What’s the Best Type of Firewall for Your Business?An incredible 43% of all data breaches target small businesses,¹ which makes it more important than ever to protect your small business network from malicious traffic.
Real talk? Most of us know that firewalls are an important part of cybersecurity but don’t know how firewalls work or what they actually do.
Believe it or not, there are multiple types of firewalls, and each type offers different protections, advantages, and drawbacks. And choosing the right type of firewall for your business size and type can make a huge difference when it comes to your business’s online security.
Don’t worry—we’re here to help.
We’ve done a deep dive into the realm of cybersecurity. We’ve figured out the industry jargon and sussed out the difference between packet filtering and application-layer inspection. And we’ve surfaced with a list of recommendations specifically designed to help you find the perfect firewall solution for your business needs.
Windows Defender or OS X Application Firewall: Best for solopreneurs
Most people don’t realize that their Windows or Mac computer already includes free firewall software. So if you’re an individual running a small business on your own, you may already have all the intrusion protection you need—no expensive third-party firewall necessary.
If you have a Windows computer, your operating system already includes Windows Defender—Microsoft’s free firewall software. Windows Defender is a stateful inspection firewall, so it analyzes both the TCP handshake and packet labels (more on those later) on every online exchange. It comes pre-enabled on your computer, so you don’t have to do anything to get started.
On Apple computers, you get the OS X Application Firewall—a circuit-level gateway software that monitors TCP handshakes. While it allows you to set your own firewall rules, it doesn’t use packet filtering, which makes it a bit less reliable than the free Windows firewall. And it isn’t pre-enabled, so be sure to turn your firewall software on before connecting to the internet.
Keep in mind, too, that both Windows Defender and the OS X Application Firewall are software firewalls, so they can protect only your individual computer—hence the reason we recommend them for individuals, not for larger companies. They’re also fairly basic, so if you’re handling a lot of sensitive data (like customer credit card numbers, addresses, or phone numbers), you may want to upgrade to a third-party software firewall.
Third-party software firewall: Best for individuals handling sensitive data
Third-party firewalls complement the existing firewall software on your computer. They deliver extra security features to help thwart would-be cyber criminals.
Every third-party firewall solution offers a different combination of features, so you may have to do some shopping to find the right software for your needs. But features can include an extra layer of deep packet inspection, anti-spam functions, data backup, and more—the possibilities are virtually endless.
We recommend this option if you’re an individual handling sensitive data because it gives you additional tools and protections to keep that data safe—while still being affordable and manageable.
That being said, companies with multiple employees may prefer a hardware firewall. Since a software firewall can protect only the devices the software is installed on, it doesn’t protect your entire network. Plus, you have to manually install and update the software on each device on your network (even mobile devices!). Depending on the software, you may also have to buy separate licenses for each device, which gets pricey—especially considering how expensive many third-party firewalls are.
Don’t get us wrong, though—having a software firewall on your company devices is still important. If each device on your network has a software firewall, your network’s still protected if one device is infiltrated. Software firewalls also allow your employees to work from their favorite coffeehouse and enjoy the same online security they get in the office. We’re just saying that a complex, third-party software firewall may not work for large companies—at least not as your primary cybersecurity solution.
Norton’s firewall software has a long track record of protecting individuals and businesses from malicious traffic. In addition, Norton’s firewall solution offers webcam security, virtual private network (VPN) functions, and more on up to five devices. Plus, customers get 10GB of cloud-based data backup and LifeLock services.
Firewall + antivirus software: Best for small businesses
The more employees you have, the more likely it is that someone on your network will accidentally install malware or download a computer virus. That’s why we think the best small-business firewall is a firewall + antivirus software combo.
Firewalls that include antivirus software use deep packet inspection to identify and reject files, messages, and other forms of data that include malware or viruses. Consequently, they have a better record of intrusion detection than a regular firewall. And usually, this kind of software acts as a web application firewall, so it keeps you safe no matter which app you use to access the internet.
Keep in mind that this recommendation is still a software firewall, so it comes with all the same drawbacks as a third-party software firewall. That said, we think that the added cost and inconvenience of installing and updating software on every employee’s device is worth it if you have more than a couple of employees (since the chance of “catching” malware or a virus goes up the more people you bring in).
McAfee’s reputation for quality antivirus software is unparalleled, so recommending McAfee’s antivirus + firewall software just makes sense. Be warned, though: McAfee’s firewall software can be used on “unlimited devices,” but it’s technically for consumer use—not businesses. So if you’re looking for a software that can support hundreds of employee devices, you may want to check out a UTM instead.
Basic router: Best budget option
If you’re running a small business with multiple employees, chances are you’ve already invested in a basic Wi-Fi router so everyone in the office can connect to the internet at once. If so, you’ve already got basic firewall protection.
