The price of computer security continues its slide toward free, at least for basic protection. Following in the footsteps of open source security vendors, as well as traditional software vendors such as AVG, Microsoft, and Symantec, Panda Security on Wednesday unveiled a beta release of free security software called Panda Cloud Antivirus.
The appearance of the word "cloud" in the product title is partly a reflection of the term's trendiness: Throughout the computer industry, technical references to servers and networks are being dropped in favor of "the cloud."
At the same time, the term has a real meaning in the context of security: Only the collective data gathered from millions of users across the Internet wedded to the computing power of a data center can keep up with the lightning-quick evolution of malware.
"It's a real-time connection to the collective intelligence," said Pedro Bustamante, senior research adviser at Panda Security. "It's really different from the last 20 years of AV."
Panda Cloud Antivirus consists of a lightweight download that derives its protective ability from information gathered automatically from its users and pushed back out by Panda in the form of protective signatures.
"The more users use it, the better protected everybody is," said Bustamante.
Panda's approach also has the advantage of not placing excessive demands on local computing resources, which can slow systems down.
Jonathan Penn, an analyst at Forrester Research, sees Panda's approach as sound. "Having a consumer footprint strengthens your threat intelligence network," he said. "These desktops are your lab."
Panda's software, he said, has gone a bit further than others in terms of reducing the footprint of its client software. The company's approach, he said, helps solve latency issues around delivering signature files.
Panda claims its approach protects against malware 100 times faster than traditional signature-based solutions. It's not entirely clear, however, what qualifies as a traditional signature-based solution these days.
Penn said that while it may be fair to say that few in the security industry still rely exclusively on traditional signature-based solutions, many consumers still depend only on traditional AV software as a defense.
Based on a survey it conducted, Panda claims that 24% of users with up-to-date signature-based AV software were infected with malware and that its cloud-based approach can reduce that number by a factor of six to only 4%.
Lest anyone fear for Panda's profitability as a provider of free software, Bustamante said that the company will pursue a so-called freemium model that attempts to sell fee-based services alongside a basic free package. It's a model that's worked for AVG, which has been giving away free software while managing to sell enough paid subscriptions to grow its revenue by 75% annually over the past four years.
InformationWeek Analytics has published an independent analysis on the current state of security. Download the report here (registration required).