What is Antivirus Software & How Does It Work?

Antivirus software is a baseline tool that MSPs use to protect their clients against malicious files and digital threat actors. But knowing how antivirus software weaves into the greater cybersecurity strategy requires a deeper understanding of the subject. 

With so many options available on the marketplace, we’ve outlined the basics below to help you get ahead of the trends and protect your customers.

What is antivirus software?

Antivirus software is a computer program or set of computer programs designed to defend a personal computer or larger network against malicious files or software applications. These software platforms typically run automatically in the background of a computer and are barely noticeable.

System administrators can set antivirus software to run various scans to maintain endpoint and overall network health. Scans can either be done as soon as users power on their machines — known as a boot-time scan — or set for a particular time each day. If scans are scheduled to run at the same time every day, system administrators or MSPs usually choose to run them during off-peak network hours when usage is low.

Antivirus software is a strong line of broad defense against more general infectious files. When coupled with something like anti-malware, the two can work together to take on the more complex, innovative attacks launched by the savvy hackers of the current digital landscape. This webinar explores how MSPs put together a full suite of tools/strategies to predict and combat cyber threats. 

How does antivirus software work?

Antivirus protection starts with antivirus software, which scans the files on your computer and compares them against an internal database of malicious files.

Cybersecurity experts recommend internal databases be cloud-based, since hackers are releasing new types of viruses almost every day. Hosting your database in the cloud allows it to be constantly updated to protect your customers’ systems from the latest in hacker TTP innovations.

An antivirus platform may also scan files already existing on your computer. During these scans, the antivirus software searches for suspicious patterns or behavior. If detected, most antivirus software applications have a component that allows for the quarantine and removal of harmful files.

To identify malicious files, antivirus software will implement one of three basic detection methods:

  • Signature-based detection. Each virus has its own unique code or signature. In signature-based detection, this signature gets compared to an online database of hundreds of millions of known threats. However, this database isn’t updated, so it cannot identify any new or unknown threats. Although this is a proven, classic virus detection method, this is the major downside.
  • Behavioral detection. Behavioral detection is a more dynamic option than signature-based detection. Your antivirus platform will continuously “watch” files in your client’s system for any suspicious behaviors. Cybersecurity pros are opting for this method over signature-based as it has a much higher detection rate. Hackers are always evolving new attack methods, so monitoring installed files has a much higher success rate than detection based on a file signature database.
  • Cloud-based detection. Cloud-based detection is the modern, more innovative version of signature-based detection. This method still relies on a database of file signatures, but system administrators and MSPs don’t have to worry about keeping that database constantly updated. Cloud-based detection leverages online resources to ensure the database can identify the latest file signatures associated with attacks.

Learning how antivirus protection works is an integral part of providing the most robust coverage possible. This isn’t just important for your clients, but for your business’s security as well given MSPs are some of the most popular targets for cyberattacks

Whether you’re looking to provide better virus protection for your clients or need to secure your own defenses at your SOC, contact us today or browse our online resources for more support.

What types of antivirus software are there?

As the types of viruses threat actors use continue to evolve, so do the types of antivirus software available. The antivirus platforms currently available will fall into one of the categories below:

  • System monitoring antivirus. This category is similar to the behavioral detection mentioned above. These platforms monitor your client’s system for any suspicious or unusual behavior and can send alerts to help you stop intrusions before they start.
  • Machine learning antivirus. This form of protection monitors a “normal” system to learn how files should behave. From there, they can shut down or limit the functionality of any files or apps that look suspicious. Machine learning antivirus also provides an additional layer of protection since it can usually be used with other forms of virus protection. 
  • Malware signature antivirus. Each type of malware has its own digital signature, which can be as unique as a fingerprint. Malware signature antivirus scans your client’s system for specific codes and can remove specific forms of a virus. However, much like signature-based detection, the downside is that it struggles to detect newer virus signatures.

Since certain antivirus platforms can detect infectious files based on malware signatures, it’s easy to confuse antivirus and anti-malware software apps. It’s important to understand the difference to design a protection plan that best fits your client.

What is the difference between antivirus and antimalware software?

Though antivirus and anti-malware software are similar, they provide slightly different functions. Antivirus applications are a more general defense mechanism against various forms of intrusions and malicious files. Antivirus software also defends your clients’ systems reactively – after a virus has been detected.

Conversely, anti-malware works proactively to find, detect, flag, and remove harmful files before they have a chance to do damage. Anti-malware also works on more complex infectious files like worms, trojans, and spyware. As a result, anti-malware software applications need to be more complex than their antivirus counterparts. Visit the ConnectWise cybersecurity glossary to learn about the differences of these two platforms in more detail.

What does antivirus software do?

In short, antivirus protects against malicious software and files. Left unchecked, these can cause significant damage to a client’s system or network.

To ensure that mission-critical data and files are safe from digital threat actors, MSPs should focus on including antivirus protection in their coverage plan. An attack that causes severe damage can result in the corruption of sensitive data, significant system downtime, and even catastrophic financial loss. 

Antivirus protection is even more critical in certain industries like government and healthcare. Data networks in these marketplace sectors handle confidential data and adhere to strict compliance regulations. Failure to protect against a virus or malware intrusion can not only cause a significant loss in revenue, but can also cause a financial loss due to litigation.

Which is the best antivirus software?

With so many antivirus options available for purchase, it’s your job to assess which solution is best for your clients’ protection. Here are the features you should look for in a robust antivirus software:

  • Reliability
  • Speed
  • Scanning features
  • Automatic updates
  • Email and identity protection

ConnectWise has a full suite of tools to provide and supplement antivirus software for your clients. We offer trials & demos, so you can be absolutely sure we’re the best fit for your client’s cybersecurity needs. For MSPs specifically, it’s also important to consider upgrading from conventional antivirus options to full endpoint detection and response (EDR) software for even stronger protection. You’ll also be able to elevate the antivirus component of your managed services through our security integration partners, featuring some of the best names in virus and malware protection.  

It's our mission to give you the best tools available for you to succeed in serving your clients, and we’re here to help in any way we can.