When it comes to online security, VPNs and firewalls always seem to take up the spotlight as the best tools for those who want to ensure maximum online security and privacy. Although these are two very different security instruments, both are equally important for keeping your sensitive information safe and secure.
Firewalls protect your physical device by filtering out traffic based on pre-set parameters. On the other hand, VPNs mask your real online identity and provide you with privacy security. A can also be used to bypass even the most robust firewalls. But, for that to happen, the VPN must have a specific set of traits.
In this detailed guide, we’ll cover every little detail, from how these two tools work to types of firewalls and VPNs and their most essential features. We’ll also address the ultimate questions – can a VPN bypass firewall? Read on and find out everything you need to know about this crucial online security topic.
What Is A Firewall?
In simple terms, a firewall is a barrier that protects your network from receiving any unwanted information or leaking any sensitive data to outside sources. In its purest form, a firewall is used to restrict access or block online sites that they deem inappropriate or potentially dangerous.
In their expanded form, firewalls are used by many online users and businesses. Most notable examples of this are streaming companies that utilize firewalls to restrict content for users outside of the target region. Besides this, there are many other examples, ranging from online shops to pornography and gambling websites. All of these employ firewalls because they must comply with strict laws to avoid getting taken down.
Types of Firewalls
Even though the term “firewall” is used as an all-encompassing word, there’s more than one type of such protection. Understanding the different types of firewalls is also a critical part of choosing the most suitable one based on your specific personal or business needs. In fact, there are three main types of firewalls:
- Hardware Firewalls – Resembling standard network routers, hardware firewalls are a more secure option and a preferred choice for business owners. This is because they always inspect all data packets before they reach the network. With this in mind, hardware routers also have some drawbacks compared to software ones, as they are more susceptible to attacks coming within the system.
- Software Firewalls – As the name says, these aren’t physical firewalls but instead features installed on specific physical devices. They are great for protecting individual users and devices but not ideal for businesses and companies with many employees.
- Cloud-based Firewalls – These firewalls use a cloud server, in most cases set up as a proxy server. For this reason, they’re also often called proxy firewalls. Like hardware firewalls, they are more suited for businesses, particularly those that require a lot of scaling flexibility.
Additionally, there are different firewall filtering types. You can find packet-filtering firewalls, circuit-level firewalls, next-generation firewalls, and many other types that function on different principles. Still, all share the same mission – to protect your device from malicious attempts.
How Firewalls Work
A firewall protects your device by standing between it and any incoming security risks. As we mentioned above, they use different filtering techniques to sift out all unwanted data and deliver only the information your device should be getting.
But, in simple terms, how exactly do firewalls block VPNs from getting through? The process is relatively straightforward. As your device’s guard, a firewall protects all of your device’s entry points.
It uses pre-set rules (control lists) to allow or prevent data packets from entering your device. These predetermined rules are most often based on domain names, IP addresses, ports, or specific protocols and programs. They can even be based on target keywords. If a VPN doesn’t meet these rules when requesting access, it’ll be blocked.
There are many examples of such practices in highly authoritarian countries around the world. But, none more prevalent than the Great Firewall of China. This combination of technology and legislative actions includes blocking all foreign internet tools, limiting outside information sources, and forcing all companies to adapt their domestic regulations. Luckily, even the Great Firewall of China, as powerful as it is, can be bypassed with a reliable VPN service.
Deep Packet Inspection – A more Elaborate Firewall System
Deep packet inspection (DPI) is not a type of firewall on its own. Instead, it is a type of network packet filtering with great capabilities. It is competent in weeding out any intrusion attempts, spam, viruses, or any information that’s not compliant with a predetermined protocol. This is because, unlike plain packet filtering, DPI goes much deeper beyond just examining packet headers. As such, it’s carried out as one of your firewall’s security features.
So, how does this complex security feature work? In layman’s terms, it checks the content of all packets it receives to figure out where the packet is coming from. It stops them at a specific checkpoint and determines what to do with them using the rules its network or systems administrator assigns.
With that in mind, Deep Packet Inspection is a sophisticated system and, as such, deserves to be studied in length to be completely understood. There are many crucial techniques to learn and challenges that DPI faces compared to conventional packet filtering. We can’t cover the nitty-gritty details on this general page, but we heavily recommend you read up on it if this topic piques your interest.
What Is A VPN?
A Virtual Private Network, or simply VPN, is a useful privacy and security tool that allows you to create a private network tunnel from a remote server location. It masks your real IP address and effectively hides all of your online activities, making you invisible and practically untraceable when using it. There are no limitations regarding VPN servers’ physical location, as you can connect to servers located on the other side of the globe.
When connected to a VPN server, the traffic that’s sent from your network is encrypted and scrambled. This makes it near-impossible to decipher even if it leaks out of the protected network. Thanks to all of these unique operating features, a VPN can be a very powerful ally for many online activities, most notably:
- Securing your private and sensitive data
- Providing a secure gateway to P2P and torrenting sites
- Unblocking region-locks and streaming blocked content
- Bypassing any censorship in authoritarian governments
- Bypassing ISP restrictions such as bandwidth throttling
Types of VPNs
When discussing the types of VPN services, we can classify all VPNs into three main categories. They are intranet-based site-to-site, extranet-based site-to-site, and remote access VPNs. The latter of the three is most commonly used by individual VPN customers, while the first two are mostly used by corporations that want to safeguard sensitive business information. With that said, let’s expand a bit on each of the three types of VPNs:
Intranet Based Site-to-Site VPN
Intranet site-to-site VPNs operate differently than the widely known remote-access VPNs. The main purpose of site-to-site VPN services is to provide several VPN users in different fixed locations access to each other’s resources. In other words, it allows them to secure sensitive data and information between each other without having to worry that it’ll fall into the wrong hands.