A Wi-Fi router is a great low-budget, small-business firewall solution because routers automatically block any external traffic that doesn’t meet basic security parameters (set by you, of course). That essentially makes your router a stateless firewall, monitoring TCP handshakes like a bouncer to make sure every incoming request is on “the list” for your internal network.
Of course, that means your router offers only minimal network security—hardly ideal if you’re handling a lot of sensitive data you don’t want compromised. In that case, you should probably upgrade to a firewall router or a third-party software firewall.
On the upside, though, a router is a hardware firewall, so it protects all the devices on your network. That saves you money, since you don’t have to buy licenses for each employee’s computer. Plus, you can find basic routers for as little as $10, and you don’t have to waste valuable business time updating, monitoring, and installing firewalls on each employee’s computer.
Firewall router: Best for medium-sized businesses
As your business grows, installing and maintaining firewall software on each employee device becomes more and more impractical—at least as your primary form of network security. In that case, a hardware firewall that protects your whole network at once may be a better solution.
Enter firewall routers.
Firewall routers upgrade the security you get with a basic router by adding more complex firewall rules to better identify security threats. Some models offer stateful security firewalls, built-in antivirus software (which operates from your router, not individual devices), application monitoring, and “parental” controls to block employees from accessing dangerous sites (or anything you deem to be inappropriate for work).
All that means you get all the protection of a software firewall, but you can control all your settings and updates in one device. Plus, you get protection for every device connected to your Wi-Fi network—including mobile devices.
Firewalla is a third-party firewall router that offers excellent web filtering, intrusion protection, and “parental” controls through a single device. And it’s great for businesses, since it includes your device and lifetime updates for $129 flat—no subscription fees.
VPN router: Best for businesses with multiple locations
If your business is spread across multiple offices or you have remote employees, you know how difficult it can be to keep everybody on the same page. Good news, though: with a VPN router, it gets a lot easier and boosts your security.
Normally, your internal network is accessible only to devices on your internet connection. That means the devices have to be physically present in the same location to connect to each other for file sharing, printing, and other internal network functions.
But with a virtual private network (or VPN), you can extend your private, internal business network to other approved devices and networks via VPN tunnels. These tunnels act as another layer of data layering (like putting a letter inside an envelope inside a box), filtering out attacks from hackers trying to infiltrate your internal network connection.
VPN routers simplify the process. When each of your locations uses a VPN router, your routers can communicate with each other, effectively combining the internal networks of each office into one big private network.
In the end, that makes it easier to communicate and collaborate with your remote employees and offices while still enjoying a high level of cybersecurity company-wide.
Cisco ASA is one of our favorite firewall solutions because it offers VPN routers, secure VPN tunneling, and multiple filtering checkpoints in your network security. That way, your security system can identify threats at every point in the transmission process.
Load balancer: Best for businesses hosting their own websites
If your business hosts websites on your own servers, you’ll probably need a load balancer in addition to your private network firewall solution.
When hosting websites, your servers need to be external-facing—meaning the public can access the data stored on your servers. Otherwise, users won’t be able to load your websites. But you also want to protect your servers from hackers and other malicious online entities. Fortunately, a load balancer can act as an automatic firewall, much like a router for your internal network.
Load balancers distribute incoming traffic across your servers. That way, no single server gets overwhelmed with simultaneous requests. Not only does load balancing make your hosted websites load faster—it can also protect your business from DDOS attacks (where hackers hijack multiple systems to overwhelm your server and crash your site).
If you’re already using load balancing, you may not need another firewall to protect your servers. Load balancers already monitor TCP handshakes and perform packet filtering functions to determine the most efficient way to distribute incoming requests. In other words, it already acts as a stateful firewall and discards malicious incoming traffic. One less thing to worry about, right?
Unified threat management (UTM): Best for large businesses
If you run a large, enterprise-level business, chances are you need a more complex security solution than a router or single software. In that case, you may want to consider a unified threat management (UTM) solution.
Each UTM product is different—some are physical devices, some are software, some are cloud-based, and some are a combination of all three. Whatever the implementation method, though, all UTM solutions aim to offer a one-stop shop for all your security needs.
UTM solutions usually offer firewall, antivirus, VPN, and other intrusion detection and prevention features in one place. That way, you get deep packet filtering for all web applications on all the devices on your Wi-Fi network (or your virtual private network), but it’s all controlled in one place.
The exact cost of a UTM solution can vary dramatically depending on the provider you choose, the size of your business, and the specific combination of features your UTM includes. Some UTMs cost roughly the same as a third-party software firewall. But be prepared for higher overall costs—you are rolling antivirus protection, VPN security, software firewalls, and hardware firewalls together into one solution, after all.
