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Best Firewalls for Schools

Many K-12 school districts are rapidly upgrading their networks to adopt eLearning and other digital programs across distant campuses to improve student learning. Also, research shows that:

  • At least one digital device is utilized every day in the classroom, according to 42% of teachers.
  • 75% of teachers predict digital learning resources will supplant traditional textbooks within the next ten years.
  • 90% of children use digital learning materials in their homes.
  • According to 79 percent of instructors, technology makes a significant difference in making learning more engaging.

There are significant amounts of financial and personally identifiable information (PII) that must be protected in school networks. As these networks evolve to provide improved learning experiences across campuses, school cybersecurity is frequently neglected, making schools important targets for cybercriminals. Unfortunately, children are less aware or cautious than adults, making them more vulnerable to phishing and social engineering attacks.

Physical security and cybersecurity for school districts necessitate a comprehensive, cost-effective solution that can be implemented across all campuses while also assisting with compliance. Schools have a responsibility to keep students safe from improper content while also safeguarding devices and school networks from harmful attacks. Their IT teams should be able to offer a network that streamlines education while keeping kids safe.

A firewall is vital for protecting students and instructors against cyber threats in school networks. A firewall is a security solution that monitors and regulates network data and traffic. To prevent dangerous network packets, it functions as a barrier between a trusted network and an untrusted network. It prevents student curiosity from becoming a liability by automatically recognizing and blocking phishing attacks. Not only does a firewall protect students from cyber threats, but it also offers domain-level protection and content filtering to keep them from visiting harmful websites, regardless of where they connect. Under firewall protection, students and instructors are able to do their academic research without mistakenly accessing sites that might bear legal liability or that might not be appropriate for the school's Acceptable Use Policies. It makes sure that only informative and child-friendly material is displayed.

In this article, we will cover the following topics to help IT administrators who are looking for a solution to protect their students and staff at their educational institutions.

  • Why use a firewall in schools?
  • What to look for in an ideal firewall solution for schools??
  • Which Firewall Should Be Used in Schools?
  • OPNsense + Zenarmor (Sensei)
  • Is Zenarmor Suitable for School Use?
  • Why Should You Trust Zenarmor?
  • What is Zenarmor's Pricing Policy for Schools?
  • Does Sunny Valley Organize a Discount Campaign for Schools?

Why Use a Firewall in Schools?#

Information technology is an important aspect of modern education. So much is dependent on complex hardware and software. A malware might do a lot of damage to a school system if it isn't appropriately protected. Students, as well as your teachers, are at high risk.

Fortunately, a network firewall can keep your school safe and working smoothly. The main reasons to use a firewall in a school network are summarized below.

Cyber Safety#

Students must be protected against not only physical damage and the possibility of criminal acts on campus but also cyber threats and vulnerabilities on the network. Since improper content may be more harmful to a pupil than a physical threat, state and federal laws mandate schools to monitor and filter their children's internet usage. Using proper network security solutions in a school/campus network saves our children.

Efficiency#

If a school network does not have a strong firewall, a cyber attack may cause big damage wasting a lot of money and time. Since today's education mostly depends on digital materials, an outage caused by an attack on the IT systems may have an enormous cost. In such a case, all activities and education may stop, lesson planning and department meetings are halted, and everything comes to a standstill. A well-run school relies on an effective IT network protected by a network firewall. Installing a network firewall saves money on your school's budget and improves the efficiency of the school day.

Privacy and Compliance#

To ensure children's PII information remains confidential, their connected devices only access authorized content on the internet, and they are protected from cyber-attacks, K-12 schools must follow a variety of particular rules and compliance practices such as the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA), the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) (HIPAA). If school systems want to receive federal education funds, they must use content filtering and monitoring for school devices, and the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA) lays out detailed standards for how that should be done.

Digital Learning Materials#

For the modernized classroom, cutting-edge digital and eLearning resources are essential. All school managers try to find resources to improve students' educational experiences. On the other hand, investing in any digital learning resource without thinking about cybersecurity, puts new devices and resources in danger.

E-learning

Figure 1. E-learning

What to Look for in an Ideal Firewall Solution for Schools?#

Computer networks in educational institutions, ranging from K-12 through colleges and Universities, are similar to enterprise networks. For school districts and colleges, devices ranging from mobile phones to tablets, desktop computers, and servers might number in the thousands, necessitating network security as well as suitable access controls, comparable to enterprise networks.

Educational institutions have extra internet security needs and legal obligations, such as the Children's Internet Protection Act (CIPA which addresses concerns about children's access to obscene or hazardous content over the Internet.

Securing your school's network might seem hard or even scary, especially when you have a large number of kids and employees to secure, sensitive data to preserve, and a limited budget to work with. This section explains the elements of a firewall that is suited for educational institutions in order to assist administrators in securing their school networks.

Basically, a firewall that will be implemented as a school firewall should have next-generation firewall capabilities.

Gartner defines an NGFW as:

a wire-speed integrated network platform that performs deep inspection of traffic and blocking of attacks.

