Generally, firewalls are configured to protect against unauthenticated interactive logins from the outside world. This helps prevent "hackers" from logging into machines on your network. More sophisticated firewalls block traffic from the outside to the inside, but permit users on the inside to communicate a little more freely with the outside.
Firewalls are also essential since they can provide a single block point where security and auditing can be imposed. Firewalls provide an important logging and auditing function; often they provide summaries to the administrator about what type/volume of traffic that has been processed through it. This is an important point as providing this block point can serve the same purpose (on your network) as an armed guard can (for physical premises).
Theoretically, there are two types of firewalls:
- Network layer
- Application layer
They are not as different as you may think. Which is which depends on what mechanisms the firewall uses to pass traffic from one security zone to another. The International Standards Organization (ISO) Open Systems Interconnect (OSI) model for networking defines seven layers, where each layer provides services that higher-level layers depend on. The important thing to recognize is that the lower-level the forwarding mechanism, the less examination the firewall can perform.
Network layer firewalls
One thing that's an important difference about many network layer firewalls is that they route traffic directly though them, so to use one you either need to have a validly assigned IP address block or a private internet address block. The network layer firewalls tends to be very fast and almost transparent to its users.
Application layer firewalls
Having an application in the way in some cases may impact performance and may make the firewall less transparent. Early application layer firewalls are not particularly transparent to end-users and may require some training. However more modern application layer firewalls are often totally transparent. Application layer firewalls tend to provide more detailed audit reports and tend to enforce more conservative security models than network layer firewalls.
The future of firewalls sits somewhere between both network layer firewalls and application layer firewalls. It is likely that network layer firewalls will become increasingly aware of the information going through them, and application layer firewalls will become more and more transparent. The end result will be kind of a fast packet-screening system that logs and checks data as it passes through.
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