What Is a Next-Generation Firewall (NGFW)? A Complete Guide

A next-generation firewall (NGFW) is a deep-packet inspection firewall that comes equipped with additional layers of security like integrated intrusion prevention, in-built application awareness regardless of port, and advanced threat intelligence features to protect the network from a vast array of advanced threats.

Today, cybercriminals use advanced ransomware, social engineering, malware, and complex distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks to infiltrate networks. Traditional firewalls that perform port and protocol inspection of packets cannot keep up with these advanced cybersecurity threats. That’s where NGFWs come in.

How Next-Generation Firewalls Work

An NGFW is designed to provide maximum protection to your networks. Here’s how it works:

  •  An NGFW securely and statefully inspects all kinds of traffic hitting the network, irrespective of device or location.
  • It thoroughly examines the content of each incoming packet and blocks or allows it to pass through based on preset rules and policies.
  • It restricts access to data on a need-to-know basis and amplifies zero-trust strategies.
  • A centralized console provides visibility into all activity from the firewall.
  • It integrates with other security technologies to provide protection against advanced and persistent threats.

NGFWs vs. Traditional Firewalls

NGFWs offer a variety of important advantages over traditional firewalls, mostly revolving around the deep packet inspection (DPI) capabilities provided by stateful technology. Statefulness allows NGFWs to conduct granular inspections of the packet at every layer of the network, from data link to application.

Here is a full comparison of the similarities and differences between traditional firewalls and NGFWs:

Traditional FirewallNGFW
Stateless (unaware of sessions)Stateful (aware of sessions)
Simple packet inspectionDeep packet inspection (DPI)
Cannot inspect and decrypt Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) trafficCan inspect and decrypt SSL traffic
Not application awareApplication aware
Cannot manage user policies at a granular levelEnforces user policies at a granular level
May compromise security to maintain performanceNo need to compromise security to maintain performance
Cannot prevent advanced cyberattacksPrevents advanced cybersecurity threats
Works at layer 2 to layer 4Works at layer 2 to layer 7

Common Next-Generation Firewall Features

The common features of an NGFW include DPI, application-level awareness, statefulness, and intrusion detection and prevention systems.

Deep packet inspection

Deep packet inspection (DPI) is a key feature of an NGFW that examines network traffic in real time. While standard packet inspection only scans a packet’s header, like its source IP, destination IP, and port number, DPI thoroughly scans the content of each packet. This enables an NGFW to scan for more complex threats and better protect corporate networks.

Application awareness and control

Traditional firewalls operate at layers 2 and 4 of the Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) model. Today, that’s insufficient to meet an organization’s needs. An NGFW operates at layers 2 to 7, including the higher-order application layer in the TCP/IP communication layer that monitors application traffic. That means it provides extensive visibility into applications, grants greater control over them, and applies application allowlists or blocklists independent of port or protocol.

Statefulness

Traditional stateless firewalls don’t inspect dynamic data flows or traffic patterns, instead allowing or disallowing traffic based on static rules. If a packet meets a specific condition, it is allowed to pass; otherwise, it is denied access.

In contrast, stateful firewalls are more intelligent and monitor all traffic paths and data flows within packets, which helps them better detect unidentified and illegitimate requests at every layer of the network.

Intrusion prevention system and intrusion detection system

NGFWs come with an integrated intrusion detection system (IDS) and intrusion prevention system (IPS). While an IDS studies network traffic and matches it to known threats, an IPS can also prevent the packet from being delivered if it is suspected to have malware.

Benefits of Next-Generation Firewalls

Thanks to their superior architecture, NGFWs unsurprisingly offer several benefits over traditional firewalls, including multilayered protection against advanced threats, as well as resource and cost efficiencies.

NGFWs protect against advanced threats

The primary advantage of NGFWs is that they protect the network from advanced cybersecurity threats like DDoS attacks, malware, and ransomware attacks. NGFWs combine several security technologies on a single comprehensive platform, making it easier to spot and plug the gaps. With a constantly changing threat landscape, a next-gen firewall comes in handy to protect the network from malicious malware trying to infiltrate the system.

