Most organisations are getting a poor return on their investments in firewalls due to the complex issues in managing them. This is despite the fact that enterprises are facing on average 300 network attacks every year.

That's according to an IDC multimedia white paper, The State of Today's Firewall Management Challenges, sponsored by McAfee.

"This class of product acts as the gatekeeper to the corporate network," said Charles Kolodgy, research director at IDC in the multimedia presentation. "Firewalls inspect IP packets as they enter the network. The inspection is to determine if the packet conforms to a policy. For example, is it an acceptable protocol? Based upon the rules configured into the firewall, the packet will either be allowed through, or rejected or dropped. Firewalls are the most deployed network security technology."

Various studies have shown that 94 percent of organisations are thought to have firewalls, although IDC thinks it is more like 85 percent of organisations have firewalls in place.

But Kolodgy points out that firewalls have had to adapt to emerging technologies and increasingly sophisticated threats, and therefore firewall rules have continued to grow to the point where firewall rules sets can number in the thousands, or even into the tens of thousands.

"These rules need to be managed, and as the research shows, increasing firewall rules, doesn't necessarily increase security," said Kolodgy. "The rule of thumb is that the larger the firewall rule set, the more complex managing the firewall becomes, the harder it becomes to keep rules current, and to prevent gaps in protection. It takes considerable time to adjust such rule sets.

He believes that the increasing number of network attacks, combined with an increasing amount of firewall rule sets, contribute to the high cost of operating firewall architecture, as well as the lack of effectiveness against vulnerabilities. "The challenge is simplify firewall management," he said.

For the study, IDC surveyed 260 firewall managers and IT executives in US and Europe. It discovered that many legacy firewalls depend on cumbersome technical rules that complicate an organisation's ability to audit and control compliance requirements. This results in organisation's having to have dedicated staff in order to updating firewall rules, or chase access or availability issues, which results in higher labour costs.

The study also found that the average enterprise faces about 300 network attacks every year while 10 percent of the organisations experienced more than 1,200 attacks per year. "Many of the attacks result in network breaches." said Kolodgy. "And as one would expect, network breaches result in real costs to organisations."

Indeed, respondents indicated that losses from data breaches were equivalent to more than 75 percent of their costs for operating firewall architecture.

Last month McAfee released its next generation firewall systems with user behaviour analysis and rule management, which it hopes will address these issues by keeping up with the volume of today's threats and the changing application environments.