Firewall | Antivirus — What Is the Difference?

5 min. read

The difference between firewalls and antivirus software is their functions. Firewalls act as gatekeepers that regulate data flow between internal and external networks based on security rules, while antivirus tools detect malicious activity in a computer or network system based on malware signatures and behaviors.

What Is a Firewall?

Firewall functionality with a firewall positioned between a cloud signifying internet and a laptop signifying a private network.

A firewall is a network security device which serves as a protective barrier between internal and external networks. Firewalls work by examining and filtering data using specific security rules. Based on these rules, firewalls determine whether to permit, deny, or discard data, ensuring the network's security. They can exist as hardware, software, or a combination of both.

What Is Antivirus?

Antivirus functionality with antivirus software comparing computer system codes to a virus dictionary. Matches trigger a virus found alert.

Antivirus software is a tool designed to identify, isolate, and eliminate malicious programs, such as viruses and worms, from a computer or network system. By referencing known malware signatures and analyzing behaviors, it scans and neutralizes infected files, ensuring the protection of data and system functionalities.

What Are the Differences Between Antivirus and Firewall?

Antivirus vs. Firewall
Firewall Antivirus
Protects computer systems and networks from harmful external intrusions. Shields a system from internal threats like viruses and spyware.
Can be implemented as hardware, software, or both. Primarily software-based.
Monitors and filters incoming data packets at the network protocol level. Scans and neutralizes harmful software present within the system.
Focuses predominantly on blocking unauthorized network traffic and external threats. Focuses on identifying and eliminating malware and threats already present on the device.
Cannot block internal threats or those attacks that bypass its network coverage. Can't always protect against network-based intrusions or unauthorized data transfers.
Uses rules and policies to decide which network connections to allow or block. Uses virus definitions and behavioral patterns to detect malicious activities.
Limited in preventing malware post infiltration. Actively seeks out, quarantines, and deletes malware within the system.
Its effectiveness is determined by the configuration and rule sets Its effectiveness relies on regular updates to its virus database and scanning algorithms.

Core Functionality and Focus

A firewall, either as software or hardware, is tailored to protect computer systems and networks from harmful external intrusions with incoming packet filtering and monitoring. In contrast, antivirus is a software application that aims to shield a system from internal attacks, such as viruses, worms, trojans, or spyware, by scanning and neutralizing harmful software present within.

Scope of Protection

While a firewall predominantly focuses on blocking external cyber threats by monitoring IP addresses and network traffic at the network protocol level, an antivirus program scans the system’s files and software, identifying and neutralizing internal threats like viruses, trojans, and worms. Modern firewalls have evolved to provide more comprehensive protection, but they still primarily focus on network-based threats.

Implementation Medium

Firewalls can be deployed as either hardware or software firewall form factors, offering layered protection for systems and networks. On the other hand, antivirus is primarily software-based, designed to be installed and run on individual systems to counteract malicious software.


Firewalls, despite their effectiveness, might not shield against all internal threats or attacks that bypass their network protocols. Conversely, one notable limitation of antivirus software is its potential lag in identifying new, previously undiscovered threats (zero-day attacks) until an update is available.

Historical Context

The commercial debut of firewall software can be traced back to 1992 with DEC Seal, pioneered by computer scientists Brian Reed and Jeff Mogul. In contrast, the removal of a computer virus using antivirus software was first documented in 1987 by German computer security expert, Bernard Robert Fix.

What Are the Similarities Between Antivirus and Firewall?

Primary Goal

Both firewalls and antivirus software aim to protect computer systems. While their methods and focus might differ, the core intent remains safeguarding systems from potential threats and ensuring their smooth operation.

Evolution with Technology

Cutting-edge firewall products and antivirus software have both evolved significantly over the years. They've adapted to counteract emerging and sophisticated threats, ensuring that systems remain secure in a rapidly changing digital landscape.

Both firewalls and antivirus software employ reactive and proactive measures. While they actively counteract threats by blocking or removing them, they also utilize databases of known threats and regular updates to stay ahead of potential risks.



Advanced firewalls and antivirus solutions offer users a degree of customizability. Users can often set rules, whitelist or blacklist applications, and adjust settings based on their security preferences and risk tolerance.

Constant Vigilance

To be effective, both firewalls and antivirus software need to operate continuously. They consistently monitor, scan, and analyze data to ensure real-time protection against potential threats.

How to Choose Between Firewall and Antivirus

Comparison of firewall (prevents unwanted access, examines/filters data) & antivirus (detects/eradicates malware, monitors system behavior).

Typically, a decision between firewalls and antivirus software is unnecessary because they have distinct roles. Firewalls serve as barriers, safeguarding networks from external threats. They examine data, apply security rules, and prevent unwanted access. In contrast, antivirus software focuses on detecting and eradicating malicious content within a system.

It's worth noting that modern types of firewall technology has evolved. Advanced next-generation firewalls often include antivirus functionalities. When evaluating potential NGFW options, users inherently benefit from integrated antivirus protection. However, this doesn't replace the need for dedicated antivirus software on devices.

In most settings, the optimal approach involves using both for a layered defense. However, the notion of choosing between them rarely presents itself, given their complementary nature in security architecture.


A firewall and antivirus serve different purposes in network security. A firewall acts as a barrier to block unauthorized access to and from a network or system, while antivirus software detects and removes malicious software (malware) on a device. Both are essential for comprehensive security, as they address different threats and vulnerabilities.
Firewalls do not eliminate the need for antivirus because the two serve different purposes. Antivirus detects and removes malicious software on a device. Firewalls prevent unauthorized access to a system or network. It's advisable to have both for comprehensive security. Next-generation firewalls typically bundle antivirus and firewall features, often in the form of threat prevention, which encompasses various security functions.
No, a firewall cannot replace antivirus. While a firewall controls incoming and outgoing network traffic and blocks unauthorized access, an antivirus specifically scans for, detects, and removes malicious software on a device.
For comprehensive security, both a firewall and antivirus are recommended, as they address different aspects of protection. However, many modern firewall solutions bundle antivirus and firewall features together.
Firewalls primarily focus on controlling network traffic, helping prevent unauthorized access and certain types of cyberattacks. While they can block malicious traffic or access to known harmful sites, they don't inherently scan for and remove viruses present on a device. For direct protection against viruses, an antivirus solution is necessary. However, next-generation firewalls often package firewall and antivirus features together.
A basic firewall is not an anti-malware solution. However, some next-generation firewalls have capabilities to detect certain malware types through inspecting network traffic content using signature-based detection, behavioral analysis, or sandboxing to identify malicious payloads. While they can detect and block malware in transit, they don't replace the need for endpoint antivirus software that scans and removes malware.