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With both corporations and end-users increasingly relying on broadband connectivity, the need for firewall protection has spawned an active market for software-based solutions. While Microsoft does include a basic firewall with Windows XP, utility vendors' offerings can contain features that provide a higher level of protection and control over your system. ZoneLabs' ZoneAlarm software firewall products have emerged as some of the most popular for users of Windows-based systems.
The software can acquired from the ZoneLabs Web site. The Pro version download is approximately 3.5MB in size and costs $49.95 per seat. Corporate volume discount licenses are available. There is also a basic version available for $19.95. The basic version is provided for free to personal and non-profit organization users. The cost for either basic or pro versions includes a contract for online support and any program updates for a year following purchase.
My testing was done using ZoneAlarm Pro 3.0.118. An automated installation process got the initial file setup done pretty quickly. Once active, users will need some time to configure the program to their needs. Whenever an application attempts to use the Internet, ZoneAlarm detects the activity and identifies the specific program. ZoneAlarm then prompts the user to either allow or deny access. A check box will permit subsequent calls by the same program to be automatically allowed or denied.
You will receive alerts from programs you knowingly launch such as a web browser or e-mail client. While you can anticipate most of the alerts to Internet access, first time users of ZoneAlarm will probably be surprised to see the number of alerts that the program gives from applications attempting to access the Internet in the background. Many applications may be simply checking for updates but others have been known to gather data and send information on your system to vendors. It is usually best to deny access to unknown programs and change selections later if something does not function properly.
At the time of writing this review, ZoneAlarm had been configured for 56 different applications on my system. Understanding how and why all of these programs needed to communicate with the Internet was made much easier with the information contained on the ZoneLabs site. The deciphering of ZoneAlarm messages is made easy by the effective linking of program alerts and logs to the appropriate sections of the ZoneLabs site. Links to the online help guide are also context sensitive. ZoneLabs has done a commendable job of putting the correct configuration information into the users' hands.
In addition, a 343-page PDF manual can be downloaded and provides a comprehensive overview of all the program operations. The overall level of detail in the log files go beyond what most casual users will ever need, but can provide valuable troubleshooting information for administrators.
More than just a firewall
Recognizing that e-mail attachments are a primary threat to user systems, ZoneAlarm includes protection that ?quarantines? any attachments that may contain malicious code. This behavior caused an executable file sent to my inbox to be intercepted and listed with a .ZL extension. A subsequent attempt to load the file caused ZoneAlarm to issue a warning against the possible malicious nature of the program. When paired with a traditional virus scanner, this adds an extra layer of protection to a system.
Security products are constantly responding to newly discovered threats. This demands that periodic updates will be necessary to maintain effectiveness. ZoneAlarm can be set to automatically detect a new version as it becomes available. My experience with ZoneAlarm over the past 12 months (starting with an older 2.x version in May 2001) shows that I have downloaded updates about once every three months.
Comprehensive security policy for corporations should include software firewalls as a complement to overall enforcement strategies. ZoneAlarm Pro 3.0 has demonstrated stable, reliable performance on a variety of platforms I have tested. It should uncover Internet activity that most users would otherwise not be aware is happening. The ability to finely control or interactively block all Internet accesses will certainly help maintain a more secure environment. The extensive resources on the ZoneLabs site and tight integration with the application make understanding how to get the most out of the program easy.
Read more about Neil and link to his other articles from his SearchNetworking Expert Page.
This was first published in April 2002