VPNs and firewalls are two of the most basic cybersecurity tools. Many companies have at least one of them. But owning each tool requires a substantial amount of time, expertise, and financial investment. Additionally, if the capabilities of these tools overlap, it makes sense to acquire only one. That said, would you ever need both? We answer that question and more in this VPN vs firewall article.
Learn what a VPN and firewall are and the benefits and drawbacks of using each solution. Additionally, learn when to use a VPN or firewall solution and vice versa. Lastly, discover if you should use them together. Let’s begin by discussing VPN first!
What Is a VPN?
VPN stands for virtual private network. It’s a private network that operates over a public network (like the internet) using encryption. When you use a VPN, members of your company can send and receive data through that public network without worrying about eavesdroppers. Eavesdroppers who attempt to intercept your connection can’t extract any meaningful information because the VPN encrypts your data.
A VPN encrypts on a per-link basis, not on a per-application basis. You can liken this to how HTTPS works. Application-level encryption needs both the server and client application to support the same encrypted protocol. For example, with HTTPS, both your web server and your web browser need to support HTTPS. Additionally, with a VPN, any traffic from any application can pass through a VPN and be encrypted. Also, even your applications that never have built-in encryption can benefit from the encryption provided by a VPN.
3 VPN Types
You can classify VPNs by the method used to create a private network. Below are 3 commonly used VPN architectures:
1. Site-to-Site VPN
Site-to-site VPNs connect two or more networks through VPN gateways. This architecture enables you to combine two separate sites into one private network.
2. Remote Access VPN
Remote access VPNs connect user-controlled VPN clients to a VPN gateway. Use this architecture to extend your private network to authorized users in other geographical locations.
3. Host-to-Host VPN
Host-to-host VPNs connect VPN clients directly to a remote host. This architecture is similar to remote access, except the user is connected to a specific host. The connection no longer passes through a VPN gateway.
To make a complete VPN versus firewall comparison you need to know the benefits and drawbacks of these tools.
VPN Benefits and Drawbacks
A VPN is a significant investment for a business. Thus, it’s necessary to make sure you understand the pros and cons of using one.
- Stops man-in-the-middle attacks (MITM): MITMs intercept network connections to steal sensitive data like usernames and passwords. In short, a VPN stops these attacks by rendering data unreadable.
- Improves trading partner confidence: Many B2B data exchanges require a high level of confidentiality. In brief, by supporting VPN-protected B2B exchanges, you can reassure trading partners of your data security.
- Enables regulatory compliance: Data security laws and regulations like PCI DSS mandate the use of encryption when transmitting data over public networks. The encryption capabilities of a VPN make it suitable for this purpose.
- Affects performance negatively: Since a VPN server introduces an additional hop to a connection, it can cause delay. This delay worsens when the user connects to an external site using the VPN server. The encryption and decryption process increases the delay.
- Consumes mobile data faster: When a VPN encrypts data, it adds some overhead. Simply put, the transmitted data becomes larger. That additional overhead can cause mobile workers to deplete mobile data faster than usual.
- Requires expert engagement: Most VPNs are challenging to deploy, configure, and maintain. Since a VPN can provide access to your entire network, you must ensure sensitive systems are not accessible to external threats.
Now familiar with the advantages and disadvantages VPN solutions, I’ll cover what a firewall is.
What Is a Firewall?
A firewall is a security tool that restricts network traffic from one network to another. Alternatively, it can stop traffic from passing from one part of a network to another. This makes the firewall arguably the most common cybersecurity tool. You find it installed and enabled by default on Windows machines.
When used properly, a firewall can prevent external threats from reaching your network or endpoint devices like your PC or laptop. A firewall can also enable you to apply network segmentation, which isolates portions of your network. Network segmentation prevents unauthorized traffic from going to parts of your network that are irrelevant to their business functions.
5 Firewall Types
Security, operational, and budgetary requirements often dictate the firewall type you need for your company. Common types of firewalls include the following:
1. Packet-Filtering Firewall
This is the most basic and affordable firewall type. Use this firewall for simple filtering use cases. Its license is often tied to the hardware it’s installed on, making costs not reflect usage, particularly in mobile device-rich environments.
2. Circuit-Level Gateway
This firewall is ideal if you have a limited budget but require something better than packet filtering. Administrators can control more aspects of security like port blocking and connection rules. That said, it often inflates operational costs again as its license is often tethered to machines.
3. Stateful Inspection Firewall
Use this type if your firewall needs awareness of a packet’s state. Packet states include established connections, listening, or closing connections. Understanding the data state helps improve the overall security of the network. Stateful inspection firewalls are added to the entry point of the network.
4. Proxy Firewall
Use this firewall if you need a tool to inspect deep into a packet and search for malicious activity before it enters the network. Proxy firewalls inspect the; header, body, and footer of each data packet. The drawback of proxy firewalls is the reduction in data speed.
5. Next-Generation Firewall (NGFW)
These firewalls are best suited for large organizations. Installation and use revolve around the administrator’s intent that it gathers from an abstracted user interface. In short, an NGFW uses the latest artificial intelligence and algorithms to detect all platforms and secure them according to their intelligent features. Use this if you require advanced protection and have deep pockets.