Extranet Base Site-to-Site VPN
Extranet site-to-site VPNs are fairly similar to intranet ones but with one distinct difference. They allow a private connection between two separate intranet networks, but without the option of one network directly accessing the other one. A common example of this is when two separate companies are working together on a joint project.
Remote Access VPN
Remote-access VPNs are often used as the general term that covers all Virtual Private Networks. A remote-access VPN works by connecting the user to a desired remote server, creating a private and encrypted tunnel.
When connected to the server, the user is then entirely free to browse privately, restricted access sites, and enjoy all of the activities that would otherwise be unavailable to him. Remote-access VPNs are commercially-friendly, easy to set up, and relatively straightforward to use compared to site-to-site VPNs.
Do You Need To Use A Firewall With A VPN?
If you’re using a VPN to protect your network, utilizing a firewall is unnecessary, but it can provide you with an additional layer of security. If you don’t want to go through the hassle of setting up a sophisticated firewall on your device, you’ll still be very safe and secure with a VPN. This is because most modern operating systems already have a certain firewall type installed on the device.
The Main Differences Between Firewalls & VPNs
The most significant difference you should keep in mind is that a firewall works to protect your device through configurations that prevent malicious files from accessing it. Opposite to this, a VPN allows you to secure your network, not the computer itself when you’re on the internet.
In other words, a VPN will only safeguard the data being sent to and from your device through the encrypted tunnel. It can’t protect you against viruses. If you download a malicious file by accident while connected to a VPN, the Virtual Private Network can’t do anything to prevent the file from infecting your device.
Another significant difference to be mindful of when deciding between a VPN and a firewall is that a VPN doesn’t provide you with any tools to establish network port and data packet restrictions on your device. Some upper-tier VPNs do include kill-switch features, but this isn’t the same thing.
Finally, the last significant difference between VPNs and firewalls is that the latter can’t help you bypass any geo-restrictions or unblock any site. They can only be used to enforce content and network restrictions. With all of this in mind, the main takeaway is that a VPN is a much more powerful tool and is significantly more diverse than a firewall.
Can A VPN Bypass A Firewall?
Yes, a VPN can bypass a firewall. In general, VPNs are designed to avoid all types of firewalls, such as websites, schools, universities, or businesses. As we highlighted above, most consumer VPNs, or remote access VPNs, can bypass all types of restrictions and network blocks. But, besides just defeating the firewall, a VPN also serves another critical purpose – it provides you with an additional layer of privacy and security when accessing the online world.
How Does A VPN Bypass A Firewall?
Simply put, a VPN doesn’t exactly bypass a firewall – it tunnels through it. As you’re switching your real IP address with the address of the server you’re connecting to, you’re effectively tricking the firewall into thinking you’re at the remote server’s location. By choosing a server located in the region that the firewall approves access to, you’ll be able to tunnel through the original block and open up everything hidden behind the firewall.
VPN Features You Should Look For To Bypass Firewalls
Not every VPN is capable of reliably bypassing every firewall it comes across. That’s why you shouldn’t rush into any service without considering all of its characteristics. You should pay attention to several critical features when considering a VPN that will help you bypass firewalls. Let’s take a closer look and discuss each of them in a bit more detail:
Obfuscated VPN servers are specialized and sophisticated servers that mask the fact that you’re using a VPN to reroute your network connection. Thanks to this, they make your VPN traffic look like any other regular traffic, and even your ISP or the police aren’t able to tell that you’re using a VPN. VPN obfuscation is a handy feature to have if you’re trying to bypass robust firewalls or live in a highly authoritarian country with heavy internet censorship.
If you’re mainly looking for a VPN that will help you go around complex and hardy firewalls, having a good set of strong protocols is necessary. Several VPN protocols are adept in reliably going through firewalls, most notably IKEv2, SSTP, and L2TP/IPSec. Protocols like OpenVPN can bypass most firewalls, but not all, while PPTP is the least capable of avoiding firewall blocks. Ideally, you should also look for any special in-house protocols offered by specific VPNs.
SOCKS5 proxies work only on an application-level but aren’t limited to web traffic. They do not encrypt your data and protect only your browser or the app you set the proxy on. This makes them ideal for bypassing firewalls on streaming and gaming apps and securing data on P2P platforms. The SOCKS5 is hard to find at many VPN services. That said, a few top-tier VPNs allow you to use their servers as SOCKS5 proxies, the most notable of which is NordVPN.
Besides the VPN itself, the service should also offer browser extensions, at least for Firefox and Chrome. These extensions can be a very useful tool for bypassing local firewalls on your school or work network. This is because they do not ask you for administrative rights to install and can slip through undetected.
Large and Adept Server Network
When talking about VPN servers, quality always beats quantity. That said, a VPN service should combine both, as in this case, they are equally important for bypassing firewalls. It’s crucial to have capable servers through which you can rout your data. It’s also essential to have multiple options always available so that you can quickly hop between servers if you encounter any blocks.
VPN vs. Firewall – Which is Better?
There’s no objective answer on which is better, a VPN or firewall, as they differ from each other and don’t provide you with the same characteristics. That’s why the answer to this question is a purely subjective one.
Do you want to protect your device from hackers and harmful files? A firewall is a way to go. But, if you’re going to keep your data secure and private, you can only do this with a VPN.
Ultimately, the choice is entirely up to you on which tool you prefer implementing to enhance your security. However, if you want to protect your network and devices as best as possible, consider combining both of these instruments, and you’ll undoubtedly be protected from any malicious attempts.