Out of all the security programs installed on the company network or end user’s desktop, it’s probably the anti-virus software that's doing the most to earn its keep.

The joint Computer Security Institute/FBI's 2006 Computer Crime and Security Survey found that overwhelmingly viral attacks remain the greatest source of financial losses and damages to businesses than any other breach in computer security. Losses from all computer security incidents among the survey's 313 respondents totaled more than $52 million for 2006, down by more than 50 percent compared to 2005, according to the survey. Ninety-seven percent of the companies that responded reported using anti-virus software.

Don’t log on without it

Some companies tend to get lax about anti-virus software once they’ve installed a good firewall at the network gateway. “No firewall out there is a silver bullet," says Joern Wettern, co-author of Firewalls for Dummies. "Make sure you have anti-virus software installed on all PCs and check them regularly for updates.”

For that reason, easy-to-schedule scans and automatic updating is probably the first feature a business owner would want to look for in an anti-virus program. When it comes to other features, Arabella Hallawell, vice president at Forrester Research, of Cambridge, Mass., who specializes in the security software market, advises clients to be choosier. “The rule of thumb is you should only pay for what you’re going to need within the next 12 months," she says. "And don’t forget to do a competitive negotiation, regardless of how small your organization is.”

Round-up of anti-virus software

With that in mind, here is a round-up of just some of the offerings in anti-virus software, ranging from market leaders, Symantec and McAfee, to some of the smaller, more entrepreneurial companies, such as Alwil and Kaspersky.

Norton’s AntiVirus

Cost: $40 to buy. $30 annual fee.

Features: Produced by Internet security giant Symantec, a better question might be: What doesn’t it feature? Norton’s standard version includes a firewall, scheduled scans, scans for instant messaging, as well as bundled spyware, adware and rootkit detection. All those bells and whistles may take a toll on speed however. It’s the one area that got a low rating from Consumer. The professionals don’t seem to disagree. John DeLozier, a network security expert and founding partner of Nply Security, a network security consulting group in Dallas, concedes it’s often the preferred choice of his clients. “But, I find (Norton) too big, too bloated and too intrusive with all the chatty pop-up windows,” says DeLozier.

McAfee’s ViruScan

Cost: $40 to buy. $40 annual fee.

Features: McAfee’s anti-virus software is bundled in with anti-spyware software and a firewall. It features automatic updates and instant message scanning. Other versions include protection for laptops, e-mail servers and file servers. Ben Rothke, director of security technology implementation at AXA Financial and a frequent speaker at industry conferences on network security, says, “I like McAfee. It’s mature. It’s automatic… with any brand, by the time it gets to version 3.0, the differences are going to be minimal at that point.”

BitDefender Standard

Cost: $30 to download. $20 annual fee.

Features: BitDefender is worthy of mention, if for no other reason the critics seem to love it the most. It was recently ranked number one in its class by both PC World and Consumer Reports, who gave BitDefender especially high marks in detection and ease of use. The standard edition features both scheduled scans and scanning for instant messages. It does not include a firewall.

Kapersky Labs AntiVirus

Cost: $50 to buy. $35 annual fee.

Kaspersky, a Russian software company best known in the small business and consumer market, is a little pricier. Wettern says it’s well worth it. “I find it updates very frequently, has great detection rates and is the fastest to react to new threats,” says Wettern. Kaspersky offers standard features like scheduled scans and spyware/adware protection. Additional features, not as easy to find, include laptop power saving, suspended scans during heavy usage and proactive rootkit removal for malware.

Alwil’s Avast!

Cost: Non-commercial use, free to download. Professional Edition is $40 a year.

Features: You can’t beat the starting price. Avast also comes with a high rating from Consumer Reports and features IM scanning and a firewall. One of the unique features includes what Alwil calls a “virus chest.” It’s a folder on the disk drive that is impenetrable to any kind of virus attack, a sort of virtual lock box where sensitive files can be stored and isolated away from the rest of the operating system. Avast may also be a good solution for a small organization that does business worldwide. The software is offered in no less than 20 languages, including Japanese and Russian.