Antivirus Suites: Doing the Safety Dance

We tested six antivirus suites and found Trend Micro has the best moves.

November 21, 2003

21 Min Read
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The first question is the easier of the two to answer--what's required is an integrated AV suite that covers all known infection vectors (paths into the network); a well-thought-out incident-response plan; 24x7 vendor support; thorough user training; and copious amounts of network staff time before, during and after an outbreak. This may sound like more work than we'd like, but it has proved an effective virus-containment strategy for many.

The second question, how to mitigate infection risk during the window of vulnerability, was more difficult to answer, but virtually all AV vendors are polishing "outbreak-management" systems that can minimize the damage if properly implemented. The basic AV signature-scanning technology employed by every product we tested is, at best, a double-edged sword. Although the technology works well to keep thousands of "in the wild" viruses from making an unwelcome comeback, it's purely reactive. There's always a significant delay from the time a virus is discovered until a defensive signature is installed at the user's desktop. This time lag creates a windows of vulnerability--an Achilles' heel in products that virus writers have learned how to exploit. For example, Sobig.F came with its own remarkably efficient SMTP server that let it propagate to millions of machines during the window of vulnerability.Some of the AV systems we tested came with lots of bells and whistles. But we didn't lose sight of the main reason you buy these products and used that premise to define our areas to test: installation, configuration and management consoles and features; e-mail system scanners; server file system scanners; client (desktop) scanners; perimeter scanners, where available; outbreak-management tools; and automated software and signature deployment, update, and policy management for all the aforementioned items.

We also scrutinized strategy versus product fit to see if the reality matches the marketing. For example, when it comes to outbreak management, the marketers are quick to say, "Sure! We do that!" But do vendors have the infrastructure in place to deploy useful policy recommendations within hours. Note also that the key to scalability is relational databases that keep track of the population. Computer Associates, Network Associates and Trend Micro all include relational databases as part of their product suites.

Although we found neither a silver bullet nor revolutionary technology, we did find considerable evolutionary improvements. You should expect to see some of these features showing up in new AV products:

• Broader use of outbreak policies: When a virus is first discovered, its basic attack mechanisms are understood long before signatures are available. Within hours of an outbreak, vendors can release policy-setting templates that deny a virus access to its propagation channel. For example, if a virus comes in a specific attachment form--say, .vbs encapsulated in a zip file--the Outbreak policy would recommend stripping all zipped .vbs files at the mail server or perimeter for the next several days, even if the company's normal policy doesn't require this. Expect robust outbreak management to be a standard offering from all AV vendors within a year.

• Broader use of personal firewalls: To control blended threats, some vendors may require personal firewalls, which can be managed en masse from a central AV policy-management console. However, such firewalls pose problems. For example, they must be locked down from user configuration; otherwise, every time an application wants to access the network, it will ask the user what to do, and the user invariably will say yes. We expect much debate over the widespread use of these firewalls in the months to come.

• Hardware accelerators: Just as hardware acceleration revolutionized firewall and intrusion-detection products a couple of years ago, it's now starting to show up in AV suites. For example, Trend Micro is shipping an HTTP AV proxy that employs an AV accelerator from Tarari to reduce latency dramatically--latency being a common problem in AV proxy servers.

• Detection and containment of rogue machines: McAfee is working with network vendors to test new machines coming onto the network for up-to-date AV software. Machines lacking such software will be denied a network connection. This forceful but necessary approach to closing the back door is likely to become common practice.

Price Chart

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Some universities are already applying this technique. For example, Syracuse University requires users to run antivirus software. If McAfee AV is used, the university will keep it updated via McAfee's e-Policy Orchestrator. Users running other AV software must take responsibility and assume the risk of having their network ports shut off if their machines become infected.

• Virtual-machine technology: Norman Data Defense pioneered this for AV use. The theory is that you can let suspicious code execute in the VM to see if it exhibits dangerous behavior, then decide if it's something that should be allowed to run in the "real" machine.

