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So, What's Best for me ?

Lots of options are available, and it makes sense to spend some time with an expert, either in-house, or an experienced consultant who can take the time to understand your organization's security policy, and can design and build a firewall architecture that best implements that policy. Other issues like services required, convenience, and scalability might factor in to the final design.


The business of building firewalls is in the process of becoming a commodity market. Along with commodity markets come lots of folks who are looking for a way to make a buck without necessarily knowing what they're doing. Additionally, vendors compete with each other to try and claim the greatest security, the easiest to administer, and the least visible to end users. In order to try to quantify the potential security of firewalls, some organizations have taken to firewall certifications. The certification of a firewall means nothing more than the fact that it can be configured in such a way that it can pass a series of tests. Similarly, claims about meeting or exceeding U.S. Department of Defense ``Orange Book'' standards, C-2, B-1, and such all simply mean that an organization was able to configure a machine to pass a series of tests. This doesn't mean that it was loaded with the vendor's software at the time, or that the machine was even usable. In fact, one vendor has been claiming their operating system is ``C-2 Certified'' didn't make mention of the fact that their operating system only passed the C-2 tests without being connected to any sort of network devices.

Such gauges as market share, certification, and the like are no guarantees of security or quality. Taking a little bit of time to talk to some knowledgeable folks can go a long way in providing you a comfortable level of security between your private network and the big, bad Internet.

Additionally, it's important to note that many consultants these days have become much less the advocate of their clients, and more of an extension of the vendor. Ask any consultants you talk to about their vendor affiliations, certifications, and whatnot. Ask what difference it makes to them whether you choose one product over another, and vice versa. And then ask yourself if a consultant who is certified in technology XYZ is going to provide you with competing technology ABC, even if ABC best fits your needs.

Single Points of Failure

Many ``firewalls'' are sold as a single component: a bastion host, or some other black box that you plug your networks into and get a warm-fuzzy, feeling safe and secure. The term ``firewall'' refers to a number of components that collectively provide the security of the system. Any time there is only one component paying attention to what's going on between the internal and external networks, an attacker has only one thing to break (or fool!) in order to gain complete access to your internal networks.


Secure Network Devices

It's important to remember that the firewall is only one entry point to your network. Modems, if you allow them to answer incoming calls, can provide an easy means for an attacker to sneak around (rather than through ) your front door (or, firewall). Just as castles weren't built with moats only in the front, your network needs to be protected at all of its entry points.

Secure Modems; Dial - Back Systems

If modem access is to be provided, this should be guarded carefully. The terminal server , or network device that provides dial-up access to your network needs to be actively administered, and its logs need to be examined for strange behavior. Its passwords need to be strong -- not ones that can be guessed. Accounts that aren't actively used should be disabled. In short, it's the easiest way to get into your network from remote: guard it carefully.

There are some remote access systems that have the feature of a two-part procedure to establish a connection. The first part is the remote user dialing into the system, and providing the correct userid and password. The system will then drop the connection, and call the authenticated user back at a known telephone number. Once the remote user's system answers that call, the connection is established, and the user is on the network. This works well for folks working at home, but can be problematic for users wishing to dial in from hotel rooms and such when on business trips.

Other possibilities include one-time password schemes, where the user enters his userid, and is presented with a ``challenge,'' a string of between six and eight numbers. He types this challenge into a small device that he carries with him that looks like a calculator. He then presses enter, and a ``response'' is displayed on the LCD screen. The user types the response, and if all is correct, he login will proceed. These are useful devices for solving the problem of good passwords, without requiring dial-back access. However, these have their own problems, as they require the user to carry them, and they must be tracked, much like building and office keys.

Crypto-Capable Routers

A feature that is being built into some routers is the ability to use session encryption between specified routers. Because traffic traveling across the Internet can be seen by people in the middle who have the resources (and time) to snoop around, these are advantageous for providing connectivity between two sites, such that there can be secure routes.

Virtual Private Networks

Given the ubiquity of the Internet, and the considerable expense in private leased lines, many organizations have been building VPNs (Virtual Private Networks). Traditionally, for an organization to provide connectivity between a main office and a satellite one, an expensive data line had to be leased in order to provide direct connectivity between the two offices. Now, a solution that is often more economical is to provide both offices connectivity to the Internet. Then, using the Internet as the medium, the two offices can communicate.

The danger in doing this, of course, is that there is no privacy on this channel, and it's difficult to provide the other office access to ``internal'' resources without providing those resources to everyone on the Internet.

VPNs provide the ability for two offices to communicate with each other in such a way that it looks like they're directly connected over a private leased line. The session between them, although going over the Internet, is private (because the link is encrypted), and the link is convenient, because each can see each others' internal resources without showing them off to the entire world.

A number of firewall vendors are including the ability to build VPNs in their offerings, either directly with their base product, or as an add-on. If you have need to connect several offices together, this might very well be the best way to do it.

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