An NGFW should, according to Gartner, offer at the very least:

  • Standard stateful firewall capabilities, e.g., network address translation (NAT), stateful protocol inspection (SPI), and virtual private networking (VPN), etc.
  • Signature-based IPS engine
  • Upgrade path to include future security threats and information feeds
  • SNI based TLS inspection to enable identifying undesirable encrypted applications without fully decrypting the content
  • Application awareness, full-stack visibility, and granular control.
  • The ability to incorporate data from outside the firewall, such as directory-based policy, white lists, blacklists, etc.
  • Non-disruptive in-line bump-in-the-wire configuration
  • Application and user control
  • Web filtering
  • Identity management integration

A robust and effective next-generation firewall has the following capabilities:

  • Advanced detection capabilities should be included in an effective next-generation firewall to promptly detect advanced threats.
  • It should be able to prevent cyber risks from entering the network, have the most up-to-date intelligence to prevent new threats, and have web filtering capabilities to enforce policies across hundreds of millions of URLs.
  • It has the ability to instantly detect cyber threats. It can define attacks in a matter of seconds and detect data breaches in a matter of minutes.
  • It should include a flexible management system and a variety of deployment choices. It can be used on-premises, in the cloud, in virtualized settings, or on bare metal. It should be able to handle a wide range of throughput speeds as well.

Which Firewall Should Be Used in Schools?#

In the previous section, we discussed the technical specifications that IT administrators must consider when selecting a school firewall. Another important factor to consider when choosing a firewall solution is the budget available. Even though educational institutions have the same IT security requirements as enterprises, they don't have highly skilled IT professionals and budgets as high as businesses have.

Most schools are on a tight budget and require a firewall that offers all of the benefits of a powerful next-generation firewall at a much lower cost.

Based on the requirements of the educational institutions mentioned above, there are two main options for a school firewall:

  1. Commercial Firewalls
  2. Open Source Firewalls

1. Commercial Firewalls#

There are a variety of commercial firewalls available which meet the network security requirements of the educational institutions. Although many vendors offer their proven products and professional supports to educational organizations at a discount, they are not affordable by all schools. You may find more information about these commercial firewalls on our What is Next-Generation Firewall article.

2. Open Source Firewalls#

Just like commercial products, there are a number of open source firewall solutions that compete head-to-head with the commercial alternatives.

Because of the power the community behind these open source firewall products, the products have gained a widespread adoption in the market and many school campuses are deploying these solutions onto their networks because of their rich feature-set, top notch stability, frequency of updates and unmatched cost advantage.

An open-source firewall is created and distributed under an open-source license. The term "open source" originally referred to open source software (OSS), which is intended to be freely available to the public. The open source code is available for anyone to examine, modify, and share. The fundamental functions of the Internet are based on open source technologies. A large number of Internet applications are also free and open source. Large Internet corporations such as Facebook and Google have even shared some of their private ideas with the open source community. Open source operating systems like Linux, FreeBSD, and OpenBSD include a plethora of networking and security features. As a result, they're ideal platforms for security product development, and the vast majority of commercial firewalls are built on one of them.

There are a variety of open source firewall alternatives available, ranging from small embedded systems for broadband wireless routers to large enterprise firewalls with all the bells and whistles, including free community support and paid commercial support.

If you are an IT administrator of an educational institution with a limited budget, you may want to seriously consider deploying an open source firewall on your network.

They provide the following features which meet both enterprise and school networks requirements:

  • Routing and Firewalls
  • IPS-based protection
  • Realtime protection against emerging threats
  • Traffic Shaping and Bandwidth Quotas
  • Virtual Private Network (VPN)
  • Active Directory or LDAP Integration
  • Web content filtering
  • High Availability
  • Captive Portal
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You may find more information about them and alternative solutions which are suitable for your organization network on the Best Open Source Firewalls article.

The leading two are the rising star OPNsense and the most well-known pfSenseĀ® software.

We'll be discussing OPNsense here.

OPNsense Open Source Firewall#

OPNsense is one of the best open-source firewalls and it is a rising star. It is a FreeBSD-based firewall and routing platform with features that can only be found in expensive commercial firewalls, and in many cases, even more. It combines the benefits of open and verifiable sources with the comprehensive feature set of commercial products.

OPNsense ships with a BSD license and it is free (both like freedom and free beer ;).

Because of the emphasis on security in OPNsense, unique features such as the ability to use LibreSSL instead of OpenSSL (selectable in the GUI) and a custom version based on HardenedBSD are available. Also, a dependable and robust update mechanism allows it to deliver critical security updates on time. It is one of the most up-to-date firewall products in the market (including commercial products)

The strong underlying operating system also allows OPNsense to provide its users with a comprehensive packet shaping and bandwidth management technology called ALTQ.

The IDS/IPS feature of OPNSense is included in the product. Suricata is the underlying technology, as evidenced by the fact that many commercial solutions on the market today are Suricata-based. The Emerging Threats ruleset is available in both free and premium versions.

