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IT Simplified: Network Firewall

A firewall is a network security device, either hardware or software-based, which monitors all incoming and outgoing traffic and based on a defined set of security rules it accepts, rejects or drops that specific traffic.A firewall establishes a barrier between secured internal networks and outside untrusted network, such as the Internet.

History and Need for Firewall

Before Firewalls, network security was performed by Access Control Lists (ACLs) residing on routers. ACLs are rules that determine whether network access should be granted or denied to specific IP address.But ACLs cannot determine the nature of the packet it is blocking. Also, ACL alone does not have the capacity to keep threats out of the network. Hence, the Firewall was introduced.

How Firewall Works

Firewall match the network traffic against the rule set defined in its table. Once the rule is matched, associate action is applied to the network traffic. For example, Rules are defined as any employee from HR department cannot access the data from code server and at the same time another rule is defined like system administrator can access the data from both HR and technical department. Rules can be defined on the firewall based on the necessity and security policies of the organization.

From the perspective of a cooperate business, network traffic can be either outgoing or incoming. Firewall maintains a distinct set of rules for both the cases. Mostly the outgoing traffic, originated from the server itself, allowed to pass. Still, setting a rule on outgoing traffic is always better in order to achieve more security and prevent unwanted communication.

Incoming traffic is treated differently. Most traffic which reaches on the firewall is one of these three major Transport Layer protocols- TCP, UDP or ICMP. All these types have a source address and destination address. Also, TCP and UDP have port numbers. ICMP uses type code instead of port number which identifies purpose of that packet.

Generation of Firewall

Firewalls can be categorized based on its generation.

First Generation- Packet Filtering Firewall :  Packet filtering firewall is used to control network access by monitoring outgoing and incoming packet and allowing them to pass or stop based on source and destination IP address, protocols and ports. It analyses traffic at the transport protocol layer (but mainly uses first 3 layers).

Packet firewalls treat each packet in isolation. They have no ability to tell whether a packet is part of an existing stream of traffic. Only It can allow or deny the packets based on unique packet headers.

Packet filtering firewall maintains a filtering table which decides whether the packet will be forwarded or discarded. From the given filtering table, the packets will be Filtered according to following rules:

Second Generation- Stateful Inspection Firewall : Stateful firewalls (performs Stateful Packet Inspection) are able to determine the connection state of packet, unlike Packet filtering firewall, which makes it more efficient. It keeps track of the state of networks connection travelling across it, such as TCP streams. So the filtering decisions would not only be based on defined rules, but also on packet’s history in the state table.

Third Generation- Application Layer Firewall : Application layer firewall can inspect and filter the packets on any OSI layer, up to the application layer. It has the ability to block specific content, also recognize when certain application and protocols (like HTTP, FTP) are being misused.

In other words, Application layer firewalls are hosts that run proxy servers. A proxy firewall prevents the direct connection between either side of the firewall, each packet has to pass through the proxy. It can allow or block the traffic based on predefined rules.

Note: Application layer firewalls can also be used as Network Address Translator(NAT).

Next Generation Firewalls (NGFW) : Next Generation Firewalls are being deployed these days to stop modern security breaches like advance malware attacks and application-layer attacks. NGFW consists of Deep Packet Inspection, Application Inspection, SSL/SSH inspection and many functionalities to protect the network from these modern threats.

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