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Monday, October 01, 2012

Internet Security

With security at the forefront of IT these days, you hear a lot about firewalls. A firewall acts as a barrier between an internal local area network (LAN) and the “outside world” – the LAN’s connection to the Internet or another internetwork.  Another type of intermediary is a proxy server. It’s important for IT professionals to understand the difference between the two.

What’s a Proxy?

First, let’s distinguish between proxy servers and full-fledged firewalls. A proxy is a stand-in; it sits between the internal and external networks and acts as a go-between for communications that are exchanged between the two. The word “proxy” means “one who is authorized to act on behalf of another.” You’ve probably heard of proxy weddings, whereby someone stands in for one of the parties (bride or groom) so a wedding ceremony can legally be performed without both being physically present. Proxy servers are so named because, like the hapless stand-in who says “I do” when it’s really someone else who does, they act as go-betweens to allow something to take place (in this case, network communications) between systems that must remain separate.

Proxy servers provide a measure of security to the internal network. The proxy usually uses Network Address Translation (NAT) to allow all the internal computers to connect to the Internet using only a single public IP address (that of the proxy server itself). The other computers’ internal IP addresses are not visible over the Internet; to outsiders it looks as if the proxy server is the only machine that is there. Proxies can also provide performance enhancement, by caching objects that are retrieved frequently from the ‘Net and making them available locally to the internal network. Just as a web browser’s cache speeds up access to web pages you visit often by storing copies of them on your local disk, a proxy performs the same function for the entire LAN.

What’s a Firewall?

Like the proxy server, a firewall is a “middle man” that sets between the internal and external networks. However, it goes further than the proxy in terms of controlling what goes into and out of the LAN. A product can be both a proxy and a firewall; Microsoft’s ISA Server is a good example of this. While its predecessor, Microsoft Proxy Server, was not considered to be a full-fledged firewall, ISA is.

The job of a firewall is to use filtering to prevent unauthorized data from entering the network and restricting the data that can be sent out. Just as a physical firewall in a building or vehicle is designed to stop a fire from spreading from one area to another, a network firewall is designed to keep data in or out of a network.

Firewalls can be hardware devices, which are dedicated single-purpose computers that run proprietary software, or they can be software-only packages that are installed on a regular PC running on top of on operating system like Windows or UNIX. Hardware firewalls tend to be more expensive (since you’re buying both hardware and software) but also usually offer better performance. Firewalls use NAT or router software to get data to the appropriate internal computer after checking it to ensure that the filtering rules allow it to go through.

Firewall Filtering

Firewalls can filter data at different levels (different layers of the OSI networking model). The most common filtering methods are:
  • Packet filtering, which works primarily at the network layer
  • Circuit filtering, which works at the transport layer
  • Application filtering, which works at the application layer
Packet filters examine the information in the IP packet headers of messages and make the decision as to whether the data is allowed in (or out) based on that information. Thus packet filtering allows you to designate specific IP addresses (or host or domain names) that will be specifically blocked or specifically allowed. Filters can also process information at the transport layer (TCP and UDP port numbers). Specific ports can be blocked or left open. Because particular services use specific ports (for example, POP 3 incoming email uses port 110), this allows you to prevent specific types of data from entering the network (in this case, incoming POP3 email). There are two types of filtering, static and dynamic. With dynamic filtering, the necessary ports are opened up only when a communication is actually taking place, rather than staying open all the time. As soon as the communication ends, the port is closed.