You're also not confined to a single VPN option using OPNsense. There are numerous alternatives available, including IPSec, OpenVPN, Zerotier and the newly introduced WireGuard, all of which have no user limitations.

OPNsense's straightforward interface makes installing, setting, and utilizing it a breeze. The black console will never be used for maintenance or operations. Everything is done using a well-designed intuitive web interface.

Empowering OPNsense with the NGFW Plugin: Zenarmor#

Zenarmor, previously known as Sensei, is an easy-to-install plugin which upgrades an open source firewall to a Next Generation Firewall. Zenarmor offers cutting-edge, next-generation firewall features for open-source firewalls that aren't currently available in products like OPNsense and pfSenseĀ® software. Since March 2021, Zenarmor Release 1.8 has supported pfSenseĀ®. The pfSenseĀ® operating system is built on the FreeBSD operating system. The Zenarmor FreeBSD 12 package for the pfSenseĀ® software 2.5.x release series can be installed in this regard. If you need a powerful and cost-effective firewall with features like Application Control, Network Analytics, and TLS Inspection, Zenarmor provides them and many more.

Zenarmor key features are outlined below:

  • Commercial grade web/content filtering and ad blocking for 140+ million sites
  • Auto-blocking against emerging malware, virus, and phishing attacks based on real-time cloud based threat intelligence.
  • Best-in-class network reporting and analytics with drill-down capability
  • Policy-based filtering
  • Encrypted attacks protection
  • User/Group-based security with Microsoft Active Directory or OPNsense LDAP integration.
  • User access control with Captive Portal
  • Application-based filtering
  • Cloud based central management

Why does OPNsense + Zenarmor make sense for School Use?#

OPNsense has a very flexible plugin architecture, which allows developers to easily add new functionality to the firewall. Sunny Valley Networks has developed Zenarmor (formerly known as Sensei), an easy-to-install plug-in that enhances OPNsense with Next-Generation Firewall features, by leveraging OPNsense's architecture.

Zenarmor is a popular web content filtering/application control software in the OPNsense community. The Sunny Valley Networks team thoroughly tested it before releasing it. Since 2017, there have been thousands of Zenarmor deployments in homes, small businesses, educational institutions, and enterprise-level networks around the world. Zenarmor provides a stable and dependable system that can be used with confidence in school networks.

Zenarmor Free Edition is free. The Premium Subscription provides more advanced features and offered at a 50% discount rate for academic institutions.

In terms of price and value, the OPNsense + Zenarmor combination is the best solution on the market.

Sunny Valley Networks wants their software to be able to run in any networking environment, whether it's a container, cloud, virtual, or bare-metal deployment (firewalls, switches, UTMs) that processes Layer 3-4 traffic. OPNsenseĀ®/pfSenseĀ® firewalls, Centos, AlmaLinux, Debian, Ubuntu, and FreeBSD are among the platforms supported as of March 2021. In other words, Zenarmor provides many platform options for IT administrators to choose from depending on their hardware, technical backgrounds, and budgets. They are free to select the firewall operating system and hardware that best meets their needs.

Primary features of the Zenarmor are listed below:

  • Cloud Threat Intelligence
  • Application Control
  • Web Filtering
  • Real-time auto-blocking of recent malware/phishing outbreaks.
  • User-friendly web and application categorization system with a massive and up-to-date database.
  • Centralized Cloud management which is a very useful and appealing feature for security administrators who have a large number of firewalls to manage.
  • Rich reporting and analytics which provides network visibility.
  • User-based and device-based filtering, which is very useful for managing schools and campus networks.
  • Time scheduled policies is an extremely useful feature, particularly for managing internet bandwidth.

With OPNsense and Zenarmor, school districts and colleges now have a solution that not only meets all of an educational institution's requirements, but also has the protection of a Next-Generation Firewall with amazing filtering capabilities such as application control, content filtering, and so on, all at a low cost per device.

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You may find more information about Zenarmor on the official page.

Zenarmor Success Stories#

DynFi & Zenarmor to protect French Schools nation-wide#

Zenarmor, DynFi Software (an open source firewall) and GIP RECIA is collaborating to provide advanced threat protection services to French Schools nationwide. The initial batch of 170 firewall deployments has already been successfully carried out paving the way for further deployments in the months ahead.

Read the full presss release here.

Approved by RRT#

Similarly, the Regulatory Authority of the Republic of Lithuania (RRT) has recently begun advising OPNsense and Zenarmor for all national academic institutions such as colleges, K-12 schools, universities, and libraries.

School Districts, Universities, Libraries and many more#

Now that true content filtering is now possible for educational institution budgets, many K-12 schools, universities, school districts and libraries in over 100+ countries has already deployed Zenarmor and it is the new "go-toā€ solution for educational institutions for their content filtering and threat protection needs.

See the company Education Solutions page for more information.

Is there a special academic discount available?#

Yes. If you are an academic institution, feel free to use the Free Edition forever for free.

For the premium features; educational institutions are eligible for the Edu discount.

See the company Education Solutions page for more information.