The rule of thumb is that if any computer has a possible connection to another computer, it needs a firewall for protection.
This protection comes in two forms: hardware and software. Hardware firewalls are standalone systems, and you may already have one. Many broadband routers come with built-in firewalls, albeit there are far more powerful hardware firewalls available. Software firewalls reside on the computer - just like any other piece of software you may have installed.
If they do the same thing, why do hardware firewalls cost so much?
Think of a hardware firewall as a standalone computer - and its sole purpose in life is to protect your network. You will find hardware firewalls mainly in business and large network situations. This is due to the fact that hardware firewalls can be setup to act as a firewall for the entire network - unlike software firewalls that must be installed on each and every machine. When you have a network of over 100 devices, the hardware firewall is an obvious choice.
Hardware firewalls haven’t made it mainstream with consumers, aside from the inclusion of them in routers. This is mainly because hardware firewalls are much more complex to configure than a software firewall. This complexity also allows for a greater range of protection, and more options in defending a network. While the general consumer may set up a hardware firewall with ease, actually configuring it for optimal performance will take some time that most people don’t have.
Are Software Firewalls Really that Inferior?
Not at all! In fact, software firewalls have some features that surpass hardware firewalls. One of the main selling points of a software firewall is the ease of use. General consumers can download, install, and configure a software firewall in much less time than they could a hardware firewall.
The big selling point of software firewalls has recently been directed towards a complete protection suite. Software firewall companies have started bundling more than just firewalls - but anti-virus programs, anti-spam filters, ad blockers, and a multitude of other features to help protect users from anything potentially dangerous. This is comparable to a hardware firewall, which will generally only act as what it is - a firewall.
Lastly, software firewalls can be “resource hogs”. This is just a phrase to describe the amount of memory it requires to continually run a software firewall - which can be substantial in some cases. This can be a very negative effect for people who need every bit of performance possible. From playing video games, to running applications such as Photoshop, or editing movies - the software firewall in the background can effectively slow down these applications, with a noticeable difference. Hardware firewalls obviously won’t have this problem - but recent developments have minimized the amount of memory a firewall will consume.
I Still Can’t Decide! Which Do I Pick?
Generally, home users will go for the software firewall, and businesses or large networks will opt for the hardware firewall. The best solution, however, is to actually use both in conjunction with each other. The hardware firewall would be able to catch most attacks if configured properly, and the software firewall would make sure to catch anything the hardware firewall didn’t. This type of application is best for high-security situations, where the extra security is needed.
Just because you may have a router with a built-in firewall doesn’t mean that your network is safe. These types of hardware firewalls aren’t as complex as their counterparts - so you’ll most likely need a software firewall as well. And in the end, the price tag makes one of the biggest impacts on the decision of what to buy. Whereas some software firewalls are cheap or even free, hardware counterparts are fairly expensive.
Ultimately, the decision is up to you for which type of protection you desire. Just keep in mind that most home users are better off with software firewalls, and larger networks are better off with hardware firewalls. And if you really have something to hide, you can always go with both! And for the lucky users who don’t need a connection to the internet or other computers, you don’t even need one - so you can put the money back in your wallet.