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The terms computer security, information security and cybersecurity were practically non-existent in the 1980s, but believe it or not, firewalls have existed in some form since that time. Over the years, the traditional firewall has transformed to meet the demands of the modern workplace and adapt to an evolving threat landscape. 

Next-Generation Firewalls (NGFWs), free from legacy technology constraints, take advantage of significant advancements in computational power, memory, and storage. NGFWs boast critical security features such as intrusion prevention, VPN, anti-virus, and encrypted web traffic inspection. This not only helps protect against malicious content but also aligns seamlessly with contemporary networking topologies like Software-Defined Wide Area Networks (SD-WAN) and zero-trust architectures. 

But what sets NGFWs apart from traditional firewalls? How do you know what features to look for and why should you invest in an NGFW? And finally, what do you do if you don’t have the security resources to devote to managing firewalls?  

In today’s crowded security marketplace, numerous firewall solutions are marketed as NGFWs. Without clear industry consensus on the definition of a next-gen firewall, it’s incumbent upon organizations to assess features and gauge if the solution aligns with their business needs. 

What makes next-generation firewalls a compelling choice for network modernization? 

NGFWs offer several advantages over traditional firewalls. Key among these are comprehensive application visibility and control, the ability to distinguish between dangerous and safe applications, and capabilities for preventing malware from penetrating a network. 

Here are several crucial ways an NGFW bolsters an organization’s cybersecurity posture. 

Protecting the Network from Viruses and Trojans: NGFW’s application awareness analyzes header information and the payload against established application signatures to validate the application’s integrity and permission for use. With so many apps and services required for employees to do their jobs, this is crucial for allowing users to download applications from the internet. 

Adaptability to the hybrid workplace: Even before the pandemic, businesses have been rapidly embracing hybrid work models, with teams working from everywhere, using a myriad of devices. This shift towards decentralized operations requires a significant effort towards adaptability and flexibility. NGFW’s robust security functionality can be invaluable in a hybrid work environment where the network perimeter is blurred and traditional security measures may fall short. NGFWs are also designed to seamlessly integrate with modern network architectures such as software-defined wide area networks (SD-WAN) and cloud services, allowing businesses to maintain robust security protocols as they transition between on-premises, cloud, and hybrid work setups. 

  • Preventing Known Productivity Distractors: With robust application control, organizations can manage which applications are run, which features are accessed, and which applications are prioritized for bandwidth. For example, social media or SaaS applications can be selectively enabled or disabled based on job function.  
  • Application Awareness: One of the fundamental enhancements NGFWs offer over traditional firewalls is application awareness. This feature allows NGFWs to identify and control applications — regardless of network port and protocol. This helps prevent unauthorized access and provides greater visibility and context into network activity. By recognizing application-specific characteristics and behaviors, NGFWs can effectively control access, provide prioritization, and offer bandwidth allocation for specific applications, enhancing both network performance and security. 
  • User-based Policies: User-based policies are another crucial NGFW functionality. Unlike traditional firewalls that enforce policies based on IP addresses, NGFWs align policies with specific users or groups. This ability to connect users with their applications and related network activities enables more precise control and more contextual reporting, which can be invaluable for both security and compliance. 
  • Intrusion Prevention System (IPS): Integrated into NGFWs is an Intrusion Prevention System (IPS) that actively identifies and blocks potential threats. The IPS scans traffic for cyber attack patterns or signatures in real-time and takes action to prevent these threats from infiltrating the network. This is a significant upgrade from traditional firewalls, which required a separate IPS solution. 
  • Deep Packet Inspection (DPI): DPI is a form of computer network packet filtering that inspects the data portion (and possibly also the header) of a packet as it passes an inspection point. This is critical in the identification, categorization, or blocking of packets with malicious data. NGFWs employ DPI to scrutinize both inbound and outbound traffic, providing protection against a broad range of cyber threats — from malware to data exfiltration. 
  • Leveraging External Security Sources: NGFWs facilitate the use of external security data, including directory-based policies, white lists, and black lists, saving time and resources.

By incorporating these advanced features, NGFWs offer far more granular control and visibility into network traffic than traditional firewalls. They empower organizations to better understand and manage the intricacies of modern network security, allowing for a stronger security posture and efficient use of resources. 

Why should you invest in a next-generation firewall? 

Firewalls primarily serve to protect against undesirable or malicious network traffic. But as threats evolve and detection becomes increasingly challenging, enterprise network security must advance to address the threat difficulty level. 

Traditional firewalls filter network traffic based on port number, IP address, or domain in an “all or none” approach. In a bygone era where most attacks targeted network services and components, this level of security sufficed. But nowadays, most exploits are directed towards specific application vulnerabilities. 

The emergence of NGFWs address these vulnerabilities, offering superior control over network security. 

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Next-Generation Firewalls vs. UTM and Virtual or Cloud-Based Firewalls 

Security discussions often blur the distinctions between NGFWs and Unified Threat Management (UTM) solutions or between appliance, virtual, and cloud-based firewalls (commonly referred to as Firewall-as-a-Service or FWaaS). 

NGFWs include IPS and some form of application intelligence. UTMs, however, include these features plus additional technologies such as wireless security, URL filtering, email security, VPNs, and web application firewalls. Given their multi-functional nature, UTMs simplify deployment and management, reduce costs, and enable quick incident response times. 

When comparing appliance, virtual, and cloud-based firewalls, we need to examine the form factor or the firewall’s location, not their features. Irrespective of hosting, a firewall with any of the above-discussed technical capabilities can be considered next-generation. Cloud firewalls are typically managed, configured, and updated by a third-party vendor, thereby reducing the managerial burden for the deploying company. 

How AT&T can help you leverage NGFWs for network modernization 

In a business environment where digital transformation is rapidly reshaping operations, it’s critical that your business deploys robust, adaptive security measures. NGFWs offer multiple layers of defense — securing your hybrid workforce and bolstering your security posture. They provide centralized visibility, reduce risk, and relieve the administrative burden on your tech teams.

Whether you’re building a foundation or upgrading your existing setup, managed firewall services from AT&T Cybersecurity make the transition smooth and efficient. Don’t wait until it’s too late; boost and modernize your network security today and protect your business against tomorrow’s threats

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