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What are the Top Must-Have Features of a Next-Generation Firewall?

Firewalls are one of the core building blocks of any cybersecurity setup. As networking needs expand in organizations, so do increasingly complex cyber threats evolve. In such cases, traditional firewall systems can become obsolete when faced with more sophisticated threats.

Traditional firewalls are used to protect your network against potential cyber threats that may try to access your computer or your system network through the internet. It essentially acts as a shield or wall that separates your computer from malicious network traffic. Firewalls are crucial for your network security and are regarded as the first line of defense that keeps your network safe.

However, as threats evolve so must we strengthen the type of cybersecurity measures we undertake. This has led to the development of Next-Generation Firewalls, also known as NGFWs. A next-generation firewall as the name suggests is built on the basic foundation of your traditional firewalls but carries additional features that previous generations lacked.

We can simply define an NGFW as "a third-generation firewall technology that is capable of deep packet inspection; keeping your hardware and software safe from sophisticated cyber attacks."

Some general features you'll find in generation firewalls include:

  • URL blocking
  • Virtual Private Networks(VPNs)
  • Deep Packet Inspection and Packet Filtering
  • SSL and SSH inspection
  • Intrusion Prevention Systems (IPS)
  • QoS
  • Advanced malware detection (sandboxing)

And much much more...

Must have features of NGFW

Figure 1. What are the top must have featues of a NGFW

Choosing the best firewall to protect your network device(s) means assessing the features the firewall provides. This is particularly important when you're implementing next-generation firewalls. The entire concept is increased security protection so you'll want to make sure you get all the best features.

Here we'll be discussing some of the must-have features you should be looking for in your next-generation firewall, we'll give you some insight into one of our personal favorite NGFW and we'll be discussing some of the amazing benefits these firewalls have that make them so popular.

1. User and Application Control

The first feature we believe is a complete must-have is your "user and application control". This is a type of security technology built into next-generation firewalls that allow for the matching of different types of network traffic to predefined models or applications. This prevents applications from executing actions that put your data at risk of compromise. Similarly, user-based filtering is used to permit or restrict access to the network for users based on their assigned roles.

Why do we have the need for these features? This is because while traditional firewalls monitor and report network flow on the basis of IP information, this might not be enough. We are moving towards a dynamic workforce, including on the move and remote networks. To provide enhanced threat mitigation, firewalls must improve their regulatory functions. User control allows the firewall to monitor the users attempting to access a service, this is applicable to local users and can also be applied to incoming traffic from external users.

Similarly, companies are becoming increasingly dependent on third-party applications for their core business processes. Application control steps in here to help companies effectively monitor and control data security threats while continuing to operate efficiently using various applications. This involves identifying and controlling which applications are to be used in your IT environment, preventing malicious untrusted applications from executing any functions, reducing the overall risks of malware, and protecting your network from third-party application vulnerabilities that could pose a risk to your system.

2. Multi-Tenancy

Many enterprises, large and small businesses, and other institutions have segmented their various departments and data centers over the years, This type of segmentation also means a need for specialized security for each department or subset. This has further introduced a need for security measures that can efficiently deal with changes to your network infrastructure and secure your various segments.

Multi-tenancy is the solution to these needs. Multitenancy generally entails that multiple users of a cloud vendor are using the same resources, display, and backend database but their data is kept separate and secured. Due to its low costs and low maintenance properties, this is a particularly useful feature.

In next-generation firewalls, multi-tenancy allows you to secure more than one tenant or subtenant (here tenant refers to your customers or clients and subtenant refers to department/business units within your organization). To secure your tenants, next-generation firewalls provide security policy sets for each tenant and isolate network traffic from each subtenant. In this way applications and data are centralized on the cloud, and a multi-tenant balancer will manage the requirements for the distinguished tenants within a centralized setup. These requirements may be based on different needs or security protocols, compliance, or budgeting of each segment.

3. Virtualization

Virtualization of firewalls is a function that is sought out by institutions and enterprises hoping to secure a virtualized network environment. This can include organizations that are using public and private cloud deployments, or SDNs or SD-WANs for data storage and processing.

A virtual firewall is not so different from a physical firewall application, it provides many of the traditional firewall protection and services. The only difference is that it is a solution geared to cloud-based resources.

A virtual firewall is typically used in circumstances where deploying hardware firewalls is either difficult or impossible. LIke hardware-based firewalls, virtually deployed firewalls are used to provide or reject access to traffic flow from potentially harmful zones and other trusted network zones. These virtual networks are not physically located in your data centers, your PCs, or devices but are rather deployed and managed as software. Advanced virtual firewalls present in next-generation firewalls are able to not only secure and inspect traffic in public cloud environments but are also able to isolate multiple workloads from one another so they can be secured individually in virtual machines (VMs).