Firewall terms to know
Firewall providers use a lot of jargon, which makes it hard to understand what each option actually offers. So here’s a quick-and-dirty breakdown of some of the terms we’ve used a lot in this article.
TCP may sound like a drug or a high-end cleaning product, but it’s actually short for transmission control protocol. Every online device uses TCP to connect to the internet, and when two devices want to connect to each other, they use a TCP handshake.
So let’s say you’re on a laptop and want to access a website. Your computer would send something called a SYNchronize request to the server hosting that website. The server would then send back what’s referred to as an ACKnowledge response. Finally, your computer would reciprocate with an ACKnowledge response of its own, and—voilà!—you’re connected to the website.
What does this have to do with firewalls and network security? Clever hackers can fake a TCP handshake and use it to get access to your business’s internal network. That’s one of the most elementary reasons why firewall protection is so important.
Some firewalls act as circuit-level gateways, which means they monitor TCP handshakes on your device or network to determine whether those sessions are legitimate or not. This type of web filtering is a pretty basic security solution, but it can help protect you from hackers who attempt to fake a TCP handshake to gain access to your company’s private network.
Circuit-level gateways also mask the individual IP addresses of each device on your network. Instead, all outgoing traffic from your network is given an ID that goes with the IP address for your circuit-level gateway device (usually a router). This provides an extra level of privacy for your company and your employees.
Data on the internet is transmitted via packets. Think of a packet like an envelope: the outside is labeled with delivery information (the delivery address, return address, etc.), while the inside contains the actual message.
Once a TCP handshake is complete, the website you’re trying to access sends a data packet. The packet is labeled with your IP address (the delivery address) and the source IP (the sender’s address), and it contains a small amount of data that your computer uses to load the page.
Packet filtering is a security process in which your firewall examines the labels on the outside of any data packets being sent to your IP address. Packet filtering security solutions use a predefined set of firewall rules (controlled by you) to determine (based on the packet labels) whether incoming traffic is malicious or not. If it’s malicious, the firewall discards the packet—thereby denying access to your network and protecting you from hackers.
A stateless firewall is a firewall that uses only packet filtering to monitor your online connections.
While packet filtering is certainly an effective method of blocking malicious traffic to your network, it’s still fairly basic since it takes only the outside labels of incoming data packets into account. So a stateless firewall—while generally effective—doesn’t use more complex encryption to identify fraudulent connections.
That said, stateless firewalls may still come with other security features (like application monitoring), so you certainly shouldn’t rule them out.
Stateful inspection firewall
A stateful inspection firewall is a bit more complex because it combines the TCP handshake monitoring and packet label inspection of basic packet filtering. That makes a stateful inspection firewall more secure than a circuit-level gateway or stateless firewall alone, but it does require extra computing resources. So if your small business can’t afford the newest devices, a stateful firewall may slow down your computers and internet loading speeds.
Proxy deep packet inspection
If data packets are letters, then proxy deep packet inspection firewalls are the postal inspectors.
A security firewall that uses deep packet inspection opens data packets on your behalf (by proxy) so it can analyze the actual contents inside and identify viruses, malware, or other threats. That means it would protect you and your employees anytime someone in your network tries to access a shady application or click on a malicious link in an email.
Long story short: deep packet inspection makes your firewall’s intrusion detection a lot more robust.
A lot of cybersecurity companies like to say they offer “next-generation firewalls.” But honestly, it’s mostly just a buzzword.
As of now, there’s no industry standard for what qualifies as a next-gen firewall, and online security providers take advantage by slapping the “next-gen” label on nearly all their firewall offerings. So if you’ve checked out a few options and are feeling confused about what a next-gen firewall is (and whether you need one), don’t worry about it—it’s not you.
In the end, the best type of firewall for your business depends on your needs. If you’re running a small business (or you’re the sole employee in your business) and don’t handle a lot of sensitive data, a basic solution (like a Wi-Fi router or the free firewall software included with your computer) may be the easiest and most cost-efficient solution.
Running a small to medium-sized business or have heightened security needs? You may want to invest in a third-party software firewall, an antivirus + firewall combo, or a firewall router. If working with employees in multiple locations, a VPN router may be the way to go.
Larger businesses, though, may need the more intense firewall protection included with a unified threat management (UTM) solution. And companies that host websites will definitely want to protect their server with a load balancer (in addition to their internal network firewall).
Know which type of firewall you need? Head over to our complete ranking of business firewall solutions to see our top software, hardware, and UTM firewall recommendations.
At Business.org, our research is meant to offer general product and service recommendations. We don’t guarantee that our suggestions will work best for each individual or business, so consider your unique needs when choosing products and services.
1. Verizon, “2019 Data Breach Investigation Report“