Two minute review
It took the pandemic a couple of weeks to make working from home a necessity. This rapid transition meant that many technical details were initially left unchecked. Among these is our vulnerability to hackers, a threat that will only get worse with more connected devices. A firewall (opens in new tab) is the first line of protection that a hacker sees when breaking into a network, serving mainly as a deterrent.
Firewalla’s journey started with a crowdfunding campaign to put a firewall in as many homes as possible. Their latest hardware, the Purple, is a portable unit incorporating a powerful multicore processor, complemented with software that gives control over the home network. The compact device can also be used on-the-go thanks to two Wi-Fi interfaces and low power consumption.
Pricing and availability
The Purple (opens in new tab) is being sold at the reduced price of $319 for a limited time and has an MSRP of $369. Firewalla also provides other models that fit well with their customer budget. Their entry-level costs $139 while the high-end Firewalla Gold (opens in new tab) goes for $478.
Firewalla Purple: Design
Firewalla’s Purple is shipped using quality materials and includes everything required to use the device within a few minutes. A 15W Type-C power adapter, the matching power cable, and a flat Ethernet cable are supplied. The purple plastic firewall sits on top of the accessories and is the first thing seen when the box is opened. A cardboard with an Internet link to the online manual is provided instead of a paper user guide.
The firewall itself is tiny and can fit in the back pocket. The 3cm x 6cm x 9cm box weighs 110g. All connectors are located on one side and include two 1G Ethernet ports, an unused USB Type-A port, and the USB Type-C port used to supply power. A micro-SD socket and a reset button accessible through a pinhole are located on the opposite side. The Purple box is very light and has four rubber feet. Two LEDs located on either side of the case give the status at all times.
The hardware is based on an Amlogic 922X six-core CPU clocked at 1.9 GHz. The four Cortex A53 and two Cortex A73 architectures have a performance slightly better than a Raspberry Pi 4. The Purple also supports 2GB of DDR4 RAM and has 16GB of eMMC memory. The memory chips and CPU are cooled using a small fan mounted on a heatsink. Air vents on the side give adequate airflow to the system, regulating the temperature to avoid CPU throttling.
The firewall has a 2x2 WiFi radio supporting the 802.11ac standard with a top speed of 867Mbps. An integrated Bluetooth 5.0 interface is used to do the initial software setup. Two internal PCB antennas provide a few meters of range and will be convenient for using the firewall in a coffee shop for example. A pair of 1G Ethernet interfaces are finally included and connect to the WAN and LAN networks, the WAN being the Internet provider link while the LAN is the home network.
Firewalla Purple: In Use
The setup of the Purple firewall is based around Firewalla’s mobile application which exists for both Apple and Android ecosystems. Once downloaded, the user first selects the type of product used and goes through a pairing process. The app will then search the firewall using Bluetooth and validate the device using a QR code located at the back of the unit. The whole process usually takes no more than five minutes to complete.
The firewall can work either as a router or as a bridge. The main difference is that IP address and other network information will be issued from Firewalla’s unit if it is a router. A bridge on the other hand will forward network requests to a separate router. The Purple box as a router allows more control over a network. It is the recommended mode but tends to be more complicated to set up.
The unit at all times records events and statistics about data flowing through it. These are displayed on the dashboard as graphs and clickable items. For example, activating the section representing the number of connected devices opens a page with hostnames and assigned IPs. Groups can then be created to contain hosts that fall under a particular category.
Where the purple firewall really shines is how simple it is to view, enable and adjust features. It only takes a couple of button presses to activate the built-in AD blocker. Another good example is testing for open ports that might offer hackers a way to enter the network. Again, a single press allows testing for open ports. Other useful features that are baked in Firewalla’s Purple box are VPN (opens in new tab) client and server, DNS over HTTPS (opens in new tab), and family filters.
Compact firewalls suitable for home usage are becoming faster and cheaper thanks to affordable processors usually found in Android TV boxes (opens in new tab). These CPUs provide an array of high-speed interfaces including multiple Gigabit Ethernet ports. They also run firewall software available in an open-source format. A manufacturer just needs to integrate all components while providing a good user interface.
WatchGuard has been around for more than two decades producing firewall appliances. Their entry-level unit, the Firebox T15 (opens in new tab), offers similar features to the Purple box but for about twice the price. The included 32bit processor is less powerful than Firewalla’s 922X while resources such as RAM and Flash memories are also lacking. Lastly, the T15 lacks family-friendly features such as an AD blocker or social time-off.
Zyxel Communications makes business-grade network equipment. The USG Flex 100 (opens in new tab) is a firewall that offers basic protection against online attacks. Being priced similar to Firewalla’s Purple, the Flex 100 offers more Ethernet ports. But as with the Firebox T15, the modern six-core CPU of the Purple beats hands down the dual-core found in the Flex 100. The Zyxel firewall also lacks a Wi-Fi interface and is much bigger in size.
Firewalla’s Purple firewall is out to conquer the world by making it safer to be online. Don’t let its small size fool you, it packs many features usually found in more expensive units. The powerful processor is the star of the show. Together with multiple network interfaces such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, a lot of use-cases can be created in software without having to worry about processing power. This is clearly put into practice in the mobile application that packs features such as DNS over HTTPS and the advertisement blocker.
The price is a little bit steep for the provided hardware but we should think of the Purple firewall also as software with long-term support. The level of firewall protection will depend on how well Firewalla is at being ahead of hackers. There have been many cases where centralized services were targeted by bad agents resulting in a Denial of Service. If that were to happen to Firewalla, it could result in a loss of protection for all of its customers.
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