Editors note: CNET editor and Crave contributor Dong Ngo is spending the next month in his homeland of Vietnam and plans to file occasional dispatches chronicling his impressions of how technology has permeated the culture there. Click here for more of Dong's stories from abroad.
HANOI, Vietnam--If you use any Internet-connected computer in Vietnam--and there are lots of them, with Internet cafes and Wi-Fi spots abounding in any city--chances are you'll find a little red plus sign at the bottom-right corner of the screen.
That's the icon of the most popular antivirus software here. It's called BKAV.
(A bit of background: if you've recently read reviews of Internet security products by our security editor Rob Vamosi, know that I am the one who designed the methodology involved in testing these applications. It's therefore natural for me to be curious about how people in various parts of the world are protected against malicious software.)
BKAV is short for Bach Khoa AntiVirus, with "Bach Khoa" being the Vietnamese name for the Hanoi University of Technology. The software was originally developed as a hobby by Quang Tu Nguyen, a student-turned-lecturer at the school. It's currently the flagship product of Bach Khoa Internetwork Security center (BKIS), of which Quang, now 33, is director.
Quang still lectures once in awhile, but he's primarily known as the man who has changed the landscape of network and computer security in Vietnam. His creation, BKAV, is in many ways just about the best security software you can find.
I visited Quang at the BKIS headquarters, an office that somewhat resembles CNET or any other high-tech company: cubicles and lots of computer screens are everywhere. There's one big exception, however: everybody is asked to remove their shoes before entering, which is not a standard business practice in Vietnam. The company is probably the cleanest workplace I've seen here yet.
The center has about 400 employees, 300 of whom are software engineers, mostly recruited in-house from the school. They are among the brightest computer science minds in the country. According to BKIS, the BKAV security software currently enjoys about 10.5 million users and more than 110,000 downloads daily. Currently, Vietnam has about 20 million Internet users and counting (out of a population of about 85 million), according to the Vietnamese Ministry of Information and Communication.
The majority of security software applications feature a couple of common annoyances: they take a long time to install, they take a long time (and sometimes some difficulty) to remove, and they slow down your machine. This is because in order to protect your computer, security software needs to interfere significantly with basic operations such as reading and writing files, checking network connections, and so on. It's a challenge to develop protection software that is simple yet effective.
After a few days of trying BKAV and a few hours of talking to Quang and his engineers, I found BKAV to be arguably the only security application so far that offers both those attributes.
First off, the software took literally one second to install on my Dell XPS 1330 laptop and two seconds to completely remove, each step requiring a single mouse click. The software also uses very few system resources when not performing a scan.
If you accept the default options, you can start/stop the scanning just by using the Enter and Escape key. There are absolutely no frills in the user interface. For those who have installed and used any Windows software before and like to get things done the fastest possible way, this is a pleasant surprise. And yet this is the least impressive thing about the software.
It's common for antivirus software to remove a threat by literally removing/quarantining infected files. Technically, this is a fast way to write code that generally works well as long as the infected files are the viruses themselves.
This does, however, pose problems when the virus is sophisticated enough to add itself to a critical system file or replace the legitimate system file with a compromised version that also carries malicious commands. There is a new trend of viruses that do just that, and there are currently a few of them in the wild. Using the standard method to remove them will result in crippling the operating system, making it impossible to log in, and causing the loss of common features such as cut and paste or the ability to go on to the Internet.
(I actually sat down in the BKIS labs and tried a few known antivirus software applications against two specimens of these nasty viruses, including one identified by Symantec as Infostealer.Gampass and another identified by McAfee as Generic.dx. It's important to note that different security firms might identify the same virus differently, and sometimes a new virus can be identified as an existing virus. The applications, collectively, did detect and remove the viruses but also rendered the system unusable afterward.)
BKAV, by contrast, deals with each threat (and its variants) individually by dissecting its codes and meticulously countering exactly whatever it is the virus is designed to do. This is a lot of work, and it takes dedication. Quang and his colleagues take turns working literally around the clock to discover new threats and develop updates to counter them, typically within 24 hours.
Their effort results in two things: first, it's close to impossible for BKAV to register false detection. This is because once a threat is identified, BKAV goes deeper and scrutinizes the coding to find out exactly how it should be dealt with. This process at the same time verifies whether the detected threat is real. Second, BKAV is able to remove the malicious code without harming the system. Most of the time, you don't need to restart the computer for the cleaning to get done, either.
Unlike other software that gives you lots of flashy warnings and progress displays, BKAV takes care of threats in a rather unceremonious way. Often you wonder if your computer has actually been swept.
Taking up only roughly 13MB after installation (as opposed to hundreds of megabytes in other applications), BKAV is capable of protecting your computer against and removing all threats including viruses, trojans, spyware, rootkits, and malicious links spread through e-mail or or Yahoo chat. BKIS also offers network and enterprise protection solutions.
(Speaking of Yahoo, if you live in Vietnam, you might wonder why Yahoo isn't doing so well in the United States. Yahoo Mail and Messenger are the first choice among Vietnamese teenagers and young adults when it comes to Internet-based communication. And teens and young adults are the majority of Internet users here. Also, Yahoo 360 is by far the most popular blogging service here, and it loads much faster in Hanoi than it does in the States.)
Before this trip to Vietnam, I always had a lingering feeling that my family and friends were missing out on top-notch American online protection. Now I realize we Americans are actually the ones who having been missing out on some great software and services, but hopefully not for too much longer. Quang told me BKIS is working on making its software and services available outside of Vietnam in 2009.
In the meantime, you can download and try the free version of the BKAV software; the software comes with both Vietnamese and English interfaces. The commercial version costs only $299,000 dong ($17) for a one-year subscription, much less than the cost of its American counterparts.
Personally, I am highly impressed by how BKAV works and the way BKIS is run. It's ironic, however, that a lot of Vietnamese, mostly adults, would probably argue that BKAV is in no way comparable with other protection software solutions developed outside of Vietnam, especially in America, simply because it's made in Vietnam.
Vietnam is a super-friendly country, sometimes to the point of xenophilia, when it comes to products. Maybe that's why KFC is such a popular place. But hey, go to the fast-food joint and have an order of highly processed fried chicken and a large soda, then tell me if that's really more satisfying than a plate of spring rolls served with spicy fish sauce or an order of sticky rice sprinkled with shredded pork and crispy, roasted sliced onions.
On second thought, tastes differ, so don't tell me anything. But trust me that when it comes to BKIS, you're in good hands.