An IT administrator at the Maryland Department of the Environment no
longer worries about the alphabet soup of virus families that used to
plague his work day. Now he downloads one virus update and feels safe
from the onslaught of variants that is likely to follow.
”Keeping up with the updates was a real chore,” says Henry C. Torrance,
the lead computer network specialist at the state agency, which has 1,200
users, eight offices and 30 to 35 servers. ”I’m not worried about 10
patches a day. I’m just looking for one file that covers several
different viruses in the same family. It covers the alphabet soup.”
Torrance says the new genotyping technology from Sophos, Inc., an
anti-virus and anti-spam company with U.S. headquarters based in
Lynnfield, Mass., is slashing the time he has to allocate to dealing with
Sophos started using this genotyping technology last summer, according to
Marc Borbas, product manager for Gateway Solutions at Sophos. And since
then, they have been quietly working it into a growing number of virus
The genotype technology, according to Borbas, is designed to identify
variants of a particular malware family. For instance, once a genotype
update has been issued for Mydoom or Mytob, that one update is aimed at
protecting against the army of variants that will follow the original
worm or virus.
Borbas explains that genotyping looks for certain genetic characteristics
in one family. How does it interact with the operating system? Does it
copy itself to a certain folder? Does it open a backdoor? Does it infect
other files on your machine? Once these types of characteristics are
noted, the technology will look for them in any variants that may follow
the original malware, enabling the software to protect against the new
worm or virus without a new virus update being sent out.
”With viruses, it’s the variants that are becoming so hard to deal
with,” says Borbas. ”When something new comes out, you have to get it
in the lab and find out how to protect against it. That can take anywhere
from an hour and a half to a day or two days… What the genotype does is
add another layer of protection.”
Borbas acknowledges that other companies have tried and are working on
anti-virus software that detects behavior. Some of those have met with
dismal results because of a high rate of false positives. He says the
Sophos product is different because it looks for very specific traits.
”Mydoom had 50 or 60 variants,” he says, adding that genotyping
detected 77 percent of those variants from the single update. ”That
means if you’re a corporate security manager sitting there fighting the
Mydoom virus, 77 percent of the time you didn’t have to do anything.
Twenty-five percent of the time you did have to handle an update, but it
was a substantial improvement.”
Paul Stamp, an analyst at Forrester Research, an analyst firm based in
Cambridge, Mass., says some anti-virus companies have taken the approach
where they look for a straight match. Other companies have looked for
general behaviors. Few, if any, of those efforts worked.
Sophos’ genotyping, however, combines those two methods, and has a more
successful model, he says.
”This takes a layer of complexity out of the update process,” says
Stamp, who adds that he hasn’t seen this technology elsewhere yet. ”The
less frequently you have to do [updates], the less complicated it is.”
Sophos analysts are using the genotyping to both protect users against
viruses but also to help filter out spam, which often uses similar email
headers, key words and phrases, and patterns of html tags.
Andrew Jaquith, a senior analyst at the Boston-based analyst firm the
Yankee Group, says fighting virus writers and spammers today is always a
”Everybody is looking for more clever ways to get a leg up on the bad
guys,” he says. ”It’s an arms race. This represents an escalation on
the defense. So good for them. But then the bad guys will escalate.”
For today, anyway, Torrance says he has less updating to do and his users
are happier — and that’s a powerful combination for any IT shop.
”To be honest, I don’t even worry about my anti-virus updating system,”
he adds. ”That’s how reliable it’s been… We actually have end users
now who have emailed us back saying, ‘Thanks for choosing Sophos.’ That’s
a pretty bizarre testimonial from end users who don’t have any say in
what product we choose.”