Routers, UTMs, and firewalls all serve a similar function, but have significant security differences too.
Routers, UTMs, and firewalls all serve a similar function, but have significant security differences too. AFP / STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN

All the pieces of your office network are important, but arguably the single most important piece of equipment is the one that delivers data to and among computers: the router. But not all routing devices are created equal. There are generic routers, and then there are gadgets that have a router built into them, like a UTM or a firewall. What's the difference between these devices, and what do you actually need? Spoiler alert: It has to do with computer security, and keeping your network safe.


A router does what its name implies. It "routes" computer traffic (data, information) to certain locations. Let's say that your office has a server, the place on their computers where employees store files or where software and apps like QuickBooks, the accounting program, are installed. When you log onto your server to do something, it send a request that goes to your router. Your router sees that you're wanting to read from or write to your local server, so it keeps the request inside of your office.

However, if you want to head out onto internet, to do a Google search or look at a website for example, the router knows to send that request out to your internet service provider (ISP) for further processing.

In the strictest sense, that's all a router does. If all you have is the router that your ISP installed, it probably has only the most minimal security features built in. Your computer network is largely unprotected.


A firewall has a menacing name--and for good reason. Its job is to keep viruses, malware and other cyber threats out of your home or office. While your average router will blindly let all traffic pass in or out of your network, firewalls inspect all traffic and make decisions on whether or not to let things through. Think of it as a security guard. If you can't prove you're legit, you don't get through the gate.

Firewalls come in many different levels--from very basic all the way up to fancy models that cost into the tens of thousands of dollars, depending on feature set and its capacity to handle large amounts of internet traffic.

Most firewalls for small businesses have routers built in, so they serve a dual purpose. Firewalls may also have the ability for more advanced networking, allowing you to set up virtual private networks (VPNs) and other features network engineers may need.


A UTM, short for unified threat management device, is often used interchangeably with the term firewall. Although both serve similar functions, a firewall usually works based on pre-defined rules that a network engineer sets up. If the firewall sees traffic that looks like X, that might be threat, so do this. If it looks like Y, that's probably not a threat, so do this. Those rules don't dynamically change.

Unfortunately, malware and viruses frequently do. This is where a UTM shines. UTMs often come with subscriptions that keep up with the latest cyber threats and automatically install new rules that block traffic that matches these threats.

UTMs also have advanced settings that network engineers use to create a more secure network environment--often more advanced than a basic firewall. Think of a UTM as a (close to) all things network security device. It may not be your only piece of network security, but the right UTM will serve all functions needed as a first line of defense.

Router, Firewall, UTM: Which Do You Need?

First, between all three of these devices there is crossover. A higher grade router might include some firewall capabilities and a higher grade firewall might include some features of a UTM.

Second, you may fall under compliance standards that would guide your decision. If you're storing confidential customer data, a basic router won't make the cut; you'd want the stronger defense of a firewall at least. And if you fall under more strict privacy standards like HIPAA or PCI, a UTM will be your best choice.

Although you should be prepared to invest financially in security, you don't want to overspend for a device that is far more powerful than your office environment would ever need. An appropriate UTM for a small to medium office environment will cost $700-$1,000 with a yearly subscription renewal of around $600, depending on brand, make, and model. Firewalls will be significantly cheaper, but most IT pros are now strictly installing UTMs because a UTM has both routing and firewall capabilities built into it.

Finally, unless you have advanced technical knowledge, you will need an IT networking professional to install the firewall or UTM. Your security not only depends on the quality of the device but also the quality of its setup.

Tim Parker is co-founder and President of The Web Group, an IT consulting firm based in Florida.