What We Got

We scored each vendor's product suite with an eye to the following criteria:

• Platform coverage. Does the vendor cover all likely infection vectors for a broad range of OS platforms? This is a critical success factor. Although all the products we tested cover the requisite infection vectors, there were a few surprises in OS coverage. Most notable was a lack of Linux support, which hurt the scores of two very capable products, those from Network Associates and Symantec.

• Management. Another critical success factor was automated client installation, update and ongoing AV policy management. Sophos had the most intuitive management interface, while F-Secure and Trend Micro also had very usable management tools, if not as elegant.

Network Associates and Symantec scored quite well on raw management capability--if you have a huge network, you may need what they have. But both product suites were a bit of work to install and smacked of a bunch of point products glued together, with much of the "suite" integration happening at the marketing level.

Features Chart

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• Strategic plan: Does the vendor have an effective blueprint to prevent outbreaks? Like it or not, AV defense is a sophisticated form of electronic warfare. No general would go into battle without a sound strategic plan. Fortunately, all the products we tested have solid strategic plans, though some, like Trend Micro, are better than others at mapping their products to support the plan directly. Equally important is your company's AV strategic plan--you do have one, right?

• Outbreak management: Does the vendor have an effective tactical plan to minimize damage during an outbreak? This may turn out to be the savior of fundamentally flawed signature-scanning technology. We weighted it heavily because we have seen 100,000 people idled for days as companies that use several of the products we tested were incapacitated during the window-of-vulnerability phase. Again, Trend Micro leads the pack with a very polished outbreak-management capability and, not surprisingly, earns our Editor's Choice award.

Rounding out our list were installation and documentation, as well as price. Although we weighted installation and documentation at only 10 percent of the overall score, it can rank high on the frustration scale when not done right. As for price, note that many of these products contain multiple components and convoluted pricing schemes.Trend Micro wins our Editor's Choice nod for hitting the target dead center on both of our key questions. The starting point for its Enterprise Protection Strategy (EPA) is the premise that "antivirus focus is not sufficient." The company acknowledges the shortcomings of antivirus technology and has developed a set of products, services, prescribed operational tactics and management tools that minimize the cost and headaches of dealing with the inevitable virus outbreak. Trend Micro also provides the most robust outbreak-management capability of the products we tested. This well-conceived suite covers all the bases--perimeter, mail server, file server and desktop--while still being quite manageable via the intuitive, Web-based "Control Manager" console.

Although we had to install the individual products separately, accompanying Control Manager "agents" tied the point products together, providing us with handy centralized management. Installation on a half-dozen servers was wonderfully uneventful, as was the automated deployment of the desktop-scanning software to a half-dozen test PCs.

The capstone in the Trend Micro product suite is the outbreak-manager component of its Control Manager Console, designed to minimize damage during the window-of-vulnerability time frame inherent in signature-scanning technology. When a new virus surfaces, the outbreak manager automatically collects a set of policy-control templates from the Trend Micro support site. The policy templates are tailored to neutralize the virus du jour. We could set these templates to load to endpoint servers and workstations automatically or to queue up for our editing prior to distribution. Although most midsize to large organizations will prefer to edit and distribute the policy updates manually, it was nice to see someone take the lead in plugging this gaping hole in most AV product lines. And though, the other vendors also make policy templates available, we consider the Trend Micro implementation the most polished.

Trend Micro's rapid growth over the past several years is not an accident. The company is focused on antivirus, and its product road map covers all the bases with a nicely integrated toolset designed to support its strategic focus: managing virus outbreaks.

NeaTSuite. Trend Micro, (800) 228-5651, (408) 257-1500. www.trendmicro.comNetwork Associates' years of experience shows through with a strategic architecture that not only covers all the requested bases, but also scales to very large configurations. McAfee Active Virus Defense Suite offers protection for all of the vectors we tested.

VirusScan Enterprise, the flagship product, provides AV protection for desktops and mobile users. Nicely integrated with ePolicy Orchestrator, it offers a "nag" feature we particularly liked: It lets you prompt laptop users to keep their AV protection up to date even if they don't fully update on any given connection attempt.

In keeping with the approach of other AV vendors, Network Associates is pushing the McAfee desktop firewall solution--again, integrated with ePolicy Orchestrator--to deal with blended threats.

