Why Hardware Firewalls Don't Work for Remote Workers

Zach DeMeyer
February 14, 2024

There was a time when the firewall was king for network security. A company could create a perimeter around its office network and anyone outside its bounds couldn’t access the network.

That all has changed with the rise of remote and hybrid work. Although hardware firewalls still have their place in promoting on-premises network security, they are not effective enough to fully protect remote workers. Let’s explore the limitations of hardware firewalls in the context of hybrid work and why organizations need to adopt a more comprehensive approach to cybersecurity.

The limitations of hardware firewalls

1. Physical boundaries

Hardware firewalls are traditionally installed at the perimeter of an organization's network, protecting against external threats. However, remote workers operate outside this physical boundary. They connect to the internet through their home networks, coffee shop Wi-Fi, or public hotspots, bypassing the organization's hardware firewall entirely.

This lack of control over the network environment makes it challenging to maintain the same level of security between on-premises and remote users, or even, at times, between offices.

2. Lack of visibility and control

Hardware firewalls effectively monitor and filter traffic passing through them, but they can't see what's happening on a remote worker's home network. Limited visibility into these networks makes it difficult to detect and prevent threats that might originate from the remote worker's device and/or environment.

Additionally, remote workers often use a variety of devices and applications, some of which may be their own and not under the organization's direct control. Hardware firewalls typically can't enforce security policies on these devices or monitor the traffic they generate, which can lead to vulnerabilities that malicious actors could exploit.

This lack of visibility and the resulting lack of control pose major issues for a business. For starters, malware, phishing attacks, or compromised devices on a remote user’s home network can go unnoticed, leading to breaches that remain undetected for months or even years. Beyond these immediate security concerns, the lack of visibility and control means less purview into a remote worker’s device usage, which can lead to decreases in productivity and efficiency.

3. Scalability challenges

Deploying, managing, and scaling on-premises firewalls requires an upfront capital cost as well as ongoing investment in new hardware and the operations teams necessary to manage both networking and security. That cost grows with each additional firewall that needs to be purchased and maintained.

Considering the workhour toll on a lean IT team, the prospect of managing remote access through a hardware firewall across many employees can become impossible. Additional investments are required to provide layered security, such as SSL filtering. At its core, SSL filtering provides benefits both in terms of security and productivity. But, when remote users have to connect back to the on-prem network for filters to apply, latency and additional hurdles render those benefits next to null.

4. VPN constraints

Many organizations rely on Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to secure remote connections. While VPNs provide encryption and secure tunnels, they are not a substitute for a hardware firewall. VPNs protect data in transit but do not offer comprehensive protection against all types of cyber threats, such as malware or phishing attacks that target the user directly. What’s more, backhauling traffic from the VPN to the on-prem firewall is inefficient, leading to increased latency and poor user experience. The result is that the VPN and hardware firewall become a bottleneck, both in regard to throughput and a point of friction for users connecting to the network. Oftentimes, users may choose to forego the process entirely, foregoing the security of the VPN and firewall for an easier outcome.

5. Increasing threats in an evolving landscape

Cyber threats are constantly emerging and adapting to undermine the efforts of defenders. Remote workers are increasingly targeted by sophisticated attacks that exploit vulnerabilities in their home networks and personal devices. For example, the recent rise in business email compromise (BEC) and phishing can be directly correlated to the increase in remote work. Without a firewall or similar solution in place, a user can click on a malicious attachment or link, and the resulting traffic goes unimpeded. This can lead to compromise as well as unrestricted access, which can develop into lateral movement breaches further within the company,

Without frequent updates and monitoring, which can be challenging for remote setups, these attacks can go unnoticed and unaddressed. Hardware firewalls can’t protect workers outside of their boundaries, leaving them exposed to these new threat types.

Finding a solution

While hardware firewalls have traditionally provided the first line of defense against security threats, they have become increasingly limited in their ability to adapt to evolving security threats and to secure hybrid workforces. Although useful for securing the on-prem corporate network perimeter, hardware firewalls can't provide the same level of protection for remote employees.

To address these challenges, organizations should consider a holistic cybersecurity strategy that includes a combination of technologies. Namely, organizations need cloud-based firewalls, available as-a-Service, to address all these limitations and more for remote and in-office workers alike. Although these can be purchased as a point solution, wrapping cloud firewalls into a larger networking security solution like SASE, or Secure Access Service Edge, comes with multiple benefits.

To learn more about these benefits, how SASE eliminates the need for hardware firewalls, and SASE in general, read our eBook.

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Additional reading

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