Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.
Zone Alarm is a popular firewall you install on your machine. If you also have a NAT router you may - or may not - need a firewall such as Zone Alarm.
I have a WinXP Pro PC behind a NAT router and am getting tired of Zone Alarm to the point where I think Zone Alarm is creating more problems than it solves. Some have suggested that I do not need a software firewall as long as I practice safe computing. Do you agree? And can you recommend a different free software firewall solution just to satisfy my paranoia?
As you've seen, there differing opinions on this. In reality it does, indeed, depend on how you use your system and how "safe" your safe computing really is.
It's also important to understand that there are a few things that a software firewall like Zone Alarm can do that NAT routers typically don't.
Let me tell you what I do, and you can draw your own conclusions.
My home network lives behind a NAT router, and my machines at home do not have a firewall installed, other than Windows XP's built-in firewall - which is turned off.
You can easily see which way I lean on this particular issue.
I have a complete suite of security tools in place, including anti-virus, anti-spyware, automatic updates, backups and the like. Both my wife and I religiously practice "safe computing" - we're both good at identifying suspicious attachments, for example, and don't download things that might be dangerous (or if we do, we do so in a very controlled manner).
The result is that over many years we've never experienced virus or significant spyware infection or related issue. That's not to say it won't happen some day, but so far what we have, and do, has proven to be quite adequate.
Note, though, that I said "at home". On occasion I do take my laptop out and connect to other networks - networks such as public hotspots, or networks over which I have no control and very little knowledge. In these cases I enable the Windows firewall.
There are important differences to note between NAT routers and firewalls such as Zone Alarm.
A NAT router, for example, can only prevent attempts to access your computer from outside of your LAN. That means that and problems already within your LAN are not abated, or detected, by the router. If you have an infected machine within your LAN behind your router, it can easily infect all the other machines on your LAN. If your machine is infected and connecting to the internet in unexpected ways, a router will detect, or stop it.
That's why the big emphasis on if you practice safe computing. If you avoid all of the other ways that viruses and spyware can arrive on your system (email and web downloads being the worst), then a NAT router will do its part in preventing network based attacks.
A software firewall running on each machine is naturally going to protect against many types of problems regardless of where they come from: other machines on your local network, or the internet. Now, like a NAT router, a software firewall cannot prevent infections from internet downloads and email attachments. However unlike a router, a software firewall can detect, and prevent, certain types of bad behavior - like a virus on your machine attempting to spread to others.
This "outbound" protection is both a blessing and a curse. The most common complaint that I get about Zone Alarm and similar products is that it alerts too often, and for benign and valid access of the internet. That's unfortunate, because when it alerts too often for all these "false positives", people start ignoring the alerts, or turn off the feature completely. When a real problem happens they're unable to distinguish it from the noise, and frequently ignore that as well.
Fortunately, I don't believe that's a terribly common situation, but it is annoying when it happens.
Now given your dislike of Zone Alarm, here's the kicker ... there are many free software firewalls (just search Google for "free firewall") - but the one that seems to fairly consistently bubble to the top of people's recommendations appears to be: Zone Alarm. Since I don't use one myself, I rely on those recommendations instead to guide people - but if you're not happy with Zone Alarm, there are many alternatives to try as well.
But personally, I'm quite happy with my NAT router, the Windows built in firewall as needed ... and a little common sense.
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