is better equipped from a security standpoint. As a protective measure, firewalls are capable of controlling traffic flowing in and out of the network through the following means:
- Packet filtering. Packets, or small chunks of data, are analyzed by the firewall and run through several filters that detect signatures or strings of data indicative of malicious activity. Packets that make it through the filtering are then permitted through, whereas all other failed packets are discarded.
- Proxy service. The firewall acts as the funnel through which all information is requested and retrieved for Internet access. The firewall acts as the controlling service which identifies activities that need to occur and send processes to requesting systems.
- Stateful inspection. While a newer form of firewall protection, it proves to be quite useful due to its efficiency. Rather than examining the contents of each data packet sent through the firewall, it instead compares key components of the packet against a stored database containing trusted information. Data from inside the network sent externally is monitored for special defining characteristics, and data retrieved is compared against it. If the data sent matches the data retrieved, the firewall allows the information through.
Firewalls vs. antivirus
Firewalls and antivirus software both play an important role in defending a computer against malicious attacks. While it may seem tempting to simply buy one but not the other, both are important to have as they complement one another. Firewalls act as a first line of defense by blocking remote access to a computer. Antivirus software, however, removes any malicious software that may have gotten through the firewall. The absence of one security feature creates a potential security hole for access to your computer. Each security measure is specifically designed to address one particular emphasis of protection, so both are needed for a fully-complete security solution.
The benefits of firewalls
The functionality of firewalls extends beyond simple filtering. At the corporate environment level, firewalls can be configured to accommodate a wide range of needs on a computer-by-computer basis. For example, a firewall could be set up to prevent file transfers via an FTP connection from all computers except those designated as needing such functionality, such as the company’s website developer.
From a customization standpoint, organizations stand to benefit the most. From an individual computer user level, however, the software serves a very specific purpose and won’t interfere with most tasks.
Disabling or turning off firewalls
Disabling or removing a firewall from your computer is not an advised strategy. While it may get annoying with all the alert pop-ups, the firewall is serving very much as a defense. If you’ve purchased an antivirus suite which includes a firewall service, then you’ll likely want to disable the firewall that comes pre-installed on all Windows PCs.
To disable the firewall that comes pre-installed on Windows, users would need to deactivate it from the Windows Firewall setting on the Control Panel. For firewalls that come with Internet security suites, the disable settings should be contained through the suite’s management application.
Examples of firewall applications
Firewall applications typically come included on an Internet security suite through a software developer. As a defense precaution, it should always be used in coordination with an antivirus security measure. However, while some antivirus solutions may be the best, they don’t always come bundled with the best firewall service.
Software bundles with effective personal firewalls include Comodo’s Internet Security Plus, Bitdefender’s Internet Security, and Agnitum Outpost Pro Firewall. Each of these contains firewalls that have scored quite high on filtering capabilities.
Firewalls provide a very foundational and important role in computer security. While they don’t make the perfect standalone security solution, having a firewall on your network or computer as a first line of defense is critically important.