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Security giants put their heads in the cloud

Autumn is upon us, and we're deep into the annual security software slugfest, where antimalware vendors large and small try to cram ‘new' products into an already stuffed market.

To get punters to shell out upwards of £50 for 2009 security suites, each vendor follows a time-honoured route: say their product is (in some way) the best, throw in a headline-grabbing 'upgrade' and introduce a buzzword or two.

Textbook example? Symantec.

It claims that Norton Internet Security 2009 is the fastest antimalware scanner on the planet, and says it will download signature updates every five minutes. Seasoned PC users will know that every vendor can ‘prove' its software is fastest. (Seasoned human beings will wonder how much can be usefully updated in five minutes.) But forget all that and indulge in a couple of tasty buzzwords: ‘cloud computing'.

See also:

Symantec Norton Internet Security 2009 review

Technology and tech fans love such exclusive, zeitgeisty phrases. They're like the ultimate in-joke. Time was when every graduate could pocket a fortune by dressing in scruffy clothes, putting a fridge in the office and describing their paper round as a ‘dotcom'. Not so long ago every second sentence ended in ‘Web 2.0'. And now we live with our heads in the clouds.

Cloud. Computing. What's that now?

Cloud computing refers to the way in which software providers such as Google harness a ‘cloud' of servers or PCs to run applications outside of, but accessible from, your desktop PC. This reduces local hardware demands, means you can use the app from any web portal, and lets the provider hold all your data for added, if less than future proofed, security.

In the case of NIS 2009 (and to varying degrees, similar products from the likes of McAfee and Kaspersky), cloud computing takes the form of sharing the dodgy file-scanning workload between the vast global cloud of Norton users, and measuring user reaction across the cloud to make an educated guess as to the trustworthiness of new files. In a world where malware is counted in the millions, it's a slick way of weighting the odds in favour of the end user.

It sounds crazy, but it just might work. (And credit where it's due: DriveSentry got there first.)

Like it or not, I suspect that in the near future wholly desktop-based applications are going to look mildly anachronistic. If software supertankers such as Symantec and McAfee can devolve the processing workload to the masses, the idea of a Google Chrome-type product taking on Windows 7 becomes less of a fantasy.

But buyer beware: ‘cloud computing' has for some time been hugely popular and successful in one dark recess of the technology world - online crime. Botnet controllers have for years been hijacking armies of zombie PCs and using their combined computing power to send spam, take down sites and extort cash.

Come rain or shine, some clouds will always be black.

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