A Brief History of Firewalls: From Packet Filters to Next-Gen Technology

In 1851, the term “firewall” was coined. Back then, it referred to a barrier used to prevent fire from spreading through a building or structure. And while firewalls in the traditional sense are still used today, the term has taken on an entirely different meaning for most people—a security system that keeps your private network private and prevents malware from sneaking in.

So, how did those firewalls get started?

A fire in the belly: friendly competition to build the very first

The origins of the cyber security-focused firewall are somewhat hazy. While a number of people have been credited with inventing it, most experts agree it wasn’t just one person.

If we want to go back to the beginning of the firewall, we’ll need to jump back several decades to the 1980s, when two tech teams engaged in a brutal competition to build the very first. Digital Equipment Corp., a computer company based in Maynard, MA, squared off against telecommunications giant AT&T for the chance to bring the public a winning model of the firewall—and bring their team eternal fame and glory.

Okay, maybe that’s not exactly how it happened—but tech historians do credit those two companies with developing the first firewalls. The teams from AT&T and Digital Equipment Corp. eventually collaborated, so there probably wasn’t any vicious tech battle going on (though that makes the story more exciting).

Digital Equipment Corp. built their firewall on a premise of allowing people “inside” to get “out,” while preventing people “outside” from getting “in.” These first firewalls were packet filters, meaning they analyzed incoming and outgoing packets, or data, and determined whether or not to allow access based on IP addresses, sources, and destinations.

From these humble beginnings, the firewall would become a staple of cyber security.

From competition to commercial use: firewalls become fearsome

The first commercial firewall burst onto the tech scene in 1992, followed by the stateful firewall just two years later. Stateful firewalls were capable of more advanced judgements, using all available information to decide which traffic to admit.

Around the same time, an application firewall called the Firewall Toolkit (FWTK) came into being. This latest incarnation of the firewall was more resistant to harmful applications trying to bypass its protocol.

As cyber threats became more sophisticated, so did firewall technology. If the firewall was originally intended as a kind of bouncer guarding the network’s front door against malicious intruders, modern iterations were forced to check the back entrance and the bathroom windows, too.

Firewalls: the next generation

As the name suggests, next-generation firewalls were the natural progression of this evolution. Today, thanks to these advancements, firewalls can detect and prevent intrusion, protect against threats, and grant secure access to verified users.

Next-gen firewalls were on the market by 2010, and they’re the kind most companies use today. Built on the model of the application firewall, these firewalls include more advanced capabilities and perform a deeper search of incoming traffic.

If your network security predates the 1980s (or even the 2000s), it’s time to upgrade. Cyber security threats are evolving every day, and your network security needs to evolve to match. Next-gen firewalls can help protect your company from data breaches, hacks, and damaging malware.

Take the first step in strengthening your cyber security. Contact us today.


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