Network firewalls are security tools primarily focused on monitoring, inspecting, and restricting traffic going into and coming out of a network.
Network firewalls are, however, different from web application firewalls, which protect applications and primarily deal with HTTP/S security threats. In today’s highly digitalized world, businesses and organizations need to use network firewalls as part of their cybersecurity system.
Today we will give a brief overview of network firewalls - including their history, capabilities, and how they are evolving in response to newer and more advanced cyber threats.
What is the history of firewalls?
Network firewalls came into existence after being developed by a major American company called Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) in 1988. The first type of firewall is often known as the Packet Filter. They inspect and restrict suspicious packets of information transferred between different computers on a network.
While using similar principles to most modern firewalls, their functions and features were far less sophisticated. This is because the threats dealt with back then were not as complex as the ones found today.
Fast forward three decades, cyber threats have become much more advanced than they were when network firewalls were first made. Traditional firewalls have gone through stages of improvement to deal with the new wave of cybersecurity risks.
As of 2022, there are more than five billion active internet users worldwide. Innovations, such as cloud technology, have made our lives more convenient while advanced devices have become more popular by the day. However, these steps forward have also created more points of entry for cyber threats to infiltrate networks.
Modern cyber-attacks are highly evasive, multi-vectored, and increasingly difficult to defend against. Traditional network security firewalls struggle to deal with modern cyber threats and businesses globally lose billions to cyber attacks each year. Newer firewalls that can work on the cloud while protecting the network are needed.
What Do Firewalls Do?
Firewalls serve as vital components in network security systems, acting as a barrier between your internal network and external threats. They monitor and control incoming and outgoing network traffic, defending against unauthorized access and cyber attacks, and protecting your system from vulnerabilities using packet filtering, proxy service, stateful inspection, and other methods of security.
By analyzing data packets, firewalls evaluate their validity based on predetermined security rules. They enforce network policies, protecting against hacking attempts and data breaches. With granular control, firewalls safeguard against threats like DDoS attacks and generate alerts for prompt action. Overall, firewalls play a crucial role in network security, protecting your network and sensitive information from potential threats.
Types of Firewalls
Network firewalls try to keep your network safe but different types of firewalls have different capabilities. The main types of firewalls include:
- Packet-Filtering Firewalls: These firewalls look at incoming and outgoing traffic and allow access to the network based on specific criteria – like port numbers, allowed IP addresses, packet types, and more. Also known as stateless firewalls, they do not fully inspect the packets and use the source and destination details of the data packets to figure out if it is a threat. Their primary function revolves around an established set of rules, and they operate at a relatively faster rate because of their basic filtering methods. This makes these firewalls more vulnerable to IP spoofing or attacks on the TCP.
- Circuit-Level Firewalls: This firewall will monitor the system once a UDP or TCP connection is made. By understanding the communication session's attributes it can validate the legitimacy of the interaction, offering an additional layer of protection. Their primary focus is not on the data itself but on the nature of the TCP handshake between packets, ensuring valid and consistent communication. This allows it to secure the exchange of data packets directly between hosts without the need for more filtering.
- Stateful Firewalls: Also known as third-generation technology, these stateful inspection firewalls look at data packets and track any connections made as part of an established network session. This dynamic tracking system helps in assessing the context of traffic, providing a balance between performance and security. With the ability to remember previous communications, they can make more informed decisions on subsequent packets, reducing the chance of malicious content slipping through. Any deviations from the expected pattern are blocked. This type of firewall is easier to use; it increases access control granularity. It is useful in the prevention of Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks.
- Application Firewalls: This type of firewall will filter and inspect network traffic based on its intended purpose. It monitors the network on the application layer – defining rules for HTTP connections and finding outliers to established patterns. Application firewalls are useful for identifying and preventing DoS attacks, buffer-overflow attacks, and malware. Given the rise of application-specific attacks, this firewall type becomes crucial in deciphering intricate data flows and ensuring only legitimate traffic gets through.
