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Hardware vs. Software Firewalls

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How to Choose What´s Best For You

Even a novice baseball fan knows that you don’t pitch a hardball in a softball game. Unfortunately, the rules of network and personal computer security aren’t quite so well known.

Take, for instance, hardware and software firewalls. When properly configured, both security solutions shield users from hackers, crackers, cyber-prowlers, disgruntled employees, and other would-be attackers.

Despite their similarities, hardware and software firewalls have many differences. Choose the wrong one and you could wind up spending far more money than necessary.

Which type of firewall is right for you? You should know by the time you finish reading this brief primer.

Hardware Firewalls

For the sake of simplicity, think of hardware firewalls as specialized network boxes that contain customized hardware and software. When properly configured, hardware firewalls provide a protective barrier that hides an organization’s internal PCs from the outside world. They can also shield one company department (say, finance) from another (say, human resources).

In many cases, hardware firewalls are great solutions for organizations that want a single security umbrella that protects multiple systems. For this very reason, most FORTUNE 500 networks have hardware firewalls in place.

So what’s the downside? Since they are specialized devices, hardware firewalls tend to be expensive, complicated, difficult to upgrade, and tricky to configure. In other words, they are best reserved for IT managers who are specially trained to install, configure, and monitor such devices.

Low-end hardware firewalls, now found in network switches and routers for the home, also have their limitations. If you take a personal laptop on the road, for instance, your system is no longer protected by the home-based firewall.

Software Firewalls

In contrast to their hardware cousins, software firewalls are more ideal for individual users or small businesses that have dial-up or broadband Internet connections. Instead of using a custom (and often expensive) piece of hardware, a software firewall installs on an individual’s PC, notebook, or workgroup server.

Even if an organization has hardware firewalls in place, it’s wise for individuals to use software firewalls on their own systems. The main reason: software firewalls are especially convenient for mobile workers who need digital security when working outside of the corporate network. That’s because the entire security solution is, in essence, a single application running on one’s computer. Another major benefit, software firewalls are easily upgraded. Users simply download patches, fixes, updates, and enhancements from the firewall provider’s web site, or the provider sends these improvements via the Internet.

“Free” May Cost You

Many modern operating systems, such as Windows® XP, come with basic software firewalls. These “free” solutions only offer the bare minimum protection and are not to be confused with comprehensive software firewalls with multiple, sophisticated security features. As an example, a barebones firewall doesn’t stop the outward data transmissions of personal information from a hard drive.

For a nominal investment, you can have one the industry’s most robust software solutions, McAfee® Internet Security. This software package comes with an intuitive setup assistant; summary pages that identify network traffic; enhanced application handling that identifies trusted web sites; robust intrusion detection; and even intrusion tracing that allows users to determine who’s trying to attack their systems. These kind of advanced features aren’t found in “free” alternatives.

“Think of the firewall in McAfee Internet Security as a tireless traffic cop who stands between your system and the Internet,” says Marc Solomon, director of consumer product management at McAfee Security. “McAfee Personal Firewall Plus goes far beyond basic security. It allows you to analyze who’s knocking on your computer’s door, when and how the knock occurred, and where it came from. Most importantly, only trusted network traffic enters and exits your system.”

Plus, McAfee’s solution is always active and always up to date. Through the McAfee SecurityCenter, users receive the latest information about security threats, updates and so forth. Concludes Solomon, “With McAfee Internet Security you have an early warning system that every Internet-connected user needs.”

Safety Measures

Firewalls are vital for defending against attacks, but common sense plays a major role in winning the battle with cyber criminals. For starters, it is wise to turn off Windows’ file-sharing and printer-sharing features if you don’t need them. If you activate such features, don’t share files or printers with anyone outside of your network. And always, before you open unsolicited files (for example an email with a .exe attachment), contact the sender via phone to confirm the attachment’s contents.


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