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Four Ways SMBs Can Get More From Their Firewalls

Small and midsize businesses do not have a lot of time on the road to improving their IT security, but the firewall should be the first stop

While training employees, running antivirus, and scanning mail for malware are all good security measures for small and midsize businesses (SMBs), their first line of defense is nearly always the company firewall.

Yet most businesses are not getting the most out of their perimeter's automated defenses, according to SMB security consultants. Far from being single-function devices, the modern firewall combines a large number of security features -- such as intrusion detection and prevention systems (IDSes and IPSes) -- which smaller companies have not activated or have left in their default configuration, says Matt Goeres, senior network security engineer for security-services firm Solutionary.

"Most of the time, the client isn't running any type of Web filtering or IDS or IPS," says Goeres. "There is no inspection of traffic or any analysis occurring on the network at the perimeter."

In the past five years, as business networks have become more porous -- with data moving out to the cloud and roaming around on mobile devices -- companies have focused less and less on firewalls. But, while firewalls do not create an impenetrable perimeter, they are a significant part of any defense-in-depth strategy.

Finding ways to improve the security of a business' first line of defense is key, says John Maddison, vice president of marketing for security hardware maker Fortinet. In an informal study of the Fortinet's SMB customers two years ago, Maddison found that companies spent the most -- about 25 percent -- on their firewalls.

[Issues affecting large enterprises are the bread and butter of Black Hat, but even smaller firms have something to learn. See Black Hat: Lessons For SMBs From The Dark Side Of Security.]

It's all about using your resources wisely, he says. While midsize businesses may have the depth in their information-technology group for an IT security expert, most smaller businesses will not. "They don't have resources, so they have to rely heavily on the resellers," he says.

Whether working with resellers or consultants, or doing it themselves, SMBs can get more from their firewalls by following a few steps.

1. Free your firewall
When a smaller company buys a firewall these days, more than likely they are getting much more than a vanilla device that blocks attacks and logs information.

The firewall has morphed over the past decade into a unified threat management (UTM) appliance. A UTM appliance combines a firewall with variety of other functions, including Web filtering, antivirus integration, virtual private networking, intrusion prevention, and secure-device management.

It's more than likely that the firewall appliance is not doing everything it can to help reduce the business' security risks, Maddison says.

"It's not office security in a box, but think of it as a security platform that you can use as a foundation for your security," Maddison says.

Companies need to dig into the security features and work to extend their devices to be everything they can be, he says. For companies that do not have the expertise or resources, relying on the reseller to help configure the device is an option. In addition, consultants and managed security services can be used to augment any lack of expertise.

2. Filter the Web
Companies can gain a lot of benefits by using the Web filtering available on most modern firewalls to block risky employee behaviors. In addition, sites or services that consume a great deal of network bandwidth can be blocked or throttled.

By using Web filtering, an SMB gains more security and removes some of the online sites that distract works, says Dustin King, a network security engineer with Solutionary.

"Companies can make the argument that they are not only trying to improve security, but trying to conserve their bandwidth," King says. "Basically, the argument is, 'We don't want to go buy an expensive appliance, so we are attempting to do some of those things on a firewall.'"

3. Make the most of your logs
Initial signs of an attack can show up in firewall logs, as do ongoing infections that are communicating out to the Internet. For those reasons, SMBs should regularly analyze their logs and work on improving their filters to cull the significant events from the noisy log data. For any company, the greatest problem with log analysis is finding the true attacks in the weeds of false positives, and the slim resources of SMBs make that an even greater problems.

Fortinet's Maddison recommends that smaller companies rely on a managed service provider or cloud service for log analysis. The company frequently sells the hardware and software to service providers that serve the SMB community.

"By consolidating their expertise and technology, they can deploy technologies that an SMB would not have the resources or time to deploy," he say.

4. Report results to management
Finally, the IT department should also look at the reports generated by a firewall or UTM appliance as a great education and marketing tool to sell their upper management on the value of their services.

"Reports are a good way for the IT department to show value," Solutionary's King says. "Management likes to see the reports that show what types of activities are consuming bandwidth and how much time employees are spending doing activities."

Have a comment on this story? Please click "Add Your Comment" below. If you'd like to contact Dark Reading's editors directly, send us a message. Robert Lemos is a veteran technology journalist of more than 16 years and a former research engineer, writing articles that have appeared in Business Week, CIO Magazine, CNET News.com, Computing Japan, CSO Magazine, Dark Reading, eWEEK, InfoWorld, MIT's Technology Review, ... View Full Bio

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