Firewalls: Your guide to network security

We take a closer look at what firewalls are and how they protect your digital fortress and your data from being targeted by cyber attacks.

13-11-2023 - 9 minute read. Posted in: tips.

Firewalls: Your guide to network security

Securing your digital assets is critical in today's connected world, when data flows freely across the internet. Imagine your network as a fortress containing sensitive information and valuable resources.

Just like a fortress requires strong walls to protect itself from outside threats, your digital network requires a strong defense mechanism to prevent cyberattacks. Firewalls come into play in this situation. We will delve deep into the realm of firewalls, examining what they are, how they work, and why they are so important in protecting your digital kingdom.

What are firewalls?

A firewall is, at its core, a network security tool or software that monitors, filters, and controls incoming and outgoing network traffic. A firewall's primary responsibility, similar to that of a diligent guard at the fortress's door, is to permit or prohibit traffic based on an established set of security rules and policies. These rules control which data packets (i.e. the packets of information that travel across the internet) pass through the firewall and which are stopped, acting as the initial line of security against cyber threats.

Firewalls can be implemented as hardware appliances, software systems, or a combination of the two. They can be customized to match the individual security requirements of various network settings, making them an effective tool in the fight against cyberattacks.

How Do Firewalls Work?

In order to understand how firewalls work, we’ll break down the process into the focal components:

  • Packet Inspection: Firewalls examine data packets as soon as they travel through or out of a network. These packets carry information about the source, destination, and type of interaction that has been commanded by the user or system. Based on the preset rules, the firewall examines this information to determine whether the packet should be allowed or blocked.

  • Rule-Based Filtering: Firewalls depend on a set of regulations and guidelines to make decisions about packet traffic. These rules might be as simple as allowing all HTTP (web) traffic or as detailed as defining which IP addresses, ports, or protocols are allowed.

  • Stateful Inspection: Many modern firewalls use stateful inspection, which is a method that goes beyond simple packet filtering. It monitors the condition of active connections and guarantees that incoming packets are part of a legitimate connection. This feature helps in the prevention of specific types of attacks, such as IP spoofing.

  • Proxy Services: Some firewalls provide proxy services, which means that the firewall acts as a link between a company's internal network and external resources. This can add an extra layer of protection by hiding internal network data and enabling content filtering.

  • Deep Packet Inspection (DPI): DPI is a sophisticated firewall technology that examines the actual contents of data packets to determine the presence of specific patterns or characteristics that indicate malicious behavior. DPI is especially effective at detecting and blocking threats like malware and intrusions.

Types of Firewalls

Firewalls can be divided into a number categories, each catering to different security requirements and network settings. Here are some examples of popular types of firewalls:

  • Packet Filtering Firewalls: The most basic sort of firewall, inspecting individual data packets and choosing whether to allow or block them depending on established criteria. Although packet filtering firewalls are often quick and efficient, they may lack advanced threat detection capabilities.

  • Stateful Inspection Firewalls: These firewalls, also known as dynamic packet filtering, keep an updated list to track the current state of active connections. Based on the context of the connection, they can make more informed decisions about whether to accept or deny packets.

  • Proxy Firewalls: Proxy firewalls serve as mediators for internal and external network traffic. They receive internal user requests and redirect them to third-party services while hiding the internal network's information. Although proxy firewalls can provide content screening and increased security, they can also cause latency.

  • Application Layer Firewalls: These firewalls operate on the OSI model's application layer, examining traffic at the application level. They can make decisions based on the software that is being used, thus providing more detailed control over the network access.

  • Next-Generation Firewalls (NGFW): NGFWs combine classic firewall capabilities with additional features such as deep packet inspection (DPI), intrusion detection and prevention (ID&P), and application awareness. They are intended to protect software and systems against many different kinds of modern cyber threats.

  • Cloud Firewalls: As cloud computing has grown in popularity, cloud-based firewalls have become vital. These firewalls protect cloud resources and collaborate with cloud service providers to secure virtual networks.

Why are firewalls so important?