The true benefit of virtual firewalls is that they can perform the very same functions a physical firewall can perform but are deployed in the cloud and is not dependent on heavy, costly hardware. Businesses that are actively employing remote workers are specifically suited to virtual firewall security setups. Remote PCs from remotely located workers can get the same protection and are still provided access to the larger enterprise network.

4. Unified Security Management

UTM or Unified Threat Management is a capability of next-generation firewalls that allow for multiple security features in single devices on the network, simplifying the way in which users protect their networks from threats. In other words, unified threat management refers to a single security solution, employed on a single appliance that is able to provide a wide range of security functions at any point on the network.

Some functions that a UTM appliance can provide include antivirus, anti-malware, anti-spyware, anti-spam, network firewalling, [web content filtering]/docs/network-security-tutorials/what-is-web-filtering, intrusion detection, intrusion prevention, and email filtering to name a few. This form of security management is widely sought out by enterprises and businesses.

The reason is that new more complex threats are emerging, usually an amalgam of various types of malware that are used in combination to target a specific part of your network at the same time. Using separate appliances to protect your network against these attacks can be time-consuming and ineffective; this is where unified security management or UTM steps in.

Unified security management will help for a single point of defense so your security setup is more qualified to monitor, manage and prevent more varied and advanced threats easily. Such systems are also much easier to install, configure and maintain saving time and money for your organization.

5. Threat Prevention

How does one know when their system is truly secure against external threats such as viruses, Trojan horses, worms, and malware? Installing an antivirus is a great solution but it is not enough. This is why we have firewalls in place. Antiviruses help protect your system against unwanted programs but a firewall is what will protect such unwanted threats from entering your system, to begin with. As mentioned earlier, firewalls are your first line of defense against external threats.

New more advanced threats are capable of entering your system through unpatched vulnerabilities without the user ever becoming aware of the system's compromise. Modern-day threats are using ports 80 and 443 (HTTP and HTTPS) to sneak through your security setup since older firewalls are not particularly equipped to handle web-based threats. Next-generation firewalls are particularly suited for threat prevention and advanced threat prevention; they will effectively monitor all your network flow so that compromise of your network and systems data does not occur at any time.

These advanced firewalls are able to block threats at the network edge, regardless of the IP port used. They use functions such as sandboxing, static and dynamic packet filtering, and URL filtering to actively detect and deal with threats.

Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) itself is considered an integral part of threat protection under such firewalls. Deep packet inspection allows for the thorough examination of each packet entering the network to identify any anomalies, threats, non-compliance, intrusions, spams, or viruses that defy set criteria and so block such packets from passing the inspection point.

6. Scalable Performance

Networks are growing in size and complexity day by day, this means that there is a need for adaptable solutions that are scalable to meet the growing network needs and demands. Security solutions are one of the core parts of a modern enterprise these days, every network needs to protect itself from external threats that can compromise its system. Simultaneously, organizations are realizing the limitations of their traditional firewalls that are not capable of keeping up with rapid network infrastructure changes or more sophisticated threats.

This is also one of the reasons why organizations are adopting next-generation firewalls, NGFWs are designed with the concept that organizations are rapidly growing and changing. Not only are NGFWs scalable but are also able to inspect traffic at a much more detailed level, particularly hidden threats. Firewalls should be able to scale as needed to keep up with your network needs, that's exactly what next-generation firewalls are providing. The best way to describe how firewalls are scalable is that of a skilled security agent, once you train him to identify threats at an advanced level, he is more than capable of adapting to other environments quickly; as so NGFWs.

7. High Availability

High availability is a type of security measure that is used to maintain service in the event that your software or hardware fails or shuts down unexpectedly. This makes for systems that are dependable enough to operate continuously without fail. In the case of next-generation firewalls, high availability is a deployment that has two firewalls configured in synchronization. In the scenario that one firewall fails or shuts down, the other will seamlessly take over.

This is an incredibly useful feature since it can effectively help you combat downtime and make sure your network processes don't come to a stop for too long. In a dynamic network, downtime can deeply affect your ROI so adopting practices that reduce downtime is generally sought after. Another thing to consider is the complexity of modern systems with multiple nodes in your network topology. Failure in these nodes should not affect the remainder of your system.

Firewalls are able to work on either the active model or the passive model. The active model will have two or more interconnected firewalls operating simultaneously that divide the processing capacity of traffic flow. On the other hand, passive models will have one main firewall operate at any one time while the secondary firewall(s) will only be deployed in the scenario that the first fails. In many cases, the primary firewall may be deployed in a physical device whereas the backup is a virtual appliance-based firewall. Either model can provide you with a more concrete security setup.

What is the Best Next-Generation Firewall?

There are plenty of factors to consider when choosing your next-generation firewall, these include the costs, performance, visibility and control, scalability, and threat prevention features. If you're looking for a reliable NGFW solution to your cybersecurity needs then allow us to recommend our personal favorite, the Zenarmor (formerly known as Sensei) next-generation firewall.

