Software Firewall vs Hardware Firewall: Which is Better?
A firewall is a software application or hardware device used to protect computers or networks against unauthorized access. Both hardware and software firewalls are valuable cybersecurity tools for businesses, but they serve different purposes. But what is the difference between a software firewall vs hardware firewall? And which one do you need for your business?
In this article, we explain the differences between a hardware firewall and a software firewall and explain what you need to look for to determine which of the two suits your needs better.
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What is a Hardware Firewall?
When comparing a software firewall vs a hardware firewall, a key distinction is the purpose each type of firewall fulfils. A hardware firewall is installed as the first line of defense for a computer network.
A hardware firewall is a physical device or a set of devices that protect the entire network from the outside world. This type of firewall is installed between the computer network and the internet to enforce a physical boundary that filters out traffic from unauthorized users.
Depending on predefined rules, a hardware firewall monitors data transmission over the network and blocks or allows the transfer.
A hardware firewall is can sometimes be incorporated into the router device. In more complex scenarios, such as in a medium-sized business, or enterprise network, a hardware firewall can be configured to block specific types of traffic entering and leaving the organizational network.
How does a Hardware Firewall Work?
A hardware firewall has different configuration settings based on the network setup, but most physical firewalls have similar designs and operate similarly.
A critical aspect of a hardware firewall is to install the device in the correct position, between the internet and the network, in such a way that it is difficult to access.
Another key difference when comparing a software firewall vs a hardware firewall is installation. Installing a hardware firewall requires connecting a network cable with the firewall rather than connecting it directly to the router.
This way, it forms a barrier between the network and the internet and blocks incoming and outgoing data packets as required for protection against malware attacks, threats, and intrusions.
An essential part of hardware firewall working is the packet filtering that analyses the traffic coming to and going out of the network.
As incoming data packets don’t have their origin information, this firewall uses a set of rules to identify whether the data can be harmful if permitted access. It also runs the packets through predefined key permissions to flag any suspicious packets and block access to the network.
Pros and Cons of a Hardware Firewall
A hardware firewall relies on physical devices to provide information security and data filtering. Let us look at the advantages of this type of firewall.
Hardware Firewall Advantages
- A hardware firewall runs on its own and is less prone to cyber attacks
- It offers centralized protection for the entire network
- A hardware firewall has reduced latency, which means it takes less time to process a data packet
- Another advantage is it has increased bandwidth, giving it the capacity to process a more significant number of data packets per second
- The information traffic is controlled and filtered by a set of rules defined by the company
- As the software is installed externally, it frees up resources from the server
- A hardware firewall can support a virtual private network connection for a higher level of security and encryption
Like any other system, a hardware firewall has some limitations as well.
Disadvantages of a Hardware Firewall
- A hardware firewall equipment is expensive; higher protection requirements demand more significant upfront investment
- Hardware devices can take up additional space
- This type of firewall also requires advanced IT knowledge and a dedicated department to manage it
- A hardware firewall is challenging to upgrade and is often expensive as multiple devices need to be replaced
- Upgrading can be problematic after the firewall has been scaled to the organization
What is a Software Firewall?
As the name suggests, a software firewall is installed on computers as the second line of defense against potential threats. This is because any unauthorized access or malicious code it is trying to block has already bypassed the router or hardware firewall.
Whenever a program tries to access the network, the software firewall determines malicious or legitimate by checking it against a database. Depending on this information, the firewall either allows or blocks the transfer of data. This type of firewall can also be configured to check and block any suspicious outgoing requests.
How do Software Firewalls Work?
A software firewall is installed on individual devices like computers and phones to control better what the device can do. While a hardware firewall blocks traffic entering the network, firewall software blocks the traffic trying to enter the device.
This means such software can block users or devices from accessing individual components of the network and not just the network as a whole. For example, firewall software is a great way to restrict access to a printer on a network.
Mac OS and Windows (version 7 and later) come with a built-in software firewall that blocks programs from accessing the internet based on the time of the day, user, and program trying to access the network. However, such software generally lacks advanced features, so users supplement or replace them with after-market solutions.
More advanced software firewalls usually offer better control over what access rights a user or device is permitted. As they are installed on a device, they can inspect all the traffic coming to the device and filter data based on a set of rules.
When comparing software firewall vs hardware firewall, a key difference is that while a hardware firewall can only block a domain or website, a software firewall can block content based on keywords.
Pros and Cons of a Software Firewall
A software firewall relies only on a software application to serve as a cybersecurity tool. There are several advantages a software firewall offers over a hardware firewall.
Advantages of a Software Firewall
- A software firewall is cheaper to install; some even come with free trials and free versions
- Installation is straightforward without the need for additional hardware or software
- Access to specific sites can be blocked using the software
- Updates are simple and can be done by users themselves
- Ideal for supervision of junior employees and parental controls
- It can protect against viruses, hackers, spam, malware, and more, which is more valuable for home users
- Easy to maintain
- It also gives better flexibility in assigning different levels of access and permissions to other users
Software Firewall Disadvantages
- A software firewall alone cannot filter data packets coming to the network
- A single software may not work on all the systems in an organization, which can increase the cost of installing different firewalls on different types of computers
- Installation and upgrading, whenever performed, should be done on each of the computers
- It can sometimes slow down the performance of computers
- As it is installed on a system, it can take up system resources
- Firewall software doesn’t work on devices like gaming consoles and smart TVs
Software Firewall vs Hardware Firewall: How do they differ?
Both types of firewall, hardware, and software, have their pros and cons when used for information protection.
However, several factors decide the selection of the firewall for security within an organization. Below we compare hardware firewalls vs software firewalls by considering the distinguishing features of the two types:
Which Firewall is Better?
Deciding whether you should use a hardware firewall or a software firewall is often not easy, looking at the advantages of both these types of cybersecurity tools.
The right choice between the two depends on the needs and situation of the organization. Quite often, organizations need a combination of both.
Medium to large organizations with an extensive network of computers may find a hardware firewall more preferable for information security.
However, hardware firewalls installed in a network configuration are exposed to some vulnerabilities. This is why it is better to install firewall software and hardware firewalls for a high level of security within the organization.
A software firewall alone may suit smaller companies with not many devices and systems.
However, industries like finance and healthcare will need both types of firewalls in a combination. These facilities generally deal with sensitive data and require more robust protection. They should deploy both these firewalls to comply with the industry standards.
Smaller companies with fewer security concerns may tend to prefer the simplest firewall. However, it is essential to note that hardware and software firewalls protect the network against different threats.
While a hardware firewall blocks unauthorized access to the network, a software firewall identifies potential threats that managed to enter through the hardware firewall. Experts suggest implementing both types of firewalls to strengthen network security.