Understanding the Fundamental Differences Between WAF and Firewall

intrusion prevention systems

Many business decision-makers believe they must choose between a WAF and a network firewall. However, this is like forcing the mayor to choose between police and fire departments-it leaves the city vulnerable to specific threats.

Firewalls protect at OSI model Layers 3 and 4. A WAF works at the application layer, Layer 7. It prevents web attacks like SQL injection, cross-site scripting, and more.

WAF is a security device

A WAF is a security device between web applications and users, analyzing traffic to detect and block malicious activity. It can protect businesses from cyberattacks, including DDoS attacks, SQL injections, and XSS. It can also monitor web application vulnerabilities and patch them quickly when new ones are discovered.

A web application firewall analyzes HTTP requests for specific patterns and deviations from normal behaviour that might indicate an attack, such as using obfuscated or encoded data in a request or the presence of malicious code or parameters in an HTTP query. It uses a correlation engine to examine the contents of each incoming request and determine whether or not it matches known bad strings or values. The most advanced WAFs can also decode and analyze XML, JSON, and other popular data transfer formats.

Many modern businesses use web-based systems to provide products and services online. These may include e-commerce websites, social media platforms, and mobile apps. They may store sensitive information, such as customer records or credit card details. Hackers can target these sites to steal that information or cause a system crash. A WAF can help prevent hackers from accessing the back-end databases through web-based applications.

A WAF can be implemented on a server or hosted by a third party. Host-based WAFs can be integrated with the application code but can be challenging to manage. Cloud-based WAFs are easier to manage and can offer more features, such as rules that protect against the OWASP 

WAF is a network device

The difference between WAF vs firewall is that a WAF is a network device that monitors and filters web application traffic. It can be a software solution, an appliance, or a cloud-based service. The primary purpose of a WAF is to prevent vulnerabilities in web applications from being exploited by cybercriminals. It can block attacks such as SQL injection, cross-site scripting (XSS), XML external entities, cross-site request forgery (CSRF), and denial of service attacks.

A typical WAF is positioned logically between the users and the web server. It monitors and analyzes HTTP conversations, preventing hackers from intercepting or hijacking them. It can be configured based on a positive or negative security model. A WAF that operates based on a negative security model uses a list of known attacks and blocks all the others, much like a bouncer at a club who only admits people to the venue who meet the dress code.

A positive security model, on the other hand, uses a list of allowed requests and allows everything else. This method only requires a few resources, but it may have a higher risk of false positives than the other option. A WAF can be positioned in various ways in the data path, but it is best to place it near the applications it protects to reduce performance latency.

WAF is a software application

Web application firewalls (WAF) are software applications that monitor HTTP interactions to detect and block malicious activity and traffic before it reaches users or web applications. They protect against attacks that target web applications and web services, such as SQL injection, cross-site scripting, path traversal, denial of service, XSS, and DDoS. WAFs are typically used with other security solutions, such as intrusion prevention systems and security information and event management platforms, to provide a comprehensive, integrated cybersecurity solution.

There are many different types of WAFs, including network-based and host-based. Network-based WAFs are deployed through hardware appliances and are installed within the local area network, which reduces latency. They can scan large networks for attacks and provide granular rules and settings for the application layer. They are also able to support multiple configurations and updates.

Host-based WAFs are installed as an additional plugin or application on the web server. They can be either cloud-based or on-premises and analyze GET and POST requests to determine what is legitimate and what is a malicious attack. They can also perform a reverse proxy to reduce traffic. They are typically configured to update their rules based on threat intelligence and can act as SSL termination proxies. It allows them to inspect encrypted traffic and prevent spoofed attacks.

WAF is a hardware device

A WAF is a device that sits before web applications, analyzing bi-directional HTTP traffic — detecting and blocking anything malicious. It can be deployed as a transparent bridge, a transparent reverse proxy, or in a traditional reverse-proxy mode.

A web application firewall protects against attacks that expose sensitive information such as customer payment details, credit card data, or personal information. It can also prevent unauthorized data transmission that could cause an organization’s reputational harm or heavy financial penalties. It’s significant for organizations that maintain databases online or offer services such as digital banking.

The most common approach for defending a web application is using a WAF that employs a set of rules, often called policies, to analyze incoming traffic and detect vulnerabilities. A WAF can use different methods, including known attack signatures, application profiling, machine learning, and artificial intelligence, to triage incoming traffic and block unauthorized data from the web application.

A WAF can be deployed in a host, cloud, or network-based architecture. Host and network-based WAFs typically utilize hardware appliances to minimize latency, but they require an upfront investment and must be managed in-house. On the other hand, a cloud-based WAF does not require a substantial upfront investment and can be collected through security-as-a-service subscriptions. The advantage of a cloud-based WAF is that it allows quick virtual patching to react to new threats without updating the appliance’s hardware.

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