Routers and firewalls are network security devices, sometimes grouped into business and home network packages or sold separately as dedicated hardware. Businesses with website hosting or ecommerce components usually know they need one or the other—or both.
Though the two are closely linked, businesses often confuse the terms because of their similar-sounding functions in providing network security. However, routers and firewalls are very different devices.
- Router: A network security device that exchanges data between networks or gateways
- Firewall: A network security device that blocks traffic from protected networks
At home, these will function about the same. But at work, they can make all the difference in the world. It’s important for any modern business to understand why.
Why Router vs. Firewall Doesn’t Matter on a Home Network
Unless you’re hosting a game server—which may require additional security functions of its own—your home network probably doesn’t need both a router and a firewall.
Home networks tend to have a few or several devices connected at any given time, and their overall network needs probably aren’t too intense. Whether they’re used for browsing, streaming, or working, a router sends and receives the data without needing a dedicated firewall to protect this kind of traffic.
Meanwhile, most consumer computers and phones also have host-based firewalls already installed. Windows Defender and Android Firewall are two common examples.
On home networks, these firewalls keep the network safe from unwanted traffic and prevent unauthorized users from gaining access to the network.
Thus, due to the infrequent nature of the network threats you might receive at home—plus the already-included protections—it doesn’t take much to keep the network private for the few users who will be using it. This means that most home systems can usually get by without dedicated firewall hardware.
Why Router vs. Firewall Matters a Ton for Business
On the flip side, a business network comes with a level of complexity that’s on an entirely new level compared to a home network—it’s like comparing a crowded city street and a calm country road.
On business networks, tons of devices are logging in and out constantly, using cloud applications and potentially connecting to offices at other locations over a WAN.
The numerous dimensions of these communications can put a lot of stress on default firewall programs—like Windows Defender and Android Firewall—often sending them to their breaking points. At the end of the day, these programs were intended to protect a few devices on a small network’s private connection.
That’s why business-class firewalls are in a class of their own.
Bigger threats, bigger security
Organizations need to protect their connected devices not only from virus and malware threats but also from sophisticated security concerns that would never impact a home network. Unlike consumer-grade firewalls, they also offer granular control over the traffic, which means that managers can regulate access separately for different users and applications.
This access control is centralized in a business firewall’s custom security policies, which a network manager can view and control. Many businesses also deal with payment information flowing in and out of their networks, either for customer purchases or employee salaries, so their systems are required to be HIPAA and PCI-DSS-compliant—which isn’t always possible with consumer-grade firewall tech.
Businesses have other considerations as well, such as whether their routers or firewalls should be placed at the network edge. Edge routers are typically used to give access to remote workers so they can connect to the corporate network. In fact, the terms “edge routers” and “firewalls” are often used interchangeably to describe a network security device that protects the LAN from a point “between” networks.
However, depending on where the router is placed and how many devices need to connect to it at a time, businesses may sacrifice speed in the process. As such, there’s no concrete way of defining the ideal configuration of these devices because the network security needs of every business are different.
Key differences between routers and firewalls
Distinct functionality: Dedicated routers have advanced routing features, while firewalls are only designed for basic routing functions. A complex network of in-house and remote employees with customer service and ecommerce channels will not always be viable without a router that’s separate from the firewall.
Performance variables: Firewalls have added security features that keep businesses safe, such as VPN encryption and deep packet inspection. If the firewall and router are on the same device, these data-heavy security processes could reduce routing performance when traffic gets busy.
Scalable infrastructure: It’s often crucial for businesses to plan their network needs around their expansion plans. That said, firewalls are more difficult to scale than dedicated routers, which can easily be expanded to meet the needs of a growing network infrastructure.
The important thing to remember is that hardware that was not designed with dozens of device connections in mind probably won’t be able to keep them all as secure as hardware that was. Thus, firewall solutions tailored to business security needs are a necessary precaution against modern threats since the more sensitive the data that needs protecting, the more robust the protection required.
Can a Router and Firewall Be On the Same Device?
Certain software-defined networks and routers come equipped with software firewalls already installed. Some businesses prefer this because of the simplicity of having everything lumped together—after all, separating the devices adds potentially unneeded labor. It just doesn’t make much sense to have multiple devices that need to be configured and managed separately, especially when each comes with its own potential setbacks.
Yet, for some businesses, the added labor is worth it to keep the devices separate. For instance, when all a router needs to do is route traffic to intended destinations, it will have a lot more resources to spare than if it were simultaneously doubling as the network’s firewall.
Likewise, if your network starts hiccuping, the single router-firewall device may not know how to share the limited network resources most efficiently. Depending on the unique network conditions, this can lead to dropped VoIP calls, laggy video conferences, or even security risks.
Finally, having a separate firewall allows you to be much more specific as to what you’d like that firewall to do—and how you’d like it to do it. For example, if you want a stateless, stateful, or proxy firewall, having a separate device can make that a lot easier.
There’s no universal answer for which type of router and firewall system a business should use, but it’s very likely that there’s a best choice for each individual business.
First and foremost, the needs of the network must be matched to the capacity of the device or devices. However, while grouping them together is often easier, the shared pool of resources may not be optimized for any given business’s specific networking needs.
This is why a tailored solution makes the most sense, because businesses need to think about how to keep their employees and customers secure.