Do you find the descriptions too short? We discussed these types of firewalls in detail in a previous article. Please click that link to read it.
Now, discover the benefits and drawbacks of a firewall!
Firewall Benefits and Drawbacks
Below is an outline of the advantages and disadvantages of using a firewall. Bear in mind as you read that the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages, and you must be using one if you want to stay in business.
- Serves as your first line of defense: Most threats originate from outside your network. When deployed at your network perimeter, firewalls can help keep external threats from entering.
- Prevents lateral movement: Insider threats and threat actors that manage to evade perimeter defenses execute the lateral movement to reach their targets. Network segmentation can mitigate this maneuver.
- Enables regulatory compliance: Data security laws and regulations like PCI DSS recommend firewalls for meeting requirements. Access control and network segmentation are something you can achieve with firewalls.
- Reduces operational performance: Every time a firewall inspects a packet, it delays the transmission of that packet. Worse, if a firewall rule is overly restrictive, valid packets can get blocked and reduce the performance of the business.
- Increases financial expenditure: Often, firewalls cost less than USD100, yet the more advanced firewalls can exceed USD100,000. To this end, it’s important to choose a firewall that matches your needs.
- Necessitates the need for specialists: To avoid overly or inadequately restrictive rulesets, your firewall admin must be well-versed in your security, IT, and business requirements. That said, a person with this level of competency is never easy to find.
Now, let’s compare VPN vs firewall use cases!
VPN vs Firewall Use Cases
Let’s now go over some specific use cases that demonstrate when you need a VPN vs firewall solution.
When Should I Use a VPN?
You’d use a VPN in cases where you need a secure connection between your network and another endpoint or network. Here are some sample use cases that can benefit from a VPN:
- Remote workers attempting to access resources in your corporate network
- B2B data exchanges between you and your trading partners
- Data exchanges between your HQ and branch offices
In these three use cases, you will need to preserve confidentiality while you send data. A VPN’s encryption capabilities can help you achieve that objective.
When Should I Use a Firewall?
Use a firewall in cases where you need to apply a partial or complete restriction on network traffic. Here are some sample use cases that can benefit from a firewall.
- Inbound network traffic partial restriction; you can use a firewall, for example, to prohibit insecure connections like FTP and HTTP
- Partial restriction on outbound network traffic; this function can come into play, for example, to prevent connections to unknown sites
- Complete restriction between two network segments; you can use this function, for example, to prevent threats from moving laterally across your entire network
In partial restriction scenarios, you can, for example, set firewall rules that allow certain packets through but block everything else. Additionally, in a use case that requires complete restriction, you can configure the firewall to block all network traffic between segments.
Should You Use Both VPNs and Firewalls Together?
VPNs and firewalls are crucial for highly connected, complex, and threat-infested business environments. Since VPNs and firewalls address different sets of threats and use cases, it makes sense to deploy them simultaneously.
A VPN can defend against any eavesdropping attempt on your inbound and outbound connections. Conversely, firewalls can block undesirable inbound, outbound, and internal traffic.
A VPN and firewall approach is in line with a defense-in-depth strategy. This strategy consists of multiple layers of security to address the existence of many threats.
In this article, you learned that VPNs and firewalls address different threats. Additionally, VPNs deal with entities that threaten confidentiality when your data traverses the internet. Conversely, firewalls deal with inbound and outbound threats like the ones that move laterally inside your network.
Since the threats of each security solution are all impending and completely distinct, those threats need to be dealt with accordingly. Instead of choosing one over the other, you might consider deploying both solutions in your network.
Do you still have questions about VPN vs firewall solutions? Check out the FAQ and Resources sections below.
What is a VPN service?
A VPN service is a VPN infrastructure managed by a third-party service provider. Some VPN services are free, but the more advanced and capable ones charge a monthly or annual fee. A VPN service is ideal if you wish to avoid the capital outlay that comes with owning a VPN infrastructure.
What is a business VPN?
A business VPN enables businesses to send data securely by encrypting it. When you employ a business VPN, you can conduct business-to-business (B2B) data exchanges between sites without worrying about bad actors gaining your information through data sniffing activities. Business VPNs often come with enterprise features like commercial air support.
What is a virtual firewall?
A virtual firewall is a firewall designed for virtual environments. You would use it primarily for securing virtual machines. Virtual firewalls possess similar security characteristics as traditional firewalls but are generally cheaper and work with all virtual infrastructure.
How do you mitigate the risk of lateral movement in a data center?
Lateral movement is where a cybercriminal moves through a company at the same security level. Conversely, you can use many different security controls to manage a data center that can help prevent lateral movement. Additionally, you can deploy firewalls, IDS/IPS solutions, multi-factor authentication, and antimalware solutions to help protect your business.
Can firewalls help secure IoT devices?
Yes, certain types of firewalls address security issues that involve IoT devices. Additionally, some Next Generation Firewalls (NGFWs) have built-in capabilities that enable IT administrators to create filtering rules based on IoT traffic. To this end, use NGFWs with routers that encrypt all data communications by default to protect from attacks on mobile devices conducting automatic updates without users knowing.
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