We also tested the McAfee WebShield e500 perimeter appliance, which scans inbound and outbound SMTP, as well as inbound POP3 messages, HTTP and FTP traffic. The 1U box houses dual PIII, 1-GHz processors with 256 MB memory and dual 17.4-GB mirrored, hot-swappable SCSI hard disks. This hardware configuration was very close to that recommended by a couple of other vendors for hosting their perimeter gateway server software. The most notable feature with the WebShield e500 was ease of installation. We got the preloaded appliance up and running in a matter of minutes, and configuration via the Web interface was a snap. Controlling the e500 from the central ePolicy Orchestrator console was an intuitive process.

The McAfee line's only shortcoming was its challenging installation. The products tested were highly functional, but getting them to work together was a chore. The vendor seems to be missing a document describing the correct installation order for the full suite, and we had to restart the installation after hitting a dead end.

We were also surprised by McAfee's lack of Linux coverage. It and Symantec are the only vendors not supporting Linux at this time.

McAfee System Protection. Network Associates, (800) VIRUS-NO, (972) 963-8000.www.mcafeesecurity.comAntivirus 7 Computer Associates' eTrust product is the antivirus component of its larger, cross-platform "Threat Management" suite, which includes intrusion detection, secure content management (spam, URL and AV filtering) and a policy-compliance product that audits security policies. ETrust is an easy to manage, enterprise-class offering with one of the best coverage of any product we tested. If you have a platform that needs antivirus protection, CA has an answer: Windows 9X, Windows NT/2000/XP, Linux, Solaris, NetWare, MacOS, Palm OS and Pocket PC 2002 are all fully managed clients supported by eTrust Antivirus.

At the strategic level, CA understands the limitations of the technology; it has one of the most clearly espoused strategies and is working hard to communicate its belief that there are no halfway answers. Indeed, CA minced no words when telling us that in its view, the weak link in many corporate antivirus policies is the person sitting in front of the computer.

CA supports outbreak management with predefined policy plans that we could launch when required, policy-driven signature updates and a wide range of outbreak-alerting capabilities, including network broadcast, SNMP, SMTP, pager, trouble ticket and ties to CA's Unicenter network-management product.

ETrust employs two scanning engines to reduce the likelihood that a bug might slip through the net. The only other vendor with multiple engine support was F-Secure, with three engines. And eTrust is the only product we tested to offer free lifetime signature updates, regardless of maintenance contract status--unusual in an industry that regards signature-update subscriptions as a major revenue stream.

eTrust Antivirus 7.0. Computer Associates International, (800) 225-5224., based in Helsinki, Finland, has several unique product and service offerings that indicate the vendor "feels our pain" and is working overtime to help alleviate it. As part of its Total Suite set of products that covers all the requisite strategic bases, the company offers personal firewalls and three scanning engines. It also has a cool outbreak notification system, called "Radar," that everyone should consider, even if F-Secure doesn't win the primary AV contract for your company.

About two days after we decided to bypass personal firewall testing, F-Secure released a new version of its F-Secure Anti-Virus Client Security, which integrates a personal firewall into the desktop client. The company also now includes a firewall-management page in its Policy Manager console. The premise here is that policy-controlled firewalls should no longer be considered optional (you can still obtain a nonfirewalled version if you wish) when dealing with blended threats. Although we did not thoroughly test the firewall, we did do an install, and the Policy Manager firewall did look, well, manageable.

F-Secure is also the only product we reviewed that incorporates three scanning engines, standard. This belt and suspenders and suspenders approach is typical of the F-Secure product suite and affords an additional measure of protection. Because even the best scanning engines can miss a small percentage of infections, F-Secure's three scanning engines use Bayesian statistical theory to reduce the probability of missing something to nearly zero.

In the area of outbreak notification, F-Secure's Radar service stands alone. Although all the vendors reviewed offer outbreak notification, we found that the Radar service went one step further, sending us notifications directly from F-Secure to our alphanumeric pager or cell phone. The theory here is that an e-mail notification sitting in your inbox for several hours won't help protect against a SoBig.X that is infecting 100,000 machines per hour.

