What is AWS Network Firewall?

by Hannah Grace Holladay / April 25th, 2022

Firewalls are among the most useful information security and compliance tools. Their role is to monitor traffic moving between network borders to determine whether it should be allowed to pass. Among other responsibilities, firewalls prevent unauthorized access to networks on which sensitive data is stored, making them an essential tool for businesses seeking to comply with regulations and standards that include HIPAA, PCI DSS, GDPR, SOC 2, and more. 

This article explores the AWS Network Firewall, a firewall available to businesses that host sensitive data on the Amazon Web Services (AWS) platform. 

What is the AWS Network Firewall?

AWS Network Firewall is a managed, auto-scaling firewall and intrusion detection and prevention service that protects Amazon Virtual Private Clouds (VPCs). It monitors and filters unwanted and unauthorized traffic into and out of VPCs. AWS Network Firewall is one of several firewalls available on the AWS platform, including Security Groups, Network Access Control Lists, and the AWS Web Application Firewall.

The AWS Network Firewall is designed to be straightforward to use and to require minimal infrastructure management following the initial deployment. As a managed service, it can be deployed quickly. It scales automatically with network traffic, removing the need for businesses to build and operate infrastructure to support essential network traffic monitoring and filtering. 

AWS Network Firewall is in scope for a wide range of AWS compliance programs, which means it can be used as part of a secure system that complies with HIPAA, PCI DSS, FedRAMP, and other frameworks. However, it should be emphasized that using AWS Network Firewall is not sufficient to achieve compliance with any framework; compliance is ultimately the responsibility of AWS users. 

AWS Network Firewall Features

We’ve already discussed some of AWS Network Firewall’s headline features: it’s a managed service for monitoring and filtering network traffic to and from Amazon VPCs. But there are other features that set it apart from alternative firewall services on the platform. 

  • AWS Network Firewall operates as both a stateless and stateful firewall. Users can configure stateless rule groups that examine packets in isolation or stateful rule groups that consider the packet’s context; for example, is the packet a response to a request from a particular IP address?
  • It is a high-availability auto-scaling firewall. As a managed service, Amazon handles redundancy and scaling, so users can rely on their firewall’s infrastructure to grow and shrink in line with demand. 
  • AWS Network Firewall includes an intrusion detection and prevention system. It monitors the flow traffic in real-time and can adapt to protect networks against vulnerability exploits and brute force attacks. 
  • AWS Network Firewall integrates with other AWS security services, including the AWS Firewall Manager, allowing users to consistently organize and manage rule groups and policies. 
  • Users can take advantage of managed rule groups, predefined rules that Amazon automatically updates to account for new software vulnerabilities. Managed rule groups significantly reduce the time and effort required to keep rules up-to-date. 

We’ve highlighted some of the most attractive features here, but you can see a complete breakdown of AWS Network Firewall features in the service’s documentation

Is AWS Network Firewall Layer 7?

AWS Network Firewall operates at Layers 3-7. These numbers refer to the OSI Model, which divides network communications into seven layers. Traditional firewalls operate at Layer 3, the network layer. They can inspect and filter packets traveling over the network, but they cannot, for example, identify attacks that exploit vulnerabilities in web applications—they have no insight into protocols that operate at Layer 7, the application layer.

In contrast, AWS Network Firewall can filter VPC network traffic at the network, application, and other layers. It is a flexible network filtering and intrusion detection service that complements AWS’s other firewall services. 

What Are AWS Network Firewall Deployment Models?

To understand AWS Network Firewall deployment models, we first need to discuss how the firewall works. In short, network traffic to the VPC is routed to a firewall end-point to be examined before it enters or exits the network. The firewall endpoint is deployed within a subnet of a VPC. Ingress and egress traffic flows through the firewall endpoint subnet and then to other protected subnets containing your cloud infrastructure. 

Deployment models influence where the firewall endpoint subnet is deployed. In a typical distributed deployment model, a firewall subnet is deployed into each virtual private cloud—each VPC has its own firewall subnet. This model allows VPCs to have an independently managed firewall with a unique firewall policy. It is typically used to monitor and filter traffic between the internet and a protected subnet, although there are other use cases. 

In contrast, a centralized deployment model uses a centralized VPC into which one or more firewall subnets are deployed. This model is often used to inspect traffic flowing between VPCs or between a VPC and a business’s on-premises infrastructure. You can read more about deployment models in Deployment models for AWS Network Firewall.

AWS Network Firewall vs. Security Groups and NACLs

AWS Network Firewall is one of several firewall services available on AWS. 

  • Security Groups are stateful firewalls that filter traffic to Elastic Network Interfaces typically used with EC2 instances. Security groups provide granular filtering for individual instances.
  • Network Access Control Lists (NACLs) are optional stateless firewalls associated with one or more subnets within a virtual private cloud. 
  • Amazon WAF is a web application firewall that filters traffic for web applications and APIs, allowing users to block common attacks such as those included in the OWASP Top Ten.

You might be wondering why AWS needs so many firewalls. They each play a distinct role. AWS Network Firewall protects the perimeter of your virtual private cloud. It controls inbound and outbound traffic for the entire network. 

In contrast, security groups are associated with individual EC2 instances and some other services. NACLs are an additional firewall that controls traffic to and from subnets, allowing users to configure rules that apply to multiple groups of instances and control traffic flowing between subnets. 

Together, these firewalls give users enormous flexibility in configuring access to instances, subnets, and VPCs. For example, you may want to allow connections of a specific type into your VPC with AWS Network Firewall, but to have Network Access Control Lists that deny similar connections access to particular subnets or instances. Another use case for multiple firewalls is to run production and testing subnets, which should be able to receive requests from external networks but should not be able to communicate directly with each other. 

AWS Network Firewall is one component of a layered approach to cloud security. To learn more, visit our extensive cloud security and compliance resources or contact a cloud security specialist to discuss KirkpatrickPrice’s cloud security audit and compliance audit services.