Zenarmor is a software-based open source instant firewall that can be deployed virtually nearly anywhere (this means that it can be implemented on any platform with network connectivity). It is essentially a plugin for your cloud-based firewalls which allows you to access its next-generation firewall features. Zenarmor will then allow you to get strengthened security through its wide range of features including application control, TLS Inspection, Web filtering, etc.

Some of the major features Zenarmor provides include:

Here you must note that using open source firewalls also allows you to custom build your own next-generation firewall according to your unique needs. Some examples of the top open-source firewalls include OPNsense, pfSense software, Ubuntu Linux, etc. These are great software but they lack many of the essential next-generation firewall features (some of which we've discussed above). This is why we use add-on packages such as Zenarmor to unlock the true benefits of next-generation firewalls.

Here we recommend using the OPNsense platform since you can gain access to the free edition of Zenarmor easily. You can also purchase the premium subscription for even more advanced features; these include advanced threat protection, domain blocking, web and URL filtering, policy-based filtering, user-based filtering, and 24/7 customer service support.

With the free version, you can still unlock plenty of useful features including network analytics, real-time threat blocking, application controls, web filtering, cloud management, and community forum support. All in all, it is a wonderful next-generation firewall that manages to strike a decent balance between the features it offers in the free version and the paid version, each is incredible! Providing advanced features at an affordable price, Zenarmor is the best firewall for schools, home, and small business networks.

What are the Advantages of the Next-Generation Firewall?

There is a wide range of features that next-generation firewalls are capable of providing, but that's not all. There are a number of advantages of using next-generation firewalls. We'll be discussing some of them below.

  • Versatility: One of the largest benefits of next-generation firewalls is their multi-functional behavior. Unlike traditional firewall setups that are limited in their function, these firewalls carry all the functions of traditional firewalls and also include deeper inspection and packet content filtering of network traffic.
  • Multiple layered protection: Traditional firewalls are able to provide inspection and filtering at a very basic level. They are limited by the Data Link Layer and Transport Layer of the OSI (Open Systems Interconnection) model. However, more complex threats are able to silently bypass this level of cybersecurity. Next-generation firewalls assist in this scenario since they can inspect traffic from nearly all layers of the network (from the 2nd layer/the Transport layer to the 7th layer/Application Layer).
  • Advanced Security Technology: One of the core benefits of next-generation firewalls is their ability to provide advanced security technology. With the emergence of more complex and more complicated threats in the cybersecurity landscape, we need to constantly update our security modules. NGFWs are incredibly helpful since they not only help prevent known threats from getting into your networks but also identify and prevent unknown malicious malware from compromising your network. In addition to this, next-generation firewalls are able to combine multiple security technologies into one single platform for effective threat prevention.
  • Cost-Efficient Solution: There is a general misconception that updating your network with a new next-generation firewall will be incredibly costly. This is partially true, considering that many premium features come at a cost. However, we must also note that NGFWs are an investment in the long run and can actually prove to be cost-effective. Institutions that employ multiple security products now only need to use one NGFW to achieve all their security needs. Moreover, if you are deploying virtual firewalls you do not need to invest in the necessary hardware costs and associated maintenance costs for each appliance. To top it off, you can use HA features in NGFWs to reduce downtime, preventing any loss at your end.
  • Improved Infrastructure: Traditional firewalls require that you install and maintain a new security appliance for every new threat. This not only leads to the inefficient use of time but also money, especially when you take into account maintenance costs and updating costs for each device. Next-generation firewalls provide a more streamlined infrastructure solution. With integrated security measures you can get all the security features you need for all types of threat detection and management using a single device or console.
  • Centralized Management: With the help of next-generation management, you can get a centralized security management setup. AS mentioned earlier, unlike earlier firewalls you do not need to deploy multiple devices and servers for your security functions, instead, you need only deploy one dashboard to configure, monitor, and report all activities. Latest next-generation firewalls are also offering cloud-managed solutions so you eliminate the need for an on-premises server entirely.
  • Resource-efficient Solution: One benefit that we must consider is how next-generation firewalls are able to provide resource efficiencies to our organizations. Many organizations that lack the necessary staff to monitor and operate outdated security technologies find it difficult to manage responsibilities. When we upgrade systems with NGFWs, we witness how agencies are now able to strengthen management responsibilities with a unified, secure, and easy management system at hand.

All in all, next-generation firewalls are an incredibly resourceful investment. Why should you be investing in one? The primary function of any firewall is threat prevention by blocking out any malicious traffic from entering or exiting your network. Threats happen to evolve and grow more sophisticated. Traditional firewalls only filter using an "all or none" methodology but the next-generation firewall takes this a step further, you now have more granular control over your network security. Strengthen your cybersecurity solutions by deploying your own next-generation firewall today!