Networking Basics: Routers and Firewalls
Some new hardware devices combine a router, a firewall and an Ethernet hub into one small package. A good example is the Nexland ISB SOHO. It is a cable/DSL router with a built-in, four-port, 10/100-megabits per second (Mbps) Ethernet hub and support for up to 8 megabytes (MB) of bi-directional throughput (sends data both ways) at a time. Computers in your home network connect to the ISB, which in turn is connected to either a cable or DSL modem. You configure the ISB via a Web-based interface that you reach through the browser on your computer. These combination units that include a router, firewall and Ethernet hub for broadband connections can be found for well under $200.
Nexland's ISB SOHO is an inexpensive cable/DSL router with lots of features.
Much of the work required to get information from one computer to another is done by routers -- they're the crucial devices that let information flow between, rather than within, networks. Routers are specialized computers that send your messages, and those of every other Internet user, speeding to their destinations along thousands of pathways. When information needs to travel between networks, routers determine how to get it there. A router has two separate but related jobs:
It ensures that information doesn't go where it's not needed. This is crucial for keeping large volumes of data from clogging the connections of "innocent bystanders."
It makes sure that information makes it to the intended destination(s).
In performing these two jobs, a router is extremely useful in dealing with two separate computer networks. It joins the two networks, your home network and the Internet in this case, passing information from one to the other. It also protects the networks from one another, preventing the traffic on one from unnecessarily spilling over to the other. Regardless of how many networks are attached, the basic operation and function of the router remains the same. Since the Internet is one huge network made up of tens of thousands of smaller networks, routers are an absolute necessity. For more information, see How Routers Work.
Whether you are one of the growing number of computer users with fast, always-on Internet access or you're still using a dial-up connection, you may want to consider implementing a firewall. A firewall is simply a program or hardware device that filters the information coming through the Internet connection into your private network or computer system. You use a firewall to protect your home network and family from offensive Web sites and potential hackers. If an incoming packet of information is flagged by the filters, it is not allowed through.
You should note that some spam is going to get through your firewall as long as you accept e-mail. And, while some firewalls offer virus protection, it is worth the investment to install anti-virus software on each computer.
The level of security you establish will determine how many threats can be stopped by your firewall. You can restrict traffic that travels through the firewall so that only certain types of information, such as e-mail, can get through. The highest level of security would be to simply block everything. Obviously, that defeats the purpose of having an Internet connection. But a common rule of thumb is to start out blocking everything, and then begin to select what types of traffic you will allow. This is a good rule for businesses that have an experienced network administrator who understands what the needs are and knows exactly what traffic to allow through. For most of us, it is probably better to work with the defaults provided by the firewall developer unless there is a specific reason to change them.
Some routers, such as Nexland's Pro800 series, include additional filtering software and even provide clients for creating a virtual private network (VPN).
Hardware firewalls are incredibly secure and not very expensive. One of the best things about a firewall from a security standpoint is that it stops anyone on the outside from logging onto a computer in your private network. While this is a big deal for businesses, most home networks will probably not be threatened in this manner. Still, putting a firewall in place provides some peace of mind. For more information on firewalls, see How Firewalls Work.
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