After seven months in beta, Panda Security has released the first version of its cloud-based antivirus product, which will be free to consumers with a paid-for managed service for SMBs.

Cloud Antivirus 1.0 works differently to a conventional signature scanner, a type of product the company will continue to sell from its main website. Offering no-cost downloads from a dedicated website, the new software holds a minimum number of signatures locally, relying instead on fingerprinting the system for known good programs while comparing newly encountered ones against an online ‘cloud' database accessing the company's Collective Intelligence servers.

According to the company, the overwhelming majority of the 150,000 new files it encounters every day are automatically profiled, leaving only 0.6 percent that require manual analysis by experts. The thin client approach of Cloud Antivirus was necessary, the company said, because fifty percent of the malware it was encountering on any day had a life expectancy of less than 24 hours. Static signature scanners could no longer cope with such a rate of evolution.

As well as reducing the load on the local PC to as little as 3 percent overhead, the cloud approach allowed Panda to use the malware being detected by the company and its user base in real time to give all customers dynamic protection, the company said.

"From our perspective, cloud scanning is going to be the future," said Panda Security's senior research advisor, Pedro Bustamante. "We are switching from selling boxes to selling services."

Collective Intelligence will also lie at the core of the SMB offering, Cloud Protection, which mixes, web and email filtering with a remote firewall service designed to be centrally managed using third-party service providers. The service will also include a vulnerability element that makes possible managed patching.

An unspoken issue at the heart of free cloud antivirus for consumers is exactly why anyone would want to buy a conventional product. Bustamente and CEO Juan Santana described the company's conventional signature-based scanners, which cost between £30 ($45) and £60 ($90) for an annual license, as more ‘featured', but it's not clear if every consumer will appreciate the extra value this offers.

Conceptually elegant it might be, but the technology for offering PC users dynamic protection from banks of cloud-based servers remains unproven. The proof will be in the ability of the system to spot real threats before they jump on to PCs at least as well as if not better than running the same protection locally.

In preliminary testing, Techworld found the beta of Cloud Antivirus to deliver the generally lower processor and memory footprint claimed by Panda, when compared to a conventional product. Mainly, the scaled down signature updating was less frequent and intrusive. Security alerting was not tested.

Panda Cloud Antivirus for consumers can be downloaded from the company's website, compatible with XP, Vista 23/64-bit and Windows 7 32/64-bit.