Buyer's Guide: Anti-Virus Programs

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted April 25, 2002
www.smallbusinesscomputing.com Staff

Protecting computers from viruses is just as important as locking doors and turning on your burglar alarm. If your company uses e-mail, shares files, and surfs the Internet, then you are engaging in activities that allow viruses to spread from one computer to the next.

Since dangerous viruses, worms, Trojan horses, and malicious computer code can wreak havoc, it is essential that your company develop an anti-virus strategy. If you have a network, you may want to consider solutions that encompass all the machines on your network as a group, rather than individually.

Computer viruses are parasitic programs that surreptitiously enter your system through infected programs or data files, and then, in some way alter a computer's operation. At the least, they're mild annoyances that attach themselves to files and reproduce, gradually slowing a computer's performance. Some display annoying or obscene messages when they activate.

At their worst, viruses can cause computers to stop working by disabling their ability to boot, or make applications crash, or even obliterate data and wreak havoc on a hard drive. If you're unlucky enough to contract an aggressive virus, you're likely to find that it has run rampant, infecting many of your disks, as well as the disks and hard drives of your colleagues with whom you share files with.

Like their biological brethren and namesakes that spread from person to person, computer viruses spread from computer to computer by latching onto computer files and modifying their codes. When you run an infected program, open an infected data file, or launch an infected e-mail attachment, the virus loads itself into your system's memory where it looks for other programs and files to latch onto. Thus, if someone gives you an infected file, it can introduce a virus onto your system. And if you then give another friend a different file from your computer, the virus infects that system, and so on.

Anti-virus programs work for you in several ways. First and foremost, these programs identify and find viruses by their signatures-combinations of bytes unique to their own distorted ways-that reside in memory or on hard drives. An anti-virus program scans a system's memory and drives, and looks for these signatures that indicate a virus. And when they find one, they alert you, and then remove it.

Sometimes, these programs are successful at removing a virus, and can give you back your files intact. Other times, they will tell you to delete the infected file to remove the virus from your system. (That's why it's always important to back up your data. You do have backups, right?).

Any time someone sends you a new file or disk, an anti-virus program can scan the file or disk to be fairly sure that there is no for known viruses on it. Keep in mind, though, that macro and program viruses only activate themselves as you open or activate the infected files. Thus, viruses can reside on your hard drive in contaminated data or program files, as unopened e-mail attachments, or compressed Zip files, and never rear their ugly heads. When you scan your drive, the antivirus programs can find them before they have a chance to cause damage.

To scan for viruses, a program has to know what it is looking for in order to recognize them. And because there are new viruses constantly hitting the streets, anti-virus programs have to be frequently updated with new signature files so they can identify the newest crop. Scanning with an out-of-date signature file is like tracking a criminal with the wrong fingerprints. To stay up to date, all anti-virus programs let you regularly update the software with new signature files across Internet connections. All you have to do is click a button while connected to the Internet, and these programs perform the update for you.

For businesses, anti-virus solutions also offer features such as centralized management, server-based client software deployment, automatic virus pattern updates, outbreak alerts and reporting, and support for unknown viruses. Although the cost of these products, ranging from a few hundred to several thousand dollars each year, may seem high, the increased level of protection and time savings could make an anti-virus solution the right move for your company in the long run.

Areas to consider when purchasing anti-virus software include the installation process, user interface, management tools, services, and features provided by each product. You'll also want to understand how easy the administration software is to use, how difficult it is to upgrade virus definitions and configure the software on PCs.

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