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VPN vs. Firewall vs. Antivirus: Which Is More Secure?

Nicole Fallon
Nicole Fallon

VPNs, firewalls and antivirus software all play a critical role in keeping your business's digital activity secure.

In an age where many people's work takes place online, it's important to have strong protection against malicious forces attempting to gain access to your business's information. Virtual private networks (VPNs) can help your business gain this protection, but a VPN may not be enough on its own. Firewalls, antivirus software, and other security devices can work with one another and your VPN to bring you maximum security for your business's online activities. If you're exploring VPNs, firewalls, and antivirus software for your business, or are just curious about how these important security measures work, here's what you should know.

What is a VPN?

A VPN, or virtual private network, hides your IP address by routing your network connection through a remote server, shielding you from attempts to obtain your data or location, even while you use public Wi-Fi. This makes it a secure, beneficial choice for companies whose employees work from home or a remote location.

"It is advisable to [run] a VPN for corporate services when public Wi-Fi is used or for businesses with many remote workers," said Andrius Ulenskas, technical director at Hyve Managed Hosting.

By routing your connection to a remote server, internet service providers, government websites and websites you frequent won't have any way of knowing your true location. They'll only see the IP address that the VPN provides. The VPN also creates a secure tunnel, encrypting your data and rendering it unreadable to anyone else who attempts to access it.

A VPN can't protect your computer from any viruses or malware. However, it can keep your location and data secure from hackers so they can't use your personally identifiable information for fraudulent activities.

"If a business is afraid of ISPs snooping on its traffic, a third-party VPN service is good for that," said Jerry Chen, CEO of Firewalla. "If a business worries about employees working from home and needing access to the business data, a simple remote access VPN server … is completely free."

When you use a VPN provider, your network connection may be accessible from multiple servers across the world. You'll want to choose your connectivity based on your location. VPNs also bypass geo-restrictions, meaning you can route your VPN through another country in order to view websites that may be inaccessible in your own country.

What is a firewall?

A firewall monitors incoming and outgoing network traffic, through either a hardware device or software you install on your computer. It is essentially protection between your computer's internal network and any external networks, such as the internet. A firewall stops malicious or unauthorized users from accessing your computer when it's connected to the internet. It does this by creating data pockets that restrict these users based on your security preferences.

You can set up your firewall to block websites and online services of your choice, or add firewall exceptions to websites you want to have access to your internal network. For example, you may allow certain programs to run on your computer that otherwise wouldn't with the firewall in place.

A firewall provides your computer with strong protection, but it can't tell whether something is malicious unless it's programmed to see and block that specific item. For instance, your firewall won't block any website that it's not programmed to block, even if the site may have malicious content and be detrimental to your system.

Most computers come with firewalls already installed and only require a short setup process by the user upon initial configuration. However, you might want to install a different firewall with a better interface and more protective capabilities.

What is antivirus software?

Antivirus software is installed on your computer to detect, analyze, and remove malicious software (malware) and viruses, including worms, Trojan horses, and ransomware. Hackers and cybercriminals use malware to infiltrate a computer's network to steal information, damage devices or participate in identity theft. Antivirus software can stop these attacks.

Antivirus software scans all the data that comes in contact with your computer, including webpages, software, downloaded files, and applications, all while monitoring for suspicious activity. If the software identifies a known malware program, it can stop the malware from doing additional damage and remove it from your computer.

Cybercriminals constantly update and create malware, so you need to update your computer's antivirus software regularly to keep up with the latest protection. Some computers can be set to update these programs automatically. The term "anti-malware software" is often used interchangeably with "antivirus software," as they refer to the same program capabilities.

VPNs vs. firewalls

Here are some specific differences between VPNs and firewalls:

  • VPNs keep your location and private data, such as financial information and passwords, secure from others attempting to obtain that information. However, they do not completely protect your internal network from malware.
  • Firewalls prevent malicious attacks by allowing you to set your security preferences and what you allow to enter your computer.
  • VPNs can only protect the data from where the network connection was created or in the VPN tunnel. They do not protect your computer.
  • You can't set up security rules on VPNs, as you don't have the authority to establish any packet or network restrictions from your own computer.
  • While VPNs allow you to bypass geo-restrictions, firewalls can only create restrictions that you have access to on your computer.
  • Companies usually use VPNs to allow their employees to enter their remote servers securely from other locations. Firewalls are used by both personal and corporate clients to protect computers from malicious software.

"VPNs don't guard against attacks on the company's public-facing servers," said Eric Mintz, CEO of EM Squared. "Public-facing firewalls do that."

VPNs vs. antivirus

Here's how VPNs and antivirus software stack up against each other:

  • VPNs allow you to remain anonymous on the internet and keep your location and online activities from being monitored.
  • Antivirus programs are constantly scanning your computer for malicious software to remove it from your system.
  • VPNs can restrict others from seeing your data by encrypting it. However, VPNs can't detect if you're clicking on malware that could harm your computer. Antivirus programs can remove this malware as soon as they detect it.
  • Antivirus programs can't bypass geo-restrictions or encrypt online traffic as VPNs can.

Antivirus vs. firewalls

Here are some specific differences between antivirus software and firewalls:

  • Antivirus programs scan your device to ensure no malicious software is attempting to access your data.
  • Firewalls use your preferences to block access to certain sites and limit the data that a website, program or software can obtain.
  • Firewalls focus on blocking websites that you or the firewall company have labeled as malicious in the software. Antivirus software focuses on identifying and removing all malware after it has scanned your computer, so you need to update it constantly in order to keep up the protection against the latest malware.

"Antivirus protects the business's operating system," Chen said. "If used correctly, it can be used to prevent hackers exploiting a personal computer and cause data leakage or other types of threats. This is needed in conjunction with the firewall."

Should you use all three?

There are many benefits to using a VPN, firewall and antivirus software together on your company computers, as their capabilities complement one another.

"Firewall and antivirus software should always be regarded as supplementary to a VPN service," said Pablo Listingart, founder and owner of ComIT. "They are by no means an adequate substitute for VPN safety."

It's best to have a properly configured firewall with an intuitive interface that allows you to choose which websites to block or allow on your internal network. Add a strong antivirus program that can identify and remove all malware from your computer, and then get a reliable VPN that allows you to access remote servers with no fear of being monitored.

Technology solutions can't do the job alone, though. Your whole team needs to knowledgeable and vigilant about cybersecurity, especially when they work remotely.

"Businesses need to see security as a layered solution, and ultimately, businesses need to have proper training for the employees," Chen said. "Most hacks start with people clicking on the wrong thing. We always tell our people to 'think before you click.'"

Image Credit: fizkes / Getty Images
Nicole Fallon
Nicole Fallon
business.com Member
Nicole Fallon has written hundreds of B2B-focused articles on topics such as marketing, business technology, leadership, and HR/organizational management. In addition to covering small business trends and software reviews, Nicole runs a digital marketing agency, where she and her team create high-quality content for a wide range of B2B and B2C brands.