- Proxy Server Firewalls: These firewalls check all incoming and outgoing messages in a network and then hide the real network addresses from any external inspection. Acting as intermediaries, they decide if a connection request is valid based on predefined policies before forwarding it, adding an additional layer of security. Moreover, by caching frequent requests, they can enhance the overall network performance, providing a blend of security and efficiency.
- Next-Generation Firewalls: These firewalls offer a combination of packet inspection, stateful inspection, deep packet inspection, and many more security features. Armed with the capability of understanding the applications generating traffic, they're more adept at identifying and blocking malicious activity. Integrated with threat intelligence features, they can adapt and evolve based on emerging threats, ensuring a robust defense mechanism. They filter traffic inside the network by inspecting applications, traffic types, and assigned ports. Next-generation firewalls are a more holistic and self-sufficient approach to securing your network.
While each of these firewalls has its benefits, try to understand what your network looks like before choosing the right one.
Choose Sangor’s Next Generation Firewalls as your complete firewall solution
Unlike traditional network firewalls, next-generation firewalls - like Sangfor’s Next-Generation Firewall (NGFW) - offer a complete solution to most cybersecurity issues for your internal network.
In the past, network firewalls focused mainly on protecting incoming and outgoing network traffic but didn’t have the same capabilities of a web application firewall (WAF) to protect users and networks from HTTP/S security loopholes - like DDoS attacks, SQL injections, brute force attacks, and spams.
Next-generation firewalls, however, allow an organization to enjoy the best of both worlds with application awareness, easier control, integrated intrusion prevention, cloud-delivered AI-powered threat intelligence, and more. These firewalls offer better security than traditional network firewalls while also improving the user experience for a more efficient IT department.
Why do businesses need Next Generation Firewalls?
Upgrading to a next-generation firewall gives your organization better security and makes your system compatible with cloud services. The pandemic has pushed more companies to use remote workspaces and private clouds. The increased cloud service usage has made it easier for malware to enter your company’s network. Switching to a next-generation firewall closes off the security loopholes that traditional network firewalls leave behind and creates better intrusion prevention systems.
Sangfor’s Next-Generation firewall offers application awareness, threat detection, and endpoint security. It ensures a high level of security even if your network is accessed remotely.
Features like single-console and role-based access make work simpler for IT teams. For small to medium-sized businesses with lower budgets, a network firewall integrated with endpoint security and NDR platforms is also a great option.
Case studies: How to use network firewalls to enhance cyber security for businesses
Businesses and organizations rely heavily on the internet for daily operations. Their servers and devices often contain large amounts of confidential information. As a result, they are often targeted by cyber-attacks. This means that stricter levels of cybersecurity are needed to avoid potential risks.
Below are some case studies of businesses successfully using network security firewalls to protect themselves against cyber-attacks.
Saving $40,000HKD for a major financial consulting company with an advanced security system
In October 2019, a major consulting company in Hong Kong with more than 200 employees was hit by a ransomware attack that locked down its entire system. The attackers demanded a ransom of over 40,000 HKD in Bitcoin to decrypt the company’s server.
Through establishing C&C communication with the company’s system, the attackers were able to upload their ransomware and gain full remote control. The advanced hackers used a DGA algorithm to encrypt their communications and were able to bypass the company’s existing network security firewall.
Upon receiving an urgent request for help from the company, Sangfor’s team of experts tracked down the origin of the ransomware within 30 minutes and successfully removed the virus entirely.
The company then decided to move from its existing network security firewall to Sangfor’s more advanced Next Generation Application Firewall (NGAF) for better protection.
With the integration of an all-in-one endpoint security management system and the Next Generation Firewall (NGAF) in place, the company gained access to complete evidentiary analysis of cyber-attack chains and can now find intrusion points and suspicious activities quickly and with ease.
The newfound security measures have protected the company from any ransomware attacks to this date. You can read the full case study here.
