About five years ago I installed the family version of Symantec's Norton Internet Security software on one of my PCs, rendering the machine unusable. Not only couldn't I get any access to the Internet, it was impossible to uninstall the program. I ended up having to reinstall the operating system and all my applications--except Norton Internet Security. At the time I said I would never again install a Symantec security program on any PC, but about a year ago I bought a PC that came with 90 days of Norton 360, and the program won me over. When the free trial period was over I even coughed up $80 for a year's subscription. Apart from the frequent nags about my need to back up (I prefer to use my own manual backup strategy), I'm happy with the Norton 360.
Now the other side of the coin: I've used CheckPoint's ZoneAlarm firewall--both the free and pro versions--for many years, and on many different PCs. The program would occasionally prevent a legitimate program from performing some operation, but on those rare instances I merely shut the firewall down long enough to complete the task, and then turned it back on. No problem.
Until this morning, that is. I spent four hours trying to update a Web site via ftp, only to be told that access to my ISP's ftp server was denied. I tried using the WS_FTP Pro ftp program, Windows Explorer, Firefox, and even a WYSIWYG Web editor, but nothing could get through to the server. I could access the remote system on another PC on my network, but I wanted to avoid having to move the files in question to that PC to complete the transfer. Just last week I had ftp'ed some files without a problem.
After several calls to my blameless ISP, a tech suggested that I uninstall ZoneAlarm. Not just shut it down (which I had already tried), but completely uninstall the app. This struck me as somewhat extreme, but after spending so much time trying to figure out the glitch, I thought it was worth a try. And what do you know: as soon as ZoneAlarm was off the system, I could access the ftp server without a hitch.
I suppose I could try to figure out why ZoneAlarm all of a sudden threw a monkey wrench into my server access, but it's quicker and simpler to rely on another free firewall. My ISP's tech guy said he trusted the firewall built into XP, which he claims Microsoft has improved tremendously. But its protection is one way: it doesn't monitor traffic from the PC to the Internet, just stuff inbound. Instead, I loaded the free Comodo Firewall Pro, which also scans your system for viruses, spyware, and other threats. Since I use a remote-access service to log into this PC while on the road, I chose to review requests for incoming connections rather than to block them automatically, which means I'll have to click through a few more pop-ups. But for me this is a small price to pay for the added convenience of remote access.
After you install the program and reboot, Comodo "learns" your system, running through the standard processes and services. It also learns as you open your browser and other network-connecting applications for the first time. Once its training is complete, you can click the Comodo icon in the system tray to view your blocked and allowed connections, as well as other traffic data. You also get a snapshot of your running applications, and your choice of five security and alert-frequency settings.
So what did my morning in tech-support hell teach me? First, that my ISP's tech support staff is worth their weight in gold (even if I did assume at first that it was all their fault). Second, that I'm glad there's a myriad of free options when it comes to PC security software. Third, that things change quickly in the computer world, and it doesn't pay to be glued to your assumptions. And fourth, if a program encounters a problem accessing the Internet, check for a conflict with your security software before you get on the horn to your ISP's tech support.
Tomorrow: tweak Windows XP for optimum performance.