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Introduction to firewalls

Learn about network layer versus application layer firewalls and how they help protect your network.


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).

Administrator's notebook
Need a quick review? Here are the main points:
  • A firewall is a hardware or software system that prevents unauthorized access to or from a network.
  • Two main types of firewalls: network layer and application layer
  • Network layer firewalls make decisions based on the source address, destination address and ports in individual IP packets.
  • Application layer firewalls generally are hosts running proxy servers, which permit no traffic directly between networks and perform elaborate logging and examination of traffic.

Theoretically, there are two types of firewalls:

  1. Network layer
  2. 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.

A firewall is simply a system designed to prevent unauthorized access to or from a private network. Firewalls can be implemented in both hardware and software, or a combination of both. Firewalls are frequently used to prevent unauthorized Internet users from accessing private networks connected to the Internet. All data entering or leaving the Intranet pass through the firewall, which examines each packet and blocks those that do not meet the specified security criteria.

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.

This type generally makes its decisions based on the source address, destination address and ports in individual IP packets. A simple router is the traditional network layer firewall, since it is not able to make particularly complicated decisions about what a packet is actually talking to or where it actually came from. Modern network layer firewalls have become increasingly more sophisticated, and now maintain internal information about the state of connections passing through them at any time.

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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These generally are hosts running proxy servers, which permit no traffic directly between networks, and which perform elaborate logging and examination of traffic passing through them. Since proxy applications are simply software running on the firewall, it is a good place to do lots of logging and access control. Application layer firewalls can be used as network address translators, since traffic goes in one side and out the other, after having passed through an application that effectively masks the origin of the initiating connection.
This was last published in February 2004

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