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Open Source Firewalls - Untangle and pfSense comparison

So this week I had the opportunity of setting up a little lab to test both of these firewalls. Before this week I had no idea these firewalls even existed, and the only open source routing/firewall software I even knew of at the time was Vyatta; which is really only for routing purposes.

Starting off, you really need to pay attention to the system requirements, especially Untangles. I attempted to install both of these using Ubuntu with VirtualBox and was in for a nasty surprise. Originally skimming the requirements brought me to this issue, to where I used an old Dell Dimension 3000 box to use this on. Which as you may know, is very obsolete and moth-eaten. Lets just say the 1 GB of RAM and 40 GB hard drive didn't satisfy my general virtual needs; especially Untangles thirst for resources. So I decided to use ESX 3.5 on a beastly server that happened to be laying around; now we're talking.

Simply put, Untangle loves memory. There is no way around it, this is a Debian based OS that comes with its own pretty GUI; so you can see what I'm saying. But thats not just it, the tools on this thing are immensely creative. They are so creative that you need 2 GB of memory to run them properly. And thats if you only have a small amount of users. They say with 1-50 users you will be fine with 1 GB of memory but I highly recommend using more than that, who would not want to use more than 1 GB of memory anyways? Also, you will be fine with a Pentium 4 or equivalent processor until you hit 50+ users. Once your in the realm of that many users, you will want to be going dual core with 2 GB+ of memory. That will last you until 150 users, and well, you see where I'm going with this. This thing will handle up to 5000 users on a quad core, which I think is staggering. But are all these resources worth it? Absolutely!

Out of the box this thing will come with spam, phishing, spyware, and virus blockers. Not to mention its own Protocol Control which personally, is my favorite. Because it gives you a whole list (4 pages worth) of protocols to choose from, and take action on each. It has its own IPS as well, which has a good chunk of viruses/malware to choose from for blocking, with signatures included. And all of these tools are very straight forward with a friendly GUI. Almost anyone that has a basic understanding of networking and web application will be able to work with this fairly easily. There are a lot of other detailed tools as well, but I decided to briefly go over the ones that I found important.

Now unlike Untangle, pfSense is a FreeBSD OS. This firewall is very lightweight and has a pretty powerful terminal. Instead of needing a ton of memory and CPU power, this little guy can run comfortably on 128 MB of memory, and 300 MHz of CPU power, which is mainly for residential purposes. Once you reach 20-50 Mb throughput, you'll want a 500 MHz system with about 512 MB of memory. Still thats pretty lightweight if you ask me. 100 Mb wire-speed? Eh, no problem, just push your CPU power to about 700 MHz to 1 GHz, this thing operates effortlessly.

Administering pfSense can only be done from the Webui, locally you have the terminal, which is very helpful in setting up the box. Once your in the Webui, theres a few wizards to help you to get started. You really need to dig in order to find some of the nifty tools, in the start it doesn't throw them all at your face for ease of use like Untangle does. The blocking is mostly done through a rule base inside the Webui, which I started to like a lot. But unlike Untangle, you need to start from scratch on all the blocking/passing, whereas Untangle gives you about 4 pages worth of different protocols and web categories to block/pass that have signatures already in place.

The available services for pfSense are also pretty nifty. You can set up your own PPPoE server, OpenNTPD server, and you can even enable RIP on your network, among others, and VPN setup seems fairly easy.

I personally think Untangle is the best to get started on for a beginner. The GUI is very helpful and directive on what you should do. I personally liked the web filter and how it gave description of everything you selected, that can be very helpful if you are unsure. PfSense requires you to build everything from scratch, its way more advanced versus Untangle; but this also gives you a lot more control. However, the performance of pfSense while being so lightweight is unbeatable. Especially if you aren't looking to spend a lot of money on hardware. All in all, it comes down to personal preference.

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Christina O’Neill has been working in the information security field for 3 years. She is a board member for the Northern Ohio InfraGard Members Alliance and a committee member for the Information Security Summit, a conference held once a year for information security and physical security professionals.

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