Anti-Virus Is a Tough Job for Open Source

Opinion: Is anti-virus just irrelevant to the open-source community, or is it just too hard to do?

When you look to the software that really matters to users, especially on their home PCs, security would be on the short list for most. As my Jim Rapoza has recently contemplated, open source has been a disappointment in this area.

Jims analysis falls right in line with Eric Raymonds theory of open-source itch-scratching: in the (open source) "bazaar" problems get solved because someone competent to solve the problem has it.

Jim postulates that since viruses are basically a Windows problem, it doesnt reach the people who would be in a position to solve it.

With all due respect to Jim, this explanation leaves me dissatisfied on some fronts. I have two theories on the reason, one that Jim may not agree with and one that I think of as a refinement of his own.

As Jim notes, there is one open-source program, ClamAV, that has some success as a gateway protection product.

Several commercial gateway protection devices, such as Barracudas "Spam Firewalls", incorporate it. One of Jims readers in a talkback expresses wonder that ClamAV can keep up so well with the spread of malware since its a full-time job, but I suspect its these commercial vendors of ClamAV products that do most of that work, and thats fine. It could be a good system.

But a modern desktop anti-malware system (not anti-virus; viruses as strictly defined have been irrelevant for years) has to detect numerous threats, and pattern-scanning at the inbound ports is not enough anymore.

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You have to have what is often called an IPS (Intrusion Prevention System), which monitors the system for threatening behavior. For instance, the Norton products have monitored for worm-like behavior for years.

This is a much more difficult task. It requires intimate knowledge of Windows internals and the behavior of popular third-party applications.

Even the development of the program is more of a debugging than a programming job, and such work is not as much fun unless youre a Windows hacker.

Many famous open-source solutions, like Firefox and OpenOffice, are available on many platforms including Windows. Development need only be partly concerned with the specifics of Windows.

Desktop security software needs to be highly-specific to Windows and probably has no cross-platform potential.

It also leads into the other reason, one more in tune with Jims explanation. Solutions like this are inherently Windows-only. It may be true, as Jim wrote, that the open-source community isnt affected because they dont rely on Windows desktops. But they know lots of people who do.

A quality, useful open anti-malware solution would make heroes of the people who wrote it. Everyone, even open-source programmers, want their programs to be successful, and a good program of this type would be successful.

Why have they shunned the glory? The biggest reason is my first choice: Its just too hard.

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983.

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