When we first began working with the Firebox, we got very frustrated with all of the reboots we had to suffer through while making what we considered minor changes (IP, subnet mask, and so on). But that's because we didn't yet understand WatchGuard's client-server attitude toward configuration. Clearly enterprise in nature, the thick configuration utility wants you to check your configuration changes before you commit them. It's not a handy Web utility that could accidentally paint you into a corner. It wants you to make your changes as a single update so that individual changes can be considered before you hit the return key.
With the Firebox, you could easily have an entire lab configuration (sandbox) to do some initial testing, then pre-edit the changes necessary to drop the config into production. By the same token, you could remove a troubled unit from production and flip it into a lab setting to confirm or deny problems. WatchGuard allows you to save configuration files and swap between them really easily, regardless of whether you're touching the original serial number that the configuration was built on.
WatchGuard's client server approach started us thinking about how well the Firebox line fits regardless of your company size. From the SMB-oriented single console to a team approach with undocked windows spread across the front wall of a NOC, you could find a version of WatchGuard's hardware and combination of software that should fit your needs. This is a stratified product line with software upgrades within the hardware platform allowing you to fit the cost of the unit to your immediate needs but still permitting an easy upgrade path. From smaller Edge units to the Core SMB units all the way to the larger Peak units, the Firebox product line has granular layers allowing a much closer fit to individual company needs. The same stratification can work just as well within a highly distributed enterprise; with varying levels of authority, I could easily see firewall management becoming a team sport.
GUI or CLI?
While we were, in general, impressed by the WatchGuard, it wasn't perfect. The most significant hassle, though, came from the manufacturer's packaging rather than the basic system design; there was no software at all on the CD-ROM, nor were you able to download it from the Firebox's console. You must be able to download it from the WatchGuard site, and the first setup must be on an Internet-connected link since the system wants to do "activation." We asked about this and got the impression from WatchGuard that there is a way around this if you're using it on an isolated network, but that way is not covered in the startup guide (nor is it freely offered by the company's technical support).
Once we got past WatchGuard's system maintenance window and were able to download the Firebox Manager, it wasn't too bad to get through the initial setup. We were advised, though, to not use both the GUI and the CLI since the configs are stored differently. We were told to use one or the other -- a shame since, on so many systems, the GUI is perfect for simple configuration touch-ups while the CLI is there for the heavy lifting. For initial setup, we used the front-panel buttons to give the Firebox an IP address, then connected using the Firebox Manager. You can also do it using the included serial cable to avoid the pain of countless arrow pushes to change the IP address.
Even with the extensive testing (accompanied by the necessary extensive configuration and management that goes with spending weeks on a device's console), we weren't able to work with every single feature on each system. The supercool feature that we couldn't try out on the WatchGuard was the drag-and-drop VPN setup. As long as the console is able to get an encrypted link to both firewalls, you can do a drag and drop from the branch office to the home office for VPN setup.
Speed to burn
With a proxy-oriented architecture such as the Firebox's, you expect to take a hit in absolute packet-passing performance. Typically what you lose in throughput you gain in security, thanks to the proxy's ability to obscure the details of the devices inside the network from the outside world, making it nearly impossible for external devices to connect to them directly. So we were surprised to discover that the Firebox was the fastest UTM in our test -- faster even than the SonicWall, which costs three times as much.
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