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Understanding Firewalls, Part 1 - What is a Firewall?

written by: •edited by: Tricia Goss•updated: 10/24/2010

What is a computer firewall? You probably have a firewall installed on your computer. Do you know what exactly it does? This article helps you define Internet firewall and discusses different types of firewall based on their security techniques.

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    What is a Computer Firewall - How to Define Internet Firewall!

    You can define Internet firewall as a filter that identifies attempts from any application on the Internet to access your computer. Similarly, you can define Internet firewall as a filter that also identifies attempts from your computer applications to access the Internet.

    The above paragraph gives you a basic idea of what is a computer firewall. Everyone knows that Internet is not a safe place. There are both malicious websites and users who try to access your computer. The Internet firewall secures your computer from such attempts. The other face of firewall informs you about any application on your computer trying to access Internet. This alerts you of suspicious activities of the program and you can check its genuineness.

    To define Internet firewall is a tough task as one cannot offer a comprehensive list of its activities but in short, an Internet firewall helps you keep your data secure as you are browsing the Internet. For example, on a network, the firewall is also used to check each computer's safety against other computers in the network, to allow/deny access to Internet or shared resources. In a network scenario, a firewall also determines what all websites a computer can access and which ones should be blocked. By now you know that you just cannot define Internet firewall in a line or two. It needs a good amount of text and images to help people understand what is a computer firewall!

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    Types of Firewall - How Firewalls Work?

    Broadly categorized, there are two types of computer firewalls: firmware (the one that comes with your modem/router) and software. Going into depth, there are four most used types of firewall. These firewall types are based on different levels of network models: mostly TCP/IP and sometimes ISO-OSI. The Internet operates on the TCP/IP model and OSI model is for local networks. Be it your router or software, it is one or combination of the following types of firewall:

    Packet Filtering Firewall: Data transmission over networks and Internet occurs in form of data packets. Each data packet contains some data, the source and destination IP address, and the application signature. The application signature helps Packet Filtering Firewall to determine the application that generated the data packet. While the application signature and destination IP helps in determining if the data packet is safe, the source IP can trick the firewall into allowing the packet. People with malicious intentions will show a trusted source as IP address using some technique. This technique of fooling the firewall is called spoofing. The firewall can be made more secure by creating a set of filters. The data packets should be able to pass these filters to cross the firewall.

    Stateful Packet Inspection Firewall: These firewalls study the patterns of data packets (source/destination IP address, data bytes' size, and application signature) to determine if the host has previously acknowledged them. If the Stateful Packet Inspection Firewall determines that the current packet is in the same pattern of a previously allowed packet, it is allowed inside and no further checks are done. For the first packet in such communications, the firewall stops the first data packet and waits to see if the computer allows or denies the packet.

    Proxy Type Firewall: Proxy Type Firewall is used more in networks. Instead of real IP address of server, the data packets are encountered with a proxy software or device. This device determines which packets to allow and which to deny. In effect, the network is not available to the outer world without the proxy. The Proxy Type Firewall studies the application signature. It is then matched with the authorized applications list. If it matches, the firewall allows the data packets.

    Circuit Gateway Firewall: The least used type, Circuit Gateway Firewall does not allow any real protection except that it hides the network or computer behind the firewall. In effect, all communications seem to originate from the firewall. Circuit Gateway Firewall is generally combined with other types for greater protection.

    The above four types of firewalls are not comprehensive. Several other firewall types are introduced regularly - as a result of ongoing research on computer security.

Types of Computer Security - How Important is a Computer Firewall

This series on types of computer security informs you about different types of security threats. It helps you deal with security threats to computer and security threats to networks. The series on types of computer security also discusses computer based security systems before detailing firewalls.
  1. Understanding Computer Security - Types of Computer Security
  2. Understanding Computer Security - Part 2: GPS Security and CCTV
  3. Understanding Firewalls, Part 1 - What is a Firewall?
  4. Understanding Firewalls, Part 2 - Am I Protected?
  5. Understanding Firewalls, Part 3 - Limitations of Firewalls