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Firewalls are a necessary element for any properly designed PC and network.  A firewall is also one of the most misunderstood pieces of technology. 


Simply put, a firewall is a piece of hardware or software that blocks unwanted or unsolicited network traffic.


A firewall is NOT a replacement for good, active Anti-Virus and Anti-Spyware applications.  These are very important to have, firewall or no firewall.


My #1 recommendation:    Use a hardware firewall.

The good news – most of you are already using one.  If you are connecting to the Internet through a router, you already have a very effective firewall.  With a hardware firewall, unsolicited and unwanted Internet traffic is stopped at the firewall device and doesn’t even get to your PC (where many security flaws and exploits in Windows are discovered almost daily).


If you are using dialup, or connect your PC directly to a Cable or DSL modem without a router, it is very important that you use a software firewall.


Software Firewall:

The good news - Windows XP (with Service Pack 2) and Vista both have built-in firewalls that are turned on by default and unless you have a good reason to turn them off (and you don’t), you should leave them on.  If you are already behind a hardware firewall (like your router), these will give you good additional firewall protection.  The bad news – the Windows firewalls, by default, block incoming traffic only.  Because of the potential for viruses and spyware to send OUT spam or your personal information, you may want to use a firewall that also inspects outgoing traffic.  Go to the bottom of this page for a tip to enhance the Windows Vista firewall with outgoing protection.*


For more enhanced firewall protection, a very good (and free) firewall application is the Comodo Firewall Pro.


Tip - If you use any applications that initiate a connection to your PC from the Internet (such as a remote control, file or printer sharing, etc.), you may need to create an exception to your firewall.  Remember, firewalls will block any traffic that is not "asked for" by your PC, so incoming requests for these type of applications, by design, will be blocked.  These exceptions for the specific ports these applications use can easily be made in the Options or Exceptions section of the Firewall application.


Why I typically don't like many software firewalls (and prefer most users use a hardware firewall):  Many software firewalls can popup with messages often saying something like this - "the processs xyz.exe is attempting to access the Internet, do you want to Allow, Block, or crawl into a hole since you have no idea what to do with this messge..." (alright, I added that last option for effect).  Since most non-advanced users do not have any idea what to choose with these messages, they either allow all (which defeats the purpose of having the firewall in the first place) or block all (in which case you're often blocking services you may want) and eventually often disable the whole thing to stop bothering them.  Many new software firewalls will intelligently make the allow/block decision for you, which would be the only firewalls I can recommend.



*The “Secret” place to turn on Vista’s outgoing firewall protection:

Click Start, type firewall, and select Windows Firewall with Advanced Security.

Click Windows Firewall Properties.

The first three of the box's four tabs contain an Outbound Connections menu. In all three, select Block.

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