A firewall is a system that sits between a computer and the Inter-net, and provides security by ensuring that only certain types of traffic can pass. It can be a separate piece of hardware connected between your modem and PC, or it can be a piece of software that runs on your PC. In either case, its job is to deny access to hackers and hostile programs, while still allowing you to use the Internet. Every firewall has a set of rules that specify which network traffic it will allow, and which it will deny.
For any Windows computer connected to the Internet, a firewall and a virus scanner are pretty much indispensable. Software makers offer security bundles that contain both of these, plus other utilities such as ad blockers, Web filters and popup stoppers, all controlled through one common interface. This bundling makes sense, since buying the suite will be cheaper than getting each program individually, and integrated products are less likely to conflict with each other.
ZoneAlarm is a popular software fire-wall made by Zone Labs. It's available in a free stand-alone version, as well as several more sophisticated paid varieties. Of these, ZoneAlarm Security Suite is the top of the range for personal computers. In addition to firewall and antivirus components, ZoneAlarm Security Suite includes utilities to block advertisements and pop-ups, filter Web sites to exclude undesirable content, protect private material from snooping, and check e-mail for viruses. IMSecure, a tool to protect you while using instant messenging programs, is also bundled.
ZoneAlarm's firewall uses stateful packet inspection, which compares incoming information with outgoing information to ensure that your computer receives only the data it requested and not hostile unsolicited data. It also has the ability to recognise many commonly used programs and automatically configure itself to allow the appropriate level of access - though you can override these settings if you wish. You can also make your own rules based on applications, network ports, time of day and other factors.
Some security programs can interfere with each other, because they work at a very basic system level. One recent example brought to our attention by a reader is that the firewall component of ZoneAlarm conflicts with Trend Micro's PC-cillin antivirus software. Both companies have confirmed that this is due to incompatibilities with a low-level driver used by PC-cillin, and will try to resolve the issue in the near future. However, in this case other anti-virus programs like AntiVir Guard and McAfee VirusScan work without problems. ZoneAlarm Security Suite incorporates the powerful VET antivirus system, so it doesn't need a separate antivirus utility.
On installation, you have to provide a valid e-mail address in order to download product updates, but the software doesn't require any other activation. After installing the program, it walks you through a series of setup screens, and then provides a brief tutorial explaining how the program works. The Help function provides more detailed information, and a 266-page manual in PDF format can be downloaded from the Zone Labs Web site (it isn't provided with the installation file).
Although an antispam tool is yet to make an appearance, an antispyware utility called Pest Control will be bundled as a free extra from August. Overall, ZoneAlarm Security Suite is a polished product that delivers the Internet protection that Windows needs, and holds its own against competitors.
Click here for a screen shot of Zone Alarm firewall.
Click here for an image of Zone Alarm's configuration wizard.
In brief: Zone Labs ZoneAlarm Security Suite 5.0
A well-integrated and comprehensive Internet safety suite with good user configurability.
Price: $99.95 (download), $130 (retail box)
Distributor: Secure Tec
Phone: (03) 9755 5314