The F-Secure suite was one of the easiest to install, and the documentation package includes a detailed test plan that employs the EICAR virus-test file to make sure all the products are properly installed and operating as intended. A standard test tool provided by the EICAR industry group, the EICAR file is a virus impersonator that is recognizable by all AV scanning engines. Its primary use is nondestructive testing of antivirus defenses. For more information, visit

We found the Policy Manager console to be clean, intuitive and informative, and with it we easily loaded client software and updated signature files on our desktops, servers and laptops. We also liked F-Secure's simple yet effective "signature proxy server" approach that enables signature files to be distributed in a controlled, low-impact manner around larger networks.

F-Secure Anti-Virus Client Security 5.50. F-Secure, (888) 432-8233, (408) 938-6700. www.f-secure.comBased on the number of competitors that include in their product suites migration utilities targeted squarely at Symantec, this is the obvious player to beat. Symantec's industrial-strength offerings sport an architecture designed to manage antivirus protection for the world's largest networks, but it took us a while to figure out what combination of its 20 antivirus products was the right match for our simulated 1,500-node test network. We finally settled on the Symantec AntiVirus Enterprise Edition, version 8.6. Symantec has been actively working to separate its consumer-division trademark "Norton" from the Enterprise software division, Symantec. For our purposes, we tested only the Symantec Enterprise software and did not evaluate any of the Norton consumer products.

Symantec's experience as one of the oldest players in this market is evident. The antivirus management architecture covered all the bases we required. Symantec AntiVirus Corporate Edition, which contains the AntiVirus Corporate Edition Server, acted as a central repository for all our client software, configuration packages and antivirus signature updates. We could manage all activities on the Corporate Edition Servers either locally or from a remote workstation using the Symantec System Center MMC console. Recent enhancements include tighter security for the management console and better auditing of client machines to ensure that they're up-to-date.

The Symantec SMTP gateway and AntiVirus/Filtering for Exchange products were among the first products we tested, and a question came to mind: Isn't it redundant to scan inbound and outbound SMTP traffic at the perimeter and again at the mail server? Well, yes. However, talks with several of the vendors suggested that a number of recent attacks could overwhelm the mail server and prevent it from doing either its primary job of delivering mail or its secondary job of scanning for viruses. The premise behind employing both an SMTP perimeter scanner and a mail system scanner is divide and conquer.

While the Symantec offering was capable enough, installation was a bit of a chore. A half-dozen point products need to be installed in a particular order to achieve full coverage of all attack vectors. However, we needed to restart the installation twice because these prerequisites were not called out.

We were also pretty miffed when we needed to contact customer support during our 4 a.m. installation. A notice on the Symantec Web site stated, "The telephone numbers for Platinum and Gold Technical Support are distributed when you purchase maintenance, and are not posted publicly on our Web site." Our installation stalled for several hours until we collected the support telephone number back at the main office. While our initial reaction to this situation is not printable in a family publication, we did eventually get in touch with a very knowledgeable and helpful Symantec support technician.

The only surprise we found with Symantec's suite was lack of Linux coverage. Network Associates' McAfee line is the only other competitor to ignore this growing market segment.

Symantec AntiVirus Enterprise Edition 8.6. Symantec Corp., (408) 517-8000.' architecture is, in a word, elegant, and the suite was an absolute breeze to install and manage. While the product line is not quite as broad as those of some of the larger players, its implementation is complete enough for most midsize networks.

Specializing in AV solutions for business, Sophos doesn't offer a consumer product. We found that the combination of Sophos' Anti-Virus, MailMonitor and Enterprise Manager provided complete coverage for our file servers; local, remote, and mobile desktops; and mail servers. The company's patented "InterCheck" technology let us keep track of which files had already been scanned; it rescanned them only if they had been recently modified, thereby saving bandwidth.

We found the Sophos Anti-Virus interface to be one of the most intuitive management tools of any of the products tested, giving us complete control over the current revision level of all clients on the network. It employed a simple technique, called "Central Installation Directories," to control the download and distribution of signature files to a geographically dispersed network.