NGFWs offer multilayered protection

Older firewalls were confined to layer 3 (network layer) and layer 4 (transport layer) of the OSI model. Firewalls at this level can only filter network traffic based on the IP address and port address. An NGFW, on the other hand, offers multilayered protection, as it operates as deep as layer 7 (application layer) of the OSI.

For example, let’s say a DDoS attack hits your network. Your traditional firewall will block the IP address, but it cannot inspect the content of the data packet. What if malware has already been introduced into your network through some other medium? An NGFW can look into your incoming packet contents, read them individually, and determine whether to accept or reject them.

NGFWs are cost-efficient

Although the upfront costs of an NGFW may be higher than a traditional firewall, some of those costs will be offset by the fact that IPS and antimalware software come built into an NGFW—so you don’t have to spend more money buying individual products. And because your NGFW is more effectively monitoring the network and preventing security incidents, it saves you money that would otherwise have been spent in mitigation and response.

NGFWs provide resource efficiencies

The benefits of an NGFW don’t just end with the costs. Since NGFWs consolidate multiple network security solutions in one package and because all data is available on a centralized management console, it makes it easier for the IT team to manage the network effectively.

Challenges of Next-Generation Firewalls

The vastly increased capabilities, for example, naturally demand substantially higher system resources and network bandwidth—not to mention requiring time and effort to integrate the new solutions with existing platforms. 

Here are a few challenges—and suggested solutions—to keep in mind when considering an NGFW for your organization:

  • Since NGFWs do more processing on individual network packets, they can hinder network performance compared to stateless firewalls, so you should ensure your network is prepared for the additional demand.
  • Integrating NGFWs with existing platforms can take time and effort. The complex setup process requires staff to learn new skills and systems, which may incur additional costs. A good partner can help with integration and training.
  • Not all NGFWs are created equal. Choose one that meets your environment’s specific needs.
  • Although NGFWs can handle SSL-encrypted traffic better than traditional firewalls, they are still limited in their capacity. You may want to consider investing in a separate SSL decryption solution.
  • Throughput can degrade when utilizing advanced capabilities.

Best Next-Generation Firewalls

Fortinet FortiGate NGFW: Best overall

Fortinet logo

Recognized as a Leader in the 2022 Gartner Magic Quadrant for Network Firewalls, Fortinet FortiGate NGFW is a pioneer in developing firewalls. FortiGate NGFWs deliver artificial intelligence (AI)-powered threat detection facilities to protect networks against all kinds of known and unknown threats. FortiGate NGFWs are integrated with other Fortinet services for greater visibility and to strengthen the overall security posture of the network.

Key Features

  • Simple-to-use centralized management console
  • Deep visibility into applications, devices, and users
  • Ties key functions, like IDS/IPS, TLS 1.3 decryption, and IPSec, to specialized ASICs for optimal experiences
  • Advanced security processor unit (SPU) technology for low-latency performances

Pros

  • Powerful security features like ZTNA, SSL decryption, and SD-WAN are included, so no extra licensing fees are required.
  • An intuitive user-friendly interface that is easy to follow and helps security teams manage policy configurations from a single pane of glass.
  • Integrations possible with advanced layer 7 security.
  • The FortiGuard Web Filtering service protects organizations from malicious attacks by using advanced threat analysis and automatic intelligence tools. 
  • Integrates well with other Fortinet services.  

Cons

  • The Logging service needs some improvement.
  • Non-mainline products are reported to have higher rates of failure.
  • Not as scalable as some other solutions.  
  • The command line interface (CLI) could be more user-friendly. 

Pricing

Fortinet does not list pricing on their website, as it varies based on the total package purchased by the customer, but you can request a quote or a free demo for more information.

Cisco FirePOWER: Best for SMBs

Cisco logo

Cisco FirePOWER protects networks by providing comprehensive security features like advanced malware protection, enterprise security management, and intrusion prevention. At the same time, built-in sandboxing, URL filtering, and advanced threat intelligence (Talos) integrations strive to protect networks from all possible threats. And because of Cisco FirePOWER’s integration with Cisco’s security architecture, there is greater visibility into attacks from endpoints to the edge.