Firewalls are one of the first lines of defense in your network's security systems, and we cannot stress enough just how important they are. Below we’ve gathered some of the most important reasons why firewalls are so important:

  • Blocks unauthorized access: Firewalls block and stop attempts of unauthorized access, and thus prevent cybercriminals from infiltrating your systems and stealing personal and organizational sensitive data.

  • Protection from malware: Firewalls that have implemented DPI can detect and block malware, hence protecting your network from viruses, worms, and other malicious software.

  • Averting data breaches: When you and the firewalls can control every outbound traffic, you prevent your sensitive data from leaving your systems without proper authorization. This is an important aspect when it comes to protecting customer data, intellectual property, and compliance with data protection regulations.

  • Secure remote access: Many employees like the flexibility of remote work, which however pose a great cybersecurity threat. Here, firewalls can help secure your network through e.g. VPNs. This ensures that only authorized users can connect to the network.

  • Overview of apps: Advanced firewalls offer thorough control over how specific programs and services are used. This will help any organization that wants to optimize their network performance and ensure compliance with security policies.

  • Detect and prevent intrusion: The Intrusion Detection and Prevention Systems (IDPS) that is integrated into firewalls can detect and block any suspicious network activities in real-time so you can catch any abnormalities as they happen.

  • Network segmentation: Firewalls allow network segmentation, dividing a network into smaller, isolated segments. This will minimize the potential impact of a breach by limiting lateral movement within the network.

Configuring your firewalls

Deploying and using a firewall is only part of the equation; configuring it correctly is equally important. Here are some best practices for firewall configuration.

Define clear and concise rules that specify who and what kind of users are allowed and who and what should be blocked. These rules should be regulated and updated on a regular basis to adapt to the changing cyberthreat landscape. You can also follow the principle of least privilege, which will give the absolute minimum access to users and programs - of course giving access to relevant users and programs.

You should always keep your software and firmware updated with the latest security updates. Here, developers patch any vulnerabilities and gaps that otherwise could be exploited by hackers. When you monitor logs for firewall activity you get a much better picture of illicit activity; this gives you a better chance at acting on any unwanted traffic. Another good tool to use is IDPS (Intrusion Detection and Prevention) with your firewalls to take a proactive step in your cybersecurity to block any potential threats.

To secure administrative access to your firewalls, you should implement MFA (Multi-Factor Authentication), and strong and unique passwords, that adds an extra layer of security to your software. You should also periodically audit your firewall rules and conduct penetration testing to identify and detect vulnerabilities and weaknesses in your network defenses.

What the future holds for firewall technology

The cybersecurity landscape is constantly changing and evolving, and firewall technology continues to advance with the further development of general technology. Below we look at a few future trends you should keep an eye out for:

  • AI and machine learning are being used to improve firewall capabilities, making them able to adapt to new and emerging threats while also making real-time decisions based on the developing network patterns.

  • The Zero Trust model assumes that no one, whether inside or outside the network, can be trusted by default. In this case, firewalls will play an important role in integrating Zero Trust principles by continuously verifying and approving users and devices.

  • As more computing and data processing move to the edge of networks (IoT devices, 5G networks, etc.), edge firewalls will become fundamental for securing these distributed environments.

  • A function that will simplify the management and response to security events is automation and orchestration of firewall rules and policies; this will make networks even more resilient.

Protect your fortress

Threats to our data and network are constantly there, so we will need tools to help us fight the threats. One of these tools are firewalls that have been a fundamental asset in cyberdefense. It’s important to know how firewalls work since it helps you and your organization in the cyberlandscape. People responsible for IT should (and often already) know what the important walls are for.

When you implement best practices in firewall configuration and stay aware of current trends, you can strengthen your defense significantly. Just think of firewalls as the protective moats surrounding your digital castle containing the treasure that is your data. So, keep your data and fortress safe by staying vigilant and aware of your digital surroundings.

Author Caroline Preisler

Caroline Preisler

Caroline is a copywriter here at Moxso beside her education. She is doing her Master's in English and specializes in translation and the psychology of language. Both fields deal with communication between people and how to create a common understanding - these elements are incorporated into the copywriting work she does here at Moxso.

View all posts by Caroline Preisler

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