Most firewalls designed for home users are incredibly easy to use. A firewall can be hardware or software. Some firewall software may contain numerous other features as well. For example, Symantec’s Norton Internet Security has the following key features:
- Parental Control Used to block unsuitable web sites so that you can rest easy when your children are surfing the Internet.
- AntiVirus Yes, firewall and antivirus in the same software package! What a concept!
- Spam Alert Used to block unwanted email messages from reaching your inbox.
- Ad Blocking Used to help put a stop to banner ads, pop-ups, and pop-under advertising windows.
- Privacy Control Used to prevent information being sent from your computer without your permission.
- Connection Keep Alive Used to help prevent dial-up Internet sessions from being disconnected due to periods of inactivity.
- Web Cleanup Used to delete unneeded files left over from Internet sessions.
- Cookie Control Used to accept or reject a cookie any time a web site attempts to create one to your computer.
Other firewall software packages, like Zone Labs Zone Alarm or Tiny Software’s Tiny Personal Firewall, offer fantastic firewall protection. These vendors offer their basic, sometimes called personal, firewall product to home users for free.
What About Hardware Firewalls?
An example of the most common type of a consumer-based hardware firewall is included with the purchase of a consumer router.
A consumer-based router usually does the job of two, three, and sometimes even four devices. A consumerbased router allows you to share most high-speed Internet connections among as many as 253 computers (assuming you have that many ports available).
For as little as $50, a basic consumer router will have four ports (think of a port as a socket that you can plug your computer into) that will allow up to four computers to simultaneously and independently share your high-speed Internet connection without needing to pay your ISP any additional fees, ever.
A router is always connected to at least two networks, typically a local area network (LAN) and a wide area network (WAN), with your home being the LAN and the Internet being the WAN.
The router intelligently decides how to direct data from one computer to another based on its current understanding of the state of the networks to which it’s connected. The router’s job is to recognize and differentiate all of the computers on your network from other computers not on your network.
We refer to computers located in the same building as being a local area network or LAN. When we need to go miles (whether it’s one or 20,000 miles) between two or more computers that are communicating with each other, we call that a wide area network or WAN.
In addition, a consumer router acts as a switch. A switch is a device that controls and directs communication between two or more computers. Think of a switch as a traffic cop. This is useful because it can allow the sharing of files and printers between the computers if the user chooses to share those things.
That means that any computer can have access to any files and print to any printer attached to any other computer on the network. (Any computers plugged into a switch would be considered a network, or more specifically, a LAN.)
A consumer-based router usually includes a firewall as well, to ensure that no one on the Internet can access your files or print to your printers. Some routers even come with a built-in print server. A print server is nothing more than a standard printer socket (the same as the one on the back of your PC) located on the router, designed for plugging in your printer.
Then, any computer that is connected to the router can print to that printer. You can always share a printer on a network, but in order for others to be able to print to it, the computer that the printer is physically attached to must be powered on.
By plugging the printer directly into the router, you make the printer available at all times to anyone on the LAN.
Routers are now available in wireless versions. Just like a cordless phone, this enables you to share your Internet connection, files, and printers with other computers in your house (maybe even your neighbor’s house, if you so choose) without needing to run or install any wires.
A wireless router will also act as a regular, wired router. If a wireless router is available for a few dollars more, I would recommend purchasing it, even if you have no immediate need for the wireless portion. This gives you more flexibility in the future, in case your computing needs change.
Just because you have a router that has wireless capabilities doesn’t mean you need to use the wireless aspect of the router. It will function exactly the same as a wired router, if that’s how you choose to use it.
There are several different standards for wireless routers to communicate with wireless network cards. The current standards are 802.11b, 802.11a, and 802.11g. The letters represent the frequency and bandwidth the router communicates with.
The 802.11b standard is the slowest, and it is also the cheapest. Even the slowest wireless connection will usually be ten times faster than the average high-speed Internet connection.
Whichever wireless standard you choose, it’s recommended that you purchase all your wireless products from the same company to make installation and configuration as simple, reliable, and straightforward as possible.
How Difficult Is a Hardware Router to Set Up?
Most routers available today are Plug and Play. In much the same way that a telephone answering machine is wired between your telephone and a wall socket, a router is simply wired between your computer(s) and your cable/DSL/satellite modem.
In most cases, the router will automatically configure itself once it is turned on. This varies based on the router you purchase and your high-speed ISP’s requirements. Most routers come with a quick-installation guide, separate from the detailed and lengthy documentation, to get you up and running as quickly and painlessly as possible.
I recommend SMC, D-Link, Netgear, and Hawking networking products (in that order). They are inexpensive, widely available, easy to install, and very reliable.