Key Features

  • Granular URL filtering options
  • 24/7 intelligence updates to stay ahead of threat actors
  • Advanced malware protection and integrated next-generation IPS capabilities for malware detection
  • Centralized policy management
  • A reputation for reliability and uptime

Pros

  • Firepower detects and neutralizes DDoS attacks in real-time.
  • Includes powerful troubleshooting features such as packet capture and packet trace.
  • A real-time monitoring GUI gives comprehensive and up-to-date views of firewall health.
  • Strong integration with other components like Stealthwatch, Cisco Secure Endpoint, and SecureX.

Cons

  • Load and deployment times could be faster.
  • The user interface can be difficult to navigate.
  • Implementation and configuration are complex compared to some other solutions.

Pricing

Cisco provides a comprehensive “See, Try, Buy” program for interested buyers. Filling out one form will allow you to work with a Cisco Security Specialist to schedule a demo, book a free trial, or help you build a package that best suits your business.

Forcepoint NGFW: Best for large enterprises

Forcepoint logo

Forcepoint NGFW is an award-winning solution that is fitted with Forcepoint Advanced Malware Detection to detect zero-day threats. Forcepoint NGFW has several in-built security capabilities like IPS, virtual private networks (VPNs), and security proxies to provide networks with the best protection.

The Forcepoint Security Management Center (SMC) is a centralized console that provides 360-degree visibility into network activity, helping to quickly identify security threats, whether they’re attacking physical installations or virtual networks.

Key Features

  • Secure access service edge (SASE) integration for web and cloud
  • High availability clustering of networks
  • Automated failover
  • Built-in IPS
  • Anti-malware sandboxing
  • Fast decryption of encrypted traffic

Pros

  • A responsive visual interface helps you to respond to threats in minutes.
  • The system is easy to manage, so it doesn’t involve long hours in training.
  • Zero downtime during upgrades.
  • Implements role-based access and offers advanced security features like IDS and IPS. 
  • Can deploy anywhere, whether physical devices or in the cloud. 
  • IP Packet Fragmentation, web filtering for QUIC & HTTP/3, and false-positive testing.

Cons

  • Customer support could be improved.
  • More expensive than other products in the market.
  • Complex deployments can strain its stability.

Pricing

While Forcepoint does not list pricing on their website, they do tout their “simple, transparent, and flexible pricing options,” which can be requested via web form. They also offer customized demos and free trials if you’re still exploring your options.

Bottom Line: Do You Need a Next-Generation Firewall?

In most cases, modern companies can only gain by investing in an NGFW. Traditional firewalls are incapable of protecting businesses from today’s highly evolved cyber threats. NGFWs, on the other hand, come equipped with the capabilities necessary to enhance an organization’s network security and improve the overall security posture of the organization.

Traditional firewalls were once sufficient to meet enterprises’ needs. They performed port and protocol inspection of packets, based on which they allowed or disallowed network traffic. That was sufficient, as IT environments were much less dynamic than they are today. But now that ports and addresses are dynamically assigned in today’s networks, firewalls that lack the ability to apply fine-grained controls and assess incoming packets based on behavior can prove disastrous for an organization.NGFWs use DPI for dynamic filtering based on application type and include malware protection that’s continuously updated to monitor and prevent cyberattacks. They also use advanced threat intelligence to provide greater insights into the methods and tactics threat actors can use to infiltrate your organization. As a result, NGFWs prepare organizations to always be alert against new and evolving threats as well as equipping them to fight off the latest threats.

Susnigdha Tripathy
Susnigdha Tripathy
Susnigdha Tripathy is a full-time writer and editor who presently lives in Singapore. She has over ten years of experience writing, editing, and delivering exceptional content for her clients. She currently writes for Virtasant, a cloud technology company, and Krista Software, a provider of intelligent automation solutions. Her work also gets published on several high-ranking tech websites.

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