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When it comes to cybersecurity, host-based firewalls are one of your first lines of defense. That’s why they come pre-installed directly on personal devices like laptops and cell phones.

These firewalls are tailored to individual devices so they can monitor and control their specific traffic, as opposed to network-based firewalls which secure an entire network’s perimeter. In other words, if you use an HP laptop or an iPhone, you’re already protected by host-based firewalls. That’s because Microsoft and Apple provide their own versions of these firewalls and frequently update them to address new threats and vulnerabilities.

Aside from your personal phone and computer, host-based firewalls also play a critical role when it comes to business cybersecurity strategies. They’re particularly valuable for protecting cloud assets, as companies often rely on them to secure individual endpoints. This level of protection is critical as networks increasingly “go hybrid,” and rely on data storage both on-premises and in the cloud.

But with cyberthreats on the rise, it’s logical to ask whether these firewalls are really secure enough. Here’s what you need to know about host-based firewalls in your personal devices and in your business.

What Consumers Get With a Host-Based Firewall

As a consumer, the host-based firewall on your phone or laptop gives you a vital default level of protection on your personal devices. Since you probably use your devices for things like banking, investing, and storing important personal info, this built-in protection is crucial.

Host-based firewalls typically come pre-installed, and they’re already designed to guard against a range of common cyber threats. If you’re reading this on a device running Windows or Apple software, you’re probably using a host-based firewall right now.

But how exactly do these firewalls work? Primarily, it comes down to regulating network traffic based on predetermined security rules and deciding which applications or services on your device can access the internet and which external sources can connect to your device.

In other words, you can think of host-based firewalls as the “gatekeeper” to your device.

So if you have one of these firewalls installed and go to use an application that requires internet access, like a web browser, the firewall will evaluate this request against its set of rules.

If the application is recognized as safe and allowed internet access under these rules, the firewall permits the connection. But if an unknown program, like a piece of hidden malware, attempts to send data from your laptop to an external server, the firewall can block this outgoing traffic, preventing potential data theft or other malicious activities.

Similarly, if unsolicited traffic tries to access your device from the internet—say, a hacking attempt targeting vulnerable ports on your laptop—the firewall can deny this connection, keeping your device secure.

This ongoing monitoring and regulation of incoming and outgoing traffic, based on established security rules, is how host-based firewalls actively protect your devices from a variety of cyber threats.

That said, while host-based firewalls are effective at managing traffic and blocking unsolicited connections, they may not be as equipped to handle more advanced threats like phishing attacks or malware that a user might unknowingly download.

For consumers using home networks or connecting to public Wi-Fi in places like airports, a host-based firewall provides a necessary security measure. It’s your first line of defense, particularly in public settings where network security is uncertain.

But relying solely on your host-based firewall isn’t recommended; it should be part of a broader security approach that includes antimalware software and vigilant online practices.

So while a host-based firewall offers substantial protection in everyday-use scenarios, for complete security, it should be complemented with other cybersecurity measures and perhaps even other types of firewalls.

What Businesses Need From a Host-Based Firewall

If you run a business, especially one with a complex array of network devices, cloud assets, and remote employees, the demands on your host-based firewall are significantly higher than they would be on a single device for your personal use.

In a corporate environment, host-based firewalls need to do more heavy lifting beyond basic traffic filtering. They should provide advanced security features to make sure you’re protected against sophisticated cyber threats.

Advanced Functionalities

If you’re using a host-based firewall in a business setting, it should use advanced features like deep packet inspection and intrusion prevention systems.

Deep packet inspection (DPI) essentially delves into the contents of the data packets traversing your network. This means that not only are the headers of packets scrutinized, but so is their payload – the actual data being transmitted.

For example, DPI can uncover a seemingly harmless email attachment carrying hidden malware, allowing the firewall to block it before it compromises the network. To borrow an analogy from a physical package, it’s akin to checking not just the address on a package but also carefully inspecting its contents.

Intrusion Prevention Systems (IPS), on the other hand, are basically sentinels or watchmen for your network. They’re constantly monitoring network traffic, looking for patterns or activities indicative of a cyberattack.

Suppose an IPS detects an unusual number of requests to a particular server within the network, resembling a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack. If that’s the case, it can immediately take action to block this traffic, often before users even notice any disruption.

Individual Endpoints

Businesses will typically deploy host-based firewalls on individual endpoints—laptops, desktops, and even mobile devices used by employees.

This is particularly important for remote workers who connect to the company network from unsecured public networks. The host-based firewall ensures each device is protected at an individual level, which provides an extra security layer that complements your broader network security measures.

For example, a salesperson working from a café might connect their laptop to a public Wi-Fi network. The host-based firewall on their device provides a necessary shield against potential threats on that network, like someone attempting to access their device or intercept their data.

Since these firewalls offer customizable protection for each endpoint, they can also account for the unique risks and usage patterns of different devices.

So in a design firm, for example, graphic designers might frequently exchange large files over the internet, a process that could be exploited by cybercriminals. A host-based firewall on their workstations could be configured to allow these large transfers while still monitoring for and blocking any suspicious activity.

Do You Always Need a Host-Based Firewall?

Say your business already has a robust IT security infrastructure, including network firewalls, endpoint detection and response (EDR) systems, and other advanced security measures. You’re probably wondering: is a host-based firewall still necessary?

It comes down to how layered a cybersecurity approach you want to take.

One thing to consider is that even with a secure network perimeter, individual devices can be vulnerable to attacks—especially when they’re used outside your corporate network.

Host-based firewalls provide an additional layer of security, monitoring and controlling the traffic specific to each device. This is crucial in scenarios where your employees work remotely or use their devices on unsecured public networks, as the host-based firewall continues to offer protection regardless of the network’s security.

However, there are also situations where your business might need to adjust or disable default firewall settings on devices to ensure seamless network functionality.

For example, certain applications or services in your network might require open communication channels that are restricted by the default settings of a host-based firewall. In these cases, careful customization of host-based firewall settings, or temporarily disabling it for specific purposes, might be necessary.

Ultimately, your business should strive to strike a balance between security and functionality. Host-based firewalls are a key component of device security, but their configuration should be aligned with your overall IT infrastructure and business operations.

Regularly assessing and updating firewall settings, in combination with other security measures, is the best way to ensure they’re protecting your network. And remember, these firewalls are most effective when used as part of a comprehensive, multi-layered security strategy.

Ideally, your broader cyberstrategy would also include things like EDR systems for real-time threat monitoring, antimalware software to catch malware that bypasses firewalls, data encryption to secure sensitive information, and regular employee cybersecurity training.

Final Thoughts

Since they’re pre-installed, host-based firewalls give consumers a convenient layer of protection against common threats on their personal devices.

If you run a business, especially one with complex network environments, these firewalls and their features are even more crucial for protecting you and the company from cyber threats.

But don’t stop just at host-based firewalls. Make sure you’re familiar with what firewalls are, the different types, and other security tools you can use to keep your business protected.