This week I want to continue talking about pfSense and why I think it is one of the best pieces of software especially for anyone who is looking into (or is already in) a career network administration or cybersecurity. I recently started taking a cybersecurity class and as part of our first lesson we reviewed the basics of how computer networks work and that got me thinking about pfSense and the journey that I’ve taken on my way to getting my bachelor’s degree in Computer Information Technology.
A few years ago I decided to make a new firewall. I had a lot of ports that needed to be forwarded and I was sick and tired of the stock firmware of my store-bought Linksys EA3500 not allowing me to do what I wanted. I had a an old Compaq Evo 510 laying around and so I decided to put pfSense on it. Low and behold I had crossed a major bridge and started walking down a road that I still follow to this day. Putting pfSense on the Evo 510 was arguably one of the best decisions I had ever made for one simple reason: it introduced me to enterprise networking.
Now I still remember the struggles that I first had. I’m not going to pretend that installing pfSense the first time wasn’t a struggle. pfSense is very advanced and customizable software but that also unfortunately makes it difficult to know exactly what you are doing. The setup wizard is nice, but the hours of troubleshooting and Googling that followed did actually cause me to call into question my skills as a network administrator. Granted I didn’t yet have my AAS degree in network administration at that point, but I still considered myself to be fairly competent in my IT skills.
Now before you reconsider trying out pfSense let me remind you that I still consider that installing pfSense was one of the best decisions I had ever made. The best things in life occur when you overcome struggles. And installing pfSense was one one of those struggles (I’m not going to sugar coat it). Sure I could have run it in a VM first, an in retrospect I wish I had (I STRONGLY recommend that any new users try this first before fully committing with real hardware). But having pfSense at my disposal while I was going to school to become a network administrator helped me recognize the importance of what I was learning in school. Sure LACP, OSPF, Packet shaping, VPNs, ACLs, NAT, and other technology sound cool. But without actually seeing these technologies in action in your own environment they start to loose their luster. Spending hours in front of a Cisco IOS terminal studying for your CCNA becomes much easier when you realize that you can actually use much of this technology right now in your own home. Rather then years down the road when you MIGHT use it.
That being said. pfSense is, at the end of the day, a competitor to Cisco. I’ll admit right here that you will call into question how good Cisco is (especially since pfSense is free software and only costs you an old computer you weren’t even using anymore). You’ll find that you’ll ask yourself “Why is Cisco so great if pfSense is free?” and “Why is the is Cisco IOS so archaic?” while sitting in some CCNA class. And I’m not going to pretend aren’t valid questions. But that’s the buity of an open market: we have options. While I still consider myself to be fairly competent with the CLI, I will still admit that a webGUI is nice. But being critical of Cisco is a small price to pay considering that you will ultimately do better in these classes because you will have a real-life outlet to try out the technology you are learning about. You will be able to play around with them from the comfort of the pfSense webGUI and helps you be genuinely interested in learning about them and that in itself, is priceless.