Langa Letter: Software Suites Versus Standalone Tools - InformationWeek
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Fred Langa
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Langa Letter: Software Suites Versus Standalone Tools

The new version of ZoneAlarm illustrates both sides of the debate, Fred Langa says.

Fred's Experience
In my own case, my install of ZA6x initially caused a total blue-screen system lockup on my XP Pro installation; one of only a handful of such lockups I've experienced in the years I've been running XP. But after a power-off hard reboot, everything ran normally.

ZoneAlarm 6 is somewhat hypersensitive when you first install it. Here, you see a bogus ''Dangerous Behavior'' security alert triggered by an utterly normal, routine interaction between mainstream software. Similar false alarms can occur dozens to hundreds of times during the first few days of operation of ZA6.
(click image for larger view)

ZoneAlarm 6 is somewhat hypersensitive when you first install it. Here, you see a bogus "Dangerous Behavior" security alert triggered by an utterly normal, routine interaction between mainstream software. Similar false alarms can occur dozens to hundreds of times during the first few days of operation of ZA6.
In use, I found ZA's initial behavior to be somewhat annoying because of the lack of built-in defaults for even the most well-known and widely used software. For example, see this screenshot, where ZA is reporting "Dangerous Behavior" because Word is invoking Norton Antivirus. Of course, this isn't "dangerous," and in fact is perfectly normal. It would be one thing if this alert were triggered by some unknown word processor or antivirus, but Word and Norton? How much more mainstream can you be? Why isn't this behavior known and built into ZA's "SmartDefense Advisor?"

I also noticed that my system boot times got a bit longer with the new ZA installed; and my surfing was slowed down, especially when opening new sites. So far, it's an annoyance rather than a showstopper, but I'm still debating whether the benefits of ZA's extra security are worth the tradeoffs.

And that brings us back to the main focus of this article: do-it-all software suites versus focused, standalone tools.

Software Suites Versus Standalone Tools
All-in-one suites do offer one major benefit: Convenience. That's certainly worth something, and for many users, is by itself a compelling reason to use a suite. In corporate environments, use of suites also can simplify licensing, installation, training and maintenance -- major factors to consider.

But suites undeniably add complexity, and can also engender bloat -- layering in features and functions which can eat disk space (making backups larger and longer) and CPU time (compromising performance).

And, as we discussed in another recent newsletter, it's also rare for any one company to produce the absolute best product in many different areas, so an all-in-one software tool may not perform as well as a pseudo-suite of tools created by assembling a library of the best-in-class tools in each separate area.

In the case of PC security tools, for example, there are many, many tools from which to choose, so no one should feel locked in to any one brand or version. Here's a list of excellent, mostly free, software defenses for a PC. Generally, a PC can benefit from having one of each kind, except with anti-malware, where multiple tools can usually be used to good effect:

Firewall (Sygate, ZoneAlarm, and Norton)

Antivirus (Symantec/Norton, NOD32, AVG, AVAST, and ClamWin, etc.)

Anti-malware (MS AntiSpyware, SpywareBlaster, Startup Monitor, WinPatrol, Ad-Aware, and Spybot S&D)

The main downside to this piece-by-piece approach is that it's harder to assemble and maintain a disparate library of tools; and harder to train unsophisticated users in proper operation of software that presents different looks and feels, and that uses different nomenclatures.

Which Of Two Approaches?
As with so many things, there's no absolute right or wrong here: For some, the best solution will be the use of all-in-one tools; for others, the piece-by-piece approach will be better. (I personally lean toward the latter.)

I invite your feedback on both sides of the issue: First, and most narrowly, what's your experience with the new version of ZoneAlarm? Second, and more broadly, which approach -- all-in-one tools, or separate, best-of-class tools -- do you prefer, and why? How do you overcome the drawbacks of each approach? For instance, if you employ all-in-one software, how do you deal with the added complexity and bloat; and perhaps the effects of not having the best-possible software in each category? If you use the separate, best-of-class approach, how do you handle maintenance and training? And in both instances, what tools do you use? Join in the discussion!

To discuss this column with other readers, please visit Fred Langa's forum on the Listening Post.

To find out more about Fred Langa, please visit his page on the Listening Post.

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