What is a Firewall and Why Do I Need One?

Technology is changing rapidly and it sometimes feels almost impossible to keep up. As a long-time IT veteran, this rapid change is something I both love and loath at the same time. I’m amazed at how technology has improved so tremendously in just a few short years. PC’s the size of USB sticks, smartphones more capable than desktop PC’s from just 5 years ago. The endless march of technological progress is mindboggling.

It seems like virtually everything we do is now done with a PC or smart-device. Our entire business boils down to a bunch of “ones” and “zeros” on a disk drive somewhere. And it can all be wiped out with just a single click. We’ve seen rapid change in malware attacks as well. From 41 million known viruses in 2007 to 161 million in 2012. A nearly 400% increase in just 5 years. Businesses everywhere from giants like Target, Sony, & Yahoo, to mom-and-pop store fronts have been attacked.

So what can a small business do to protect themselves? Quite a bit actually. The best approach is multiple layers of defense. Anti-virus software is an obvious layer. So are data backups. A network firewall? Maybe not so obvious.

A good, well-managed firewall should be every small businesses first line of defense. A firewall is like a gatekeeper between your business and the wild-west that is ‘The Internet’. It’s a digital cop that checks every data packet as it enters your network. A properly setup firewall can scan for malware, block inappropriate content, and prioritize network traffic.

Let’s focus on just one of those services a firewall can provide. Prioritizing network traffic is frequently a topic I get lots of questions about from our clients. We call it bandwidth management and it can be very useful in ensuring the internet connection your business is paying for is actually used for business reasons. This has become even more important with the recent march to the cloud. Small businesses everywhere are realizing how beneficial cloud services can be. But something they may not think about is how shifting to the cloud can put a significant strain on their internet connection.

Cloud storage is a great example. Everybody loves services like DropBox and OneDrive. They make it extremely easy to store, sync, and share files in the cloud. But what happens when 10 people in the same office all start using OneDrive at the same time? We’ve seen it happen all too often. Sue in Marketing will add a large file or folder to their OneDrive account. OneDrive happily starts syncing that data to the cloud. Then Bob over in Accounting starts yelling because all of a sudden he can’t email a report to the boss.

That’s where bandwidth management comes into play. A typical small-business internet connection is like a garden hose. It can only flow so much data at a time. If OneDrive is trying to upload a bunch of files, it can hog the garden hose for quite a while, preventing anyone else from completing their work. But if we have a managed firewall that can prioritize internet traffic, we can keep everyone happy. Now when Sue adds that awesome new infographic to her shared Marketing folder in OneDrive, the firewall limits how much bandwidth OneDrive can use. That means Bob in Accounting can send his report and Sue can share her work with the rest of the team. That makes the boss very happy because he knows his entire team is now more productive.

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