A Guide to Penetration Testing

A graphic image of a laptop with some tabs open with the icons of a magnet and an antivirus to represent penetration testing and vulnerability scanning.
What is penetration testing?
Source: TechGenix

The number of cyberattacks is increasing alarmingly around the globe. Nowadays, cybercriminals target almost all companies despite their size or domain. This encourages companies to find a solution to secure their systems and confidential data. Thus, companies invest large capital and resources in penetration testing as their first line of defense. Penetration testing is an effective cybersecurity practice that will help identify attack vectors early to secure your company.

In this article, you’ll learn more about penetration testing, how it differs from vulnerability scans, and its different types. I’ll also discuss the various stages of penetration testing, its methods, etc. 

What Is Penetration Testing?

Penetration testing is a form of ethical hacking and a security exercise. It allows you to simulate a cyberattack against your company’s security policies to find and exploit vulnerabilities

Penetration testing aims to identify any security vulnerabilities and weak spots. It then patches them before cybercriminals exploit them. It also allows you to perform an impact analysis of the damage that a security vulnerability could cause. 

In addition, penetration testing needs the right system, network, and application access levels to perform effectively. It can also be a powerful way to retrospect your company’s security policies and measures. 

Now, let’s discover who can perform penetration testing for your company and its underlying systems. 

Who Can Perform Penetration Testing?

Security professionals or ethical hackers are usually the people who perform penetration testing. It’s also important to allow someone with little to no prior knowledge of your security systems to conduct these tests. Thus, testers can explore all the possible vulnerabilities and blindspots your internal team could’ve missed. That’s why companies worldwide hire external contractors to check their security systems. 

Image showing a few individuals trying to find vulnerabilities in different systems.
Cybersecurity experts and ethical hackers are significantly useful for penetration testing.
Source: Pixabay

Penetration testing provides several advantages to any company. Let’s take a look at some.

Penetration Testing Advantages

Penetration testing allows you to secure and safeguard your systems from multiple forms of cyberattacks. Here are some of its top benefits.

  • Protect the integrity and privacy of your company and client data
  • Find the security vulnerabilities and loopholes in real-time
  • Stay compliant with several federal and provincial government policies
  • Detect trends in security drawbacks to generate security awareness within your team
  • Perform an impact analysis of every vulnerability found so you can prioritize the risks
  • Generate incident responses to specific vulnerabilities beforehand to stay secure 
  • Improve and increase your business and operational continuity while gaining the trust of your customers

Now, let’s take a look at different methods of performing penetration testing.

5 Penetration Testing Methods

The method you should choose will depend on the systems you need to test. So let’s consider the 5 penetration testing methods.

1. External Testing

In this method, testing happens from an external attacker’s perspective with no immediate system advantages. More specifically, testers aim to identify vulnerabilities in the system from an external view. They focus on the company’s endpoints like firewalls, web and mail servers, etc. External testing also helps you find and fix the vulnerabilities in your company’s external resources. One example of external testing is wireless public network tests catering to external users.

A graphic image that represents a traditional firewall.
A firewall protecting the systems.
Source: TechGenix

2. Internal Testing

System administrators will grant the tester access to the company’s systems, underlying applications, and services in this method. It primarily focuses on permissions and privileges. Internal testing also seeks to find vulnerabilities that could result from employees or resources having more access than they need. An example of internal testing involves finding vulnerabilities in your company’s internal systems and devices like PCs, printers, and network peripherals.

3. Blind Testing

Blind testing, or covert penetration testing, is a form of outside testing that replicates the actions of an outside cybercriminal without a specific goal in mind. Although this testing doesn’t have a concrete scope, it can help uncover vulnerabilities in the overall system. It usually starts with very limited information. For example, cybercriminals will only have a company’s name. They’ll then use this to try and find means from publicly available sources to infiltrate your company’s system. 

4. Double-Blind Testing

Like blind testing, in double-blind testing, both subject and observer are unaware of the penetration testing in practice. This widens the scope of finding vulnerabilities. You can also use it to access the overall security of the company and its employees. In this testing method, employees are usually unaware of ongoing testing. Thus, it’s easy for ethical hackers to replicate a regular working scenario to carry out the test. This also provides more real-time and realistic testing results.

5. Targeted Testing

Targeted testing is a scenario in which the tester gets handed a specific application, endpoint, or module to check for possible vulnerabilities. This method can yield better and quicker results. That’s due to the limited scope of targeted testing. 

Now, you can choose any of these penetration testing methods to test your company’s resources. Next, I’ll cover the 6 different applications of penetration testing.

6 Penetration Testing Applications

Different types of penetration testing focus on different applications and scopes. Some of these applications to test your company’s specific resources include: 

An image of a magnified bug on a computer screen.
Penetration testing can help you find vulnerabilities in every component of the system.
Source: Pixabay

1. Internal/External Infrastructure Testing

This involves penetration testing of on-premise and cloud-based infrastructure, including all the system components like firewalls, hosts, networking peripherals, etc. Internal testing helps to find vulnerabilities within a company’s network. That includes all the internal resources, applications, frameworks, and devices. Meanwhile, external testing takes place remotely, where the target is to find the vulnerabilities in the internet-facing assets of a company, like mail, web, and FTP endpoints. 

2. WebApp Testing

One of the most common attack vectors for cybercriminals is web applications. WebApp testing performs in-depth security vulnerability assessments across your web applications to identify potential security loopholes. This can include broken authentication and/or authorization, weak coding, or the possibility of SQL injections.

3. Network Security Testing

Network security testing aims to find all the network vulnerabilities before the attackers. This testing targets the vulnerabilities in your company’s network and associated peripherals. That also includes routers, switches, hubs, network hosts, etc. 

