Sophos' anti-virus chief, Jan Hruska, says the race to perfect "on-access" virus scanning technology for desktop versions of Linux and FreeBSD has the company's Unix developers "tearing their hair out".
The development of on-access scanning for Unix would give Linux users the same the type of technology that protects Windows and Macintosh users when they inadvertently double-click or otherwise attempt to open files infected with viruses such as those bundled into some e-mail attachments. However, Hruska said Sophos's software engineers are having a frustrating time dealing with the Linux kernel.
"The fact that there is no such thing as a standard version of Linux; no such thing as a standard for FreeBSD...the very fact that you don't have a version of the operating system that is stable in what it consists of makes [developing the technology] a much harder proposition," said Hruska.
Hruska said Sophos has already quietly released a prototype of its Unix on-access scanner that can identify about 100 viruses, to "a number of interested parties". However it's unclear how successful the prototype has been.
"It went fairly well," said Hruska. "Given that apparent complexity of the problem it went very well but we have learnt a few things about what we should do differently".
Sophos said its on-access scanner was coming along nicely but did not put a time-frame on its final release.
Hruska said that anyone who believes that Unix is any less susceptible to viruses than Windows-based systems is living under an illusion.
"The first virus ever was demonstrated under Ultrix, which was a Unix system operating on a Digital Vax," he said.
When it comes to explaining why virus writers pick on Windows with such frequency, he took the line often heard from the Redmond that it was simply a reflection of the fact that it's the world's most widely-used operating system.
"As we see it, in the future with more proliferation of Unix onto the desktop we are almost certainly going to see more viruses appearing for Unix," he said.
However, while lack of standardisation is working against the likes of Sophos it may be a key to Unix' defence. Microsoft admits that at least part of the reason that its operating system is targeted so frequently is the ease with which miscreants can get a hold of tools to exploit its vulnerabilities. Hruska said that while a virus might affect one version of the Linux kernel a slight variation may be impervious, impeding its propagation.
Hruska added that most successful Unix viruses are written in higher level programming languages -- again reducing the potential for mischief.
Hruska, -- who said he would be gauging business sentiment toward non-Microsoft software as part of his annual Asia-Pacific tour -- claimed Japan was currently leading the charge when it comes to interest in non-Microsoft desktop software.
"It's one of those things that will hit us like a Tsunami where nothing seemingly happens for a long time and suddenly the whole thing gains momentum -- before you know quite a few people will be doing it. If I was Microsoft, I would certainly be worried about that particular aspect of it".