Firewalls and Internet Evolution - Why the Earliest Form of Network Protection Is Growing in Necessity

| November 18, 2015

In 1992, the first commercial firewalls were launched, promising protection against interception and other potential online risks that flanked a network’s parameter. These early firewalls provided an essential first line of defense against network-based threats, possessing the ability to separate an organization’s networks and data traffic from the public Internet.

Today, in spite of the dismal cries of critics that the firewall is nearing extinction, the history of the firewall’s resiliency and evolution reflects a brighter future. Discover why the firewall is still an elemental component of any network-based threat prevention toolkit, and how its relevancy is gaining strength in the face of inevitable change.

A History of Commitment to Adaptation

A brief timeline shows the firewall’s development over the last 20 years, as it has evolved to keep up with ever-changing network threats:

Late 1980s: Engineers from Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) defined a basic firewall as a packet-filtering or “stateless” system that dropped network data packets by analyzing the information in each packet in isolation by way of destination address, protocol, and port number. However, a drawback of the first firewalls was that they did not keep track of traffic and had no memory of previous packets, making them vulnerable to spoofing attacks.

Early 1990s: Developed between 1989 and 1990, the next generation was subsequently known as “stateful” filters. An important advancement, these firewalls could retain data packet information long enough to analyze and make a judgement about their state, making filtering easier and more reliable. However, at this point data was still vulnerable to Denial of Service attacks because the firewall could easily be overwhelmed by false packets, flooding its connection-state memory.

1991–1993: DEC SEAL, the world’s first commercial firewall, was developed by Marcus Ranum in 1991. Known as an application layer firewall or proxy firewall, DEC SEAL was among third-generation programs. The key benefit of application layer filtering was that the firewall could comprehend and analyze certain applications and firewalls, identifying whether unwanted communication protocol was being snuck through a non-standard port, or if abused protocol was attempting to bypass the firewall on an allowed port. In 1993, Ranum, Wei Xu, and Peter Churchyard released another application firewall known as Firewall Toolkit (FWTK).

1995–2002: Firewalls start incorporating more features like VPN (Virtual Private Network) or firewall-to-firewall encryption, QoS (Quality of Service), URL screening, and antivirus scanning.

2003: Next-generation firewalls (NGFW) began the development stage. Still what we use today, although continually redeveloped, these rely on the same analysis as the application layer, but with more focus on deep-packet examination, containing features such as intrusion detection and prevention, user identity integration, and Web application firewalls.

The Resiliency of the Firewall

With the late 1990s came the arrival of increased laptop usage and remote access in the corporate environment, sparking debate as to the lasting relevance of firewalls. Critics suggested that because the network’s perimeter was fragmenting, the firewall would reach a point of obsolescence. In the early 2000s, predictions of the firewall’s extinction hinged on the growing popularity of SSL VPNs, smartphones, and personal devices. Today, critics suggest cloud applications could trigger the end of the firewall.

However, the most recent evolutionary developments signal the longevity and growing relevancy of firewalls:

Granular Awareness – A key issue for the modern network firewall is the ability to comprehensively sift through and identify exactly which corporate and web applications are in use, and which users are running them. Heightened granular awareness from firewalls allows organizations to improve and manage the use of sub-applications, tailoring and adapting network application usage to the requirements of the business and end-users.

Traffic Control and Inspection – Firewalls continue to advance in their ability to offer security capabilities that organizations can activate and tailor to serve their individual needs. Functions include web URL filtering, anti-spam, antivirus, anti-bot, data loss prevention, and mobile access control to facilitate a multi-service security gateway.

Sandboxing – Threat emulation or “sandboxing” has been used in recent years to inspect content being sent to an organization in real time, detecting the lastest, zero-day malware threats. Sandboxing allows an organization to analyze emails, files, and data that enter a network via emails or web downloads as they pop up. Any malicious files are then immediately isolated and quarantined in the gateway on the network’s parameter, preventing infection and damage from permeating the internetwork without slowing down business flow.

Software-Driven Approach – Compared to basic hardware router firewalls, a modular, software-driven approach is now commonly implemented to allow multiple functions to be added and deployed. With multiple capacities, companies can extend security and deal with new issues as they arise.

Your Network’s Future – What to Look for in a Next Generation Firewall

How do you go about choosing one of today’s next generation firewalls (NGFWs)? Your firewall needs to be able to deftly protect your network’s fragmented perimeter, enhanced and expanded through mobile devices and the cloud.

Keep the following in mind as you search for your next NGFW:

  • Look for sophisticated user authentication and access controls, intrusion prevention, SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) and SSH (Secure Shell) inspection, and malware detection
  • Gain assurance that your business requirements align with the security capabilities of the firewall
  • Find out how each NGFW will support current and future performance demands to ensure sustainable productivity
  • Compare the potential NGW to amenities of your existing firewall
  • Ensure the solution you choose can handle specific applications on both desktop and mobile devices
  • Research the complexity of configuration and management, as well as performance metrics
    Check that reporting systems and capabilities meet your organization’s compliance requirements
  • Shop for firewalls that can perform real-time network traffic introspection without affecting throughput

While firewalls can’t protect your network from every malicious bot, hacker, and malware lurking along the parameter, it’s clear that firewalls will to continue to evolve, serving your company with an continually-expanding range of capabilities and functionalities. For more info on the increasing necessity of firewalls and their future, contact us today.