Penetration Testing vs Vulnerability Scanning

As part of network security, two options you might consider are penetration testing and vulnerability scanning. Whilst the two do have some similarities, there are key differences that offer different outcomes.

So what are the differences between penetration testing and vulnerability scanning? And which is the right option for my business?

Penetration Test or Vulnerability Scan

Both penetration testing and vulnerability scanning are important at their respective levels, both are needed in cyber risk analysis, and are required by standards such as ISO 27001. So, what is the difference between vulnerability scanning and penetration testing? What do they include, and which is right for your business?

Penetration Test

A penetration test simulates a hacker attempting to get into a business system through hands-on research and the exploitation of vulnerabilities. Cyber analysts will search for vulnerabilities and then try to prove that they can be exploited. Using methods like password cracking, buffer overflow, and SQL injection, they will attempt to compromise and extract data from a network in a non damaging way.

The penetration test could be at application or network level but specific to a function, department or number of assets.  One can include the whole infrastructure and all applications but that is impractical in the real world because of cost and time. You define your scope on a number of factors that are mainly based on risk and how important is an asset.

Vulnerability Scan

Vulnerability scans assess computers, systems, and networks for security weaknesses, also known as vulnerabilities. These scans are typically automated and give a beginning look at what could possibly be exploited. Vulnerability scans are a passive approach to vulnerability management because they don’t go beyond reporting on vulnerabilities that are detected. It’s up to the business owner or their IT staff to patch weaknesses on a prioritised basis or confirm that a discovered vulnerability is a false positive, then rerun the scan.

Vulnerability scans can be run frequently on any number of assets to ascertain known vulnerabilities are detected and patched. Thus, you can eliminate more serious vulnerabilities for your valuable resources quickly. An effective way to remediate vulnerabilities is to follow the vulnerability management lifecycle. The cost of a vulnerability scan is low to moderate as compared to penetration testing, and it is a detective control as opposed to preventive like penetration testing.

Vulnerability management can be fed into patch management for effective patching. Patches must be tested on a test system before rolling out to production.

Penetration Testing vs Vulnerability Scanning: At a Glance

 Penetration TestVulnerability Scan
WhyA simulated attack against your network infrastructure or information systems that attempts to evade or overthrow the security features of system components. It is designed to exploit discovered weaknesses and determine your level of risk.Looks for known vulnerabilities in your systems and reports potential exposures that, if exploited, could result in a compromise of a system. The scan ranks and reports each vulnerability
WhoBest to use an independent outside service and alternate between two or three; requires a great deal of skillTypically conducted by in-house staff using authenticated credentials; does not require a high skill level
FrequencyOnce or twice a year, as well as anytime the Internet-facing equipment undergoes significant changesAt least quarterly, especially after new equipment is loaded or the network undergoes significant changes
ReportingThe report details level of risk and potential exposure by ranking vulnerabilities high, medium or low. It identifies what high vulnerabilities could be exploited and how, and what data can be compromised (if any)A comprehensive report that outlines any vulnerabilities that exist and may be exploited (software, expired patches, etc.)
ValueIdentifies and reduces weaknessesDetects when equipment could be compromised

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