How does a firewall work?

Firewalls carefully analyze incoming traffic based on pre-established rules and filter traffic coming from unsecured or suspicious sources to prevent attacks. Firewalls guard traffic at a computer’s entry point, called ports, which is where information is exchanged with external devices.

Think of IP addresses as houses, and port numbers as rooms within the house. Only trusted people (source addresses) are allowed to enter the house (destination address) at all—then it’s further filtered so that people within the house are only allowed to access certain rooms (destination ports), depending on if they’re the owner, a child, or a guest. The owner is allowed to any room (any port), while children and guests are allowed into a certain set of rooms (specific ports).

Firewalls can either be software or hardware, though it’s best to have both. A software firewall is a program installed on each computer and regulates traffic through port numbers and applications, while a physical firewall is a piece of equipment installed between your network and gateway.

Packet-filtering firewalls, the most common type of firewall, examine packets and prohibit them from passing through if they don’t match an established security rule set. This type of firewall checks the packet’s source and destination IP addresses. If packets match those of an “allowed” rule on the firewall, then it is trusted to enter the network.

Packet-filtering firewalls are divided into two categories: stateful and stateless. Stateless firewalls examine packets independently of one another and lack context, making them easy targets for hackers. In contrast, stateful firewalls remember information about previously passed packets and are considered much more secure.

While packet-filtering firewalls can be effective, they ultimately provide very basic protection and can be very limited—for example, they can’t determine if the contents of the request that’s being sent will adversely affect the application it’s reaching. If a malicious request that was allowed from a trusted source address would result in, say, the deletion of a database, the firewall would have no way of knowing that. Next-generation firewalls and proxy firewalls are more equipped to detect such threats.