Firewall protection for the Royal Malaysian Customs Department (JKDM)
The Royal Malaysian Customs Department (JKDM) is a government agency in Malaysia. It is responsible for administrating Malaysia’s indirect tax policy, border enforcement, and narcotics offenses. They handle large amounts of private and confidential information every day and require a strong cybersecurity strategy for their data protection.
One of the key challenges faced by the department was its original underperforming network security firewall. It was incapable of providing sufficient protection against newer and more advanced cyber threats. When a cyber-attack occurred, it would often go undetected for days and increase the overall vulnerability of the entire department’s network.
To rectify the existing problem, the department ultimately chose to implement Sangfor’s NGAF for more advanced protection. This comprehensive state-of-the-art network security firewall is capable of eliminating 99% of the malware, including malicious files, known and unknown threats, and even zero-day attacks.
Its automated threat detection removed threats before they could cause any damage and patched up weak spots in the network that were previously vulnerable. The department’s cybersecurity improved significantly as a result and previously persistent threats were effectively eliminated.
Setting up a Network Firewall or NGFW
Compared to traditional network-based firewalls, next-generation firewalls like Sangfor’s further simplify the access, control, and monitoring process. This makes security settings a breeze for an experienced network administrator. IT professionals can simply choose to use pre-configured default settings or customize the setup according to their organization’s needs.
Default Settings: This type of setting usually allows all known and previously approved traffic to pass. Based on a highly sophisticated filter and a large database of malicious traffic, the network firewall or NGFW can immediately block unwanted traffic and provide efficient protection with minimal user input.
Customized Settings: Experienced IT professionals or network administrators can configure stricter or more specific security restrictions based on an organization’s needs - such as limiting or restricting access to certain websites. This will, however, result in less flexibility for employees and users who have a lower level of authority on the network.
Are you looking for network firewall vendors?
If you are looking for good network firewall products to enhance your organization’s cyber security, be sure to check on Gartner Peer Insights. Various vendors and products are rated and compared based on their features and capabilities. You can also check out our enterprise firewall buyer’s guide here.
If you are looking to upgrade your existing network firewall to an all-around, comprehensive next-generation firewall that is perfect for today’s hybrid work culture and cloud-dependent work environment, look no further than Sangfor’s Next-Generation firewall. Visit the Sangfor NGAF product page to learn how it can protect your business from 99% of cyber security threats.
Frequently Asked Questions
In this day and age, it is hard to imagine any business or organization that can get away with not using a network firewall for protection and not run into trouble. Cyber threats are everywhere, and they are evolving faster than you think. For large enterprises, failure to protect confidential business information could lead to huge consequences. Small and medium businesses have also become an easy target for hackers and cyber-attacks and often must pay expensive ransoms to get their systems back to normal.
Regardless of what industry you work in, network firewalls have become an essential cyber security tool and the main concern for businesses should be whether they should stick with a cheaper or free-to-use firewall that only provides basic protection, or upgrade to an enterprise-grade firewall for all-round coverage.
Network firewalls should be placed at your network’s front line and between any network that has a connection to the internet in order to achieve full-spectrum security. Since most network setups involve a trio of switches, firewalls, and routers, the router would typically be the first part of a LAN system, followed by the network firewall, and ultimately the switch.
VPNs are widely advertised today as an essential layer of cyber security tools when surfing the internet. However, it is extremely important to understand that they are neither designed to, or capable of replacing network firewalls. The two cyber security tools perform very different functions and are designed to achieve very different goals.
Simply put, VPNs can encrypt your connection, hide your real IP address, and enhance your privacy and security on the internet, but they cannot protect you against the various types of threats that network firewalls are designed to restrict. VPNs offer just one layer of protection when you browse the internet, whereas a firewall is designed to protect you from a wide range of cyber threats. Using a VPN along with your firewall would further enhance your cyber security, but replacing your firewall with just a VPN would leave you exposed to all kinds of different threats.