Unless your company has a need for the industrial-strength offerings found elsewhere in this review, a close look at Sophos may be a profitable exercise because the system administration overhead, like the price, is low.

Sophos Anti-Virus; MailMonitor; SAV Interface; Enterprise Manager. Sophos, (781) 973-0110.

Jim Ryan is an infrastructure architect with Princeton Systems Consulting in Redmond, Wash. He has spent more than 10 years managing projects in the minicomputer industry, and for the past 15 years has been designing global networks and managing a wide range of infrastructure projects. Write to him at [email protected].

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After testing antivirus products from Computer Associates International, F-Secure Corp., Network Associates, Sophos, Symantec Corp. and Trend Micro, we've concluded that these suites have come a long way.

Indeed, the two key criteria we considered are antivirus strategic blueprints and outbreak management, and we were not disappointed. All the products have methods of combatting the rising tide of hostile exploits, with most relying heavily on desktop firewalls. And all six vendors are improving their outbreak-management policy distribution to the point where this technique should be standard fare in a matter of months.

However, the painful truth is that no matter which product you choose, technology can carry you only so far. Although Trend Micro's and Network Associates' products led the pack and would be a huge help to any organization, much of the burden for formulating a successful antivirus strategy--and communicating it to thousands of end users--still falls squarely on IT. Technical staff needs to get out in front of the user population in special AV education sessions to train internal customers in worm and virus avoidance. A little education goes long way.To test enterprise antivirus solutions, we first built the test bed (see diagram). The AV2004 is designed to be a microcosm of an enterprise-scale network that includes most of the tricky-to-manage elements that can complicate even a well-designed AV plan: mobile users and telecommuters; ornery users who refuse to run AV software because it "slows down their computers"; multiple points of entry, both physically and logically; wide-ranging geography; and multiple OS platforms. Then we asked the AV vendors to show us how to make this smorgasbord reasonably safe from viruses, yet manageable by mere mortals.

We tested several key points in the network:

• the perimeter, scanning inbound HTTP, FTP and SMTP traffic, as well as outbound SMTP traffic;

• mail-server scanners that ensure viruses entering through the back door--say, a laptop with out-of-date signatures--can't propagate rapidly in the internal mail system;

• file servers;

• desktop protection, sans personal firewalls;

• management consoles to assess both effectiveness and ease of use.Several vendors recommend or actively market personal firewalls as part of their overall virus-containment strategies. Their reasoning: Many new threats attack and propagate via the network, so turning off ports at the network interface is a reasonable approach to containment.

This may be true, but we don't even want to think about the number of work hours it would take to deploy and keep current thousands of policy-controlledfirewalls, no matter how good the management app. Still, after several lengthy discussions with vendors, they almost have us convinced the effort would pay off. They made the point that viruses are now spread through a number of peer-to-peer programs, like instant messaging and Kazaa, that cannot be effectively disabled at a higher level in the network. Learn-mode features in firewalls allow open communications for several weeks and report "normal" communication patterns to a central management console. This lets administrators gradually ratchet down control over the network interfaces on thousands of computers without disabling normal communications. Once the firewalls are settled in, they could be used to neutralize a network-based attack swiftly byswitching off only the vulnerable ports from a central policy-management console.

There is a single, irresolvable enabler at the core of all virus and worm attacks: anonymity. Anonymity lets virus writers commit the equivalent of arson on a mind-boggling scale while making it extremely unlikely they will ever be apprehended and punished. If a virus were to be (very laboriously) traced backto an attacker, he or she could simply deny - or, in legalspeak, repudiate - writingor releasing the virus in question.

This problem stems from the fact that the current Internet infrastructure lacks nonrepudiation technology - a way to guarantee that the author of a message (or virus) cannot later deny having sent the message. Even though nonrepudiation technology is available via digital signatures, federated identity-management systems and S/MIME transport, the political will to create a globally recognized "Internet ID" simply doesn't exist. Unfortunately, this means the antivirus silver bullet - stripping virus writers of the shield of anonymity - is likely many years away.


Antivirus Suites

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Go beyond the story and check out Contributing Editor Jim Ryan's original test plan and product requirements used in creating this issue's antivirus product review.

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