Web Application Firewall (WAF) vs. Intrusion Prevention Systems (IPS)


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Security will become a major source of web services accomplishment problems in the near future that a need for the next generation of products that secures web applications is more of a sine qua non than a simple requirement. What’s needed is a new modus operandi in managing these Web Application Problems (WAP). Today’s hackers have grown in sophistication in attacking web-based deployed applications making the security protection solutions offered falling short on multiple fronts. This is precisely due to the core technological designs of matching attack signatures as opposed to the traffic coming into the network. For the simple reason that one web application varies from one another, using facile pattern matching is just not good enough. For one, securing against the latest Layer 7 Web attacks needs a security solution to be mindful of web application contexts and its infrastructures.

Figure 1:WAF vs IPS: What’s the Difference? | Source: https://www.lanner-america.com/

Recently, confusion has arisen between Web Application Firewalls (WAF) vs. Intrusion Prevention Systems (IPS) platforms vis-à-vis the differences between these two technologies. Moreover, IPS retailers often add to the confusion by asserting that IPS Solutions delivers a more complete web application protection. Obviously, even though both add an extra security layer for a network, they work on different types of traffic. Although IPS appears to protect a wider type of traffic, there is this very specific one that only a WAF can do with. So, instead of competing, both are compensating each other.

But for the sake of arguments, let us scrutinizes these indispensable differences between Web Application Firewalls and IPS solutions minutely, especially to Web Application Protection.


Figure 2: How WAF works | Source: https://blog.xeonbd.com/ips-waf/

Web Application Firewall (WAF) platforms understand the Web traffic constructs and keep track of the application’s state and client sessions. In the same consideration as an IPS, WAFs can be a network or host-based. This gives the means to enforce the thorough application state accuracy needed in securing the Web application. WAF completely terminates and proxies every level of connection because it has had absolute visibility into application layer constructs. Thus, it can strictly apply security checks on the decoded request contents. Since WAF uses both the positive security model and signature-based model, it adequately makes certain that every user requests and responses conform to anticipated application usage and allows only valid traffic. Thus, it prevents both known and unknown application attacks with no signatures and no false positives. Basically, WAFs are designed with the sole purpose of protecting web applications/servers from web-based attacks the IPS cannot prevent. The difference lies in the level of ability to analyzed the Layer 7 web application rationale.


Figure 3: IPS Architecture | Source: https://gbhackers.com

Intrusion Prevention System (IPS) is a more general-purpose protection appliance. It provides protection on traffic of a wide variety of protocol types, such as DNS, SMTP, TELNET, RDP, SSH, FTP among others. IPS detects malicious traffic using different methods.

Since IPS solution products only work at the network layer and have not had any application state knowledge, IPS cannot validate encrypted sessions nor interpret application encoding strategies. Furthermore, IPS lacks the ability of blocking application layer attacks. This will ultimately prevents IPS technology from securing the most critical applications in a network. IPS solutions can detect network level attacks such as CGI attacks, stealth port scans and attacks directed at the protocols and allow or deny any packets after comparing it to known attack signatures. At this juncture, the structured and encoded data cannot be considered during this comparison. This method of approach fails to avert most attacks or creates false positives, contingent on the security strategies.


WAFs can be used to give elevated security to web applications/servers. It is a good way in supplementing IPS and provides another layer of protection especially for Defense-In-Depth infrastructures. Luckily, today there are jam-packed solution that gives the best of both worlds.
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