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Hardware vs. Software Firewalls: A Guide for SMBs in 2022

February 26th, 2022 8 min read

Today, if you search for firewalls, you will see a combination of hardware and software firewalls marketed to small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs). Both are valuable, but they serve different purposes depending on your needs. We will look at the difference between hardware and software firewalls and determine which firewall offers the best protection for your company.

What are the differences between hardware & software firewalls?

Hardware firewalls allow you to protect your entire network from the outside world with a single physical device. This device is installed between your computer network and the internet. A hardware firewall monitors packets of data as they are transmitted. The firewall then blocks or transfers the data, according to predefined rules.

Dedicated hardware firewalls require advanced IT knowledge to install and usually require a dedicated IT employee or department to monitor and manage once installed. Therefore, hardware firewalls are usually utilized by large companies or companies where security is of utmost concern. It should be noted that most routers sold today include basic firewall capabilities, but these products target the home or SMB user. For those looking for enterprise-level hardware firewalls, click the button below.

Compare this to software firewalls that provide internal protection to a network. A software firewall is installed on an individual computer and it protects that single device. If multiple computers need protection, the software must be installed on each device. A software firewall controls the behavior of specific applications. For example, you can block access to certain websites or a printer installed on the network. Software firewalls are also useful If a threat does manage to infect a computer, as it can protect the other computers connected to the same network.

Since they are easier to install, many home and SMB users will utilize a software firewall. Any Windows OS newer than XP includes a free software firewall. Separate firewall software with more robust functionality is also available for purchase from many reputable vendors. 

If you have read this and are still confused, you’re in luck. Check out the video below for further information and a deeper explanation as to the difference between hardware and software firewalls.

The case for hardware firewalls

Hardware firewalls are also known as perimeter firewalls because it protects your network and all traffic entering and leaving at the perimeter. This gives the network administrator a lot of control over how the network is used. A hardware firewall can also protect other network devices that don’t have built-in firewalls, such as printers and other smart devices. 

Hardware firewalls have several advantages over software firewalls. Hardware firewalls easily integrate with other kinds of security. Many firewalls also come with additional security features, such as VPN and load balancing.   

Once you install a hardware firewall, it provides a single point to manage security for your entire network, which saves time and resources. Compare this to software firewalls where you must install, update, and administer the firewall on each computer. If you have a lot of workstations, it could require many more IT resources to manage software firewalls than compared to a hardware firewall.

It can be helpful to think of this as a physical firewall. This is, a literal wall of fire protecting you from cyberattacks and hackers in the physical location of your business. This symbolizes both the level of threat protection and the limitations. Not many small businesses can afford massive walls of fire. This is true for the non-metaphorical version. In the same vein, your remote employees have not offered the protections fo the firey cybersecurity offerings of a hardware solution.

Another area where hardware firewalls have an advantage is customization. The type of firewall will cause your level of protection to vary, of course, but hardware adds an opportunity. Skillful IT departments have a lot more room to maneuver with these products. They can tailor the product to address vulnerabilities specific to your industry, location, or company itself. This is utterly dependent on your staff, and the support they have from the vendor. Establishing a unique set of rules can ensure these can offer the best protection possible.

The case for software firewalls

Software firewalls work well as a second line of defense against cyberattacks since any malicious code it blocks has already traveled through your router or network firewalls. When a program is trying to access the Internet, the firewall can determine whether it is legitimate or malicious by consulting a regularly updated database. Based on this info, a software firewall can either allow or block a program’s ability to send and receive data. Software firewalls can prohibit risky activities based on blacklisted IP addresses, known malware definitions, and suspicious application requests.

Software firewalls have several advantages over hardware firewalls.  A computer must be behind a hardware firewall to be protected by hardware firewalls. For example, a remote user would be offered protection from a software firewall but not by the hardware firewall.  

Software firewalls also give greater flexibility in assigning different users and workstations differing levels of access and permissions. Another advantage is the relative simplicity of monitor firewall software, especially when compared to the difficulty to maintain and monitor hardware firewalls.  

The case for both

Given the distinctions between hardware and software firewalls, it may not be clear which one you need. Quite often, the answer is that you need both!

Some industries will require both a hardware and software firewall. The sensitive data gathered in the healthcare and financial services industries will dictate both firewalls are used. Payment Card Industry Data Security Standards (PCI DSS) also require that both hardware and software firewalls are deployed.  

One way to think of this, in relation to software, is on a scale of convenience to security. Much like taking your shoes off at the airport is a level of annoyance, such can be the case in digital security. In both purchase, setup, and application, Hardware firewalls lean toward security, whereas software offers greater convenience. Well applied, the two can cooperate to negate the worst of each and promote the better traits.

What about smaller companies with fewer security concerns? It may be tempting to select the easiest kind of firewall to install. However, remember that hardware and software firewalls actually protect against different kinds of threats. Hardware firewalls block malware before it has a chance to enter your network and software firewalls inspect the network traffic that does make it through the firewall. Most IT experts agree: to strengthen network security, all companies should implement a combination of both hardware and software firewalls.

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