Hardware firewalls

If you have an “always on” Internet connection, then consider using a hardware firewall. A hardware firewall protects all of the computers and other devices on your network, eliminating the need to install a software firewall on each one.

If you’re not convinced that you need a firewall, then consider this: fully one third of all personally-owned computers on broadband (cable modem, DSL, and so on) connections have had one or more Trojan horse programs installed and are actively used to relay millions of spam messages and participate in massive distributed denial-of-service attacks. See the sidebar titled “The Legion of Zombies”.

Hardware firewalls are generally set-it-and-forget-it (or even plug-it-in-and-forget-it) and are very reliable. I have used Netgear and D-Link firewalls (the Netgear firewall was a combination four-port network switch and firewall, the D-Link a combination Wi-Fi network access point, four-port network switch, and firewall), and both were highly reliable. I also use ZoneAlarm on all PCs on my home network, and none has ever detected traffic that the firewalls should have blocked. I have used default settings on both firewall products and have never needed to troubleshoot a problem.

In fact, both hardware firewalls I have used were “plug and play” — all I needed to do was connect them to the network and turn them on, and they began working immediately.

I’m sure that the other major brands of hardware firewalls (which, as I have mentioned, are nearly always bundled with other features such as network switch and wireless network) are as easy to set up and use. However, if you’re intimidated by this (or aren’t all that sure you can make it work).

Selecting and purchasing hardware firewalls

A hardware firewall is a small appliance that you install in your home network. The firewall protects every computer — in fact, anything connected to your network — from the threats present on the Internet.

You can’t just buy a firewall-only appliance. Instead, many common devices purchased for home networks — switches, routers, and wireless access points — come with a firewall built in. This is a convenience, as nearly all home networks need one or more of these other devices anyway. The most popular hardware devices contain all these functions in one compact unit.

Installing hardware firewalls

There are many different kinds of home networking appliance products that contain firewalls, and many different kinds of home networks. Instead of showing every possible combintion of firewall product and home network, I provide a check- list to help you decide what to do:

  • Draw a picture of how your network devices fit together — DSL modem, cable modem, computer(s), anything else, and the wiring that connects them — before you start. If you cannot make the firewall work, you need to put your network back together the way it was before you started.
  • Label your cables. Same reason.
  • Read the installation instructions that accompany your firewall before you begin. Make sure you understand how to do everything you have to do.
  •  Make sure you have all the necessary cabling. You may need one or more additional “patch cords” (they look like phone cords but have wider connectors).
  •  Make sure you have enough electrical outlets. Your firewall will take up one or more plugs, depending on the shape of your power supply and your plug strip.
  •  Install the firewall in a safe, out-of-the-way location where it will not get spilled on, stepped on, or covered with papers (mine has suffered all of these fates). Make sure it’s in a place where you can see the blinking lights.
  •  Be patient. Getting a firewall working should not be too much more difficult than connecting a DVD player to your stereo.