4. Cloud Security Testing

This form of penetration testing focuses on finding vulnerabilities in cloud systems. These systems include the infrastructure, applications, or platforms hosting your services. As a company, you might partially or fully host your infrastructure and applications on the cloud. Cloud-based testing also allows you to test all cloud-based components like cloud-based infrastructure, applications, or any as-a-service paradigms of your company.

5. IoT Testing

With growing cyberattacks, attackers find vulnerabilities in every possible company endpoint. IoT devices are one growing attack vector you can secure using IoT devices and network penetration testing. IoT-based testing aims to find the vulnerabilities in the IoT network that connects multiple devices along with every IoT endpoint device. It can also help you identify an IoT setup’s hardware, software, and network-related vulnerabilities. 

6. Social Engineering

Social engineering is a cyber breach tactic that aims to identify the vulnerabilities within your company’s workforce, including your employees. In essence, testers try to gain access or control over your company’s resources using deception. In social engineering, penetration testers use traditional data access or control methods, like phishing. Social engineering also lets you gain insights into your employees’ cybersecurity awareness. 

Image showing a cybercriminal trying to steal/access sensitive credit card information digitally.
Social engineering is a simple yet effective method!
Source: TechGenix

To better understand the overall process of penetration testing, you’ll need to know the different phases in its lifecycle. 

5 Phases of Penetration Testing

Penetration testing has 5 different phases, which form its life cycle. Let’s review each of these phases. 

1. Planning and Reconnaissance 

This is the first step in penetration testing. It includes gathering requirements and planning to simulate a cyberattack with a particular scope and objective. Social engineering and network scanning are the most common means of gathering information. Generally, at the end of this phase, you’ll have a defined goal, scope, and plan of action to conduct the penetration testing.

2. Discovery and Scanning

Testers can leverage different scanning and discovering tools to explore the company’s systems based on the information and data collected from the first phase. The discovery and scanning phase aims to scan and perform asset analysis in the scope of testing. This is to identify all resources available for testing and their specific details like network devices, OS, firmware, and open port information. 

3. Gaining System Access

Now that you’ve gained insights into potentially vulnerable systems, you can start exploiting weaknesses to infiltrate the company’s infrastructure. You’ll then be able to gain system access. Penetration testers can use any form of cyberattack, including SQL injection, phishing, and malware attacks. This helps penetrate the system to gain access. 

4. Persistent Access

After gaining system access, this phase helps you leverage the access privileges to identify the impact of all the underlying and explored vulnerability exploits. The aim is to obtain the highest levels of permissions possible to maximize the potential impact cybercriminals could cause on the system. The persistent access phase also helps you identify the degree of damage that a potential exploit or a cyberattack can cause.

5. Analysis and Reporting

This is the final phase of the penetration testing process. It involves detailed analysis and reporting of all the identified vulnerabilities with their respective impact. Ethical hackers or security specialists usually generate these reports. They contain the list of all identified vulnerabilities along with the respective resource or systems. These reports can be target generated for any specific team within a company. 

Vulnerability scanning is yet another effective cybersecurity practice that helps you detect any existing vulnerabilities. That said, it’s different from penetration testing. 

Vulnerability Scans vs Penetration Tests

Penetration testing is often confused with vulnerability scanning. Here are the key differences between these two. 

CharacteristicVulnerability ScanningPenetration Testing
ObjectiveKnown vulnerabilities All the possible vulnerabilities
Performed byAutomated tools supervised by humansSeasoned ethical hackers or cybersecurity professionals
FrequencyPerformed weekly, monthly, or quarterlyPerformed annually or twice a year after major changes are made
ScopeVery wide and horizontally spreadVery focused and vertically spread
OutcomesDetailed list of vulnerabilitiesPrioritized list of vulnerabilities along with detailed impact assessment
Ideal forUnderstanding the basic facets of your company securityUnderstanding all the possible aspects of your overall company security
Vulnerability scanning vs penetration testing.

Final Words

In this article, I’ve discussed penetration testing and the benefits it offers your company. In a nutshell, it can help you detect and identify any vulnerabilities that cybercriminals could exploit. And this saves both your company’s reputation and capital costs. 

You can also leverage different penetration testing methods to meet different needs and expectations. The methods I mentioned included external, internal, blind, double-blind, and targeted testing.

Moreover, you can use any of the penetration testing applications I described above to test different resources within your company. For example, you can test your internal and external infrastructure or your network security—or both. Lastly, I’ve also explained how penetration testing differs from vulnerability scans. You can refer to the table above for a refresher. 

Do you have more questions about penetration testing? Check out the FAQ and Resources sections below! 


What is ethical hacking?

Ethical hacking involves detecting security vulnerabilities in a company’s network, infrastructure, or application system. It’s usually an authorized practice of detecting vulnerabilities beforehand to tighten the security across the company.

How long do penetration testing and vulnerability scans take?

It depends on the number of IPs in your network, the resources you need, and the scope of the testing. That said, vulnerability scans take around an hour or two. On the other hand, penetration testing might take days to weeks, depending on the number of endpoints and resources you need to test.

What are the ideal levels of permissions I can give to my employees?

Following the principle of least privilege is one of the most effective means of preventing cyberattacks that occur from excessive permissions. You should follow it as a rule of thumb. Every employee within your company will only receive the lowest permission levels possible to carry out their everyday tasks. 

Is vulnerability scanning or penetration testing more detailed? 

Penetration testing is more defined and detailed than vulnerability scanning. This is because of the context penetration testing provides for every vulnerability and system/application that’s tested. Vulnerability scanning, on the other hand, is a more general approach. 

What is the principle of least privilege?

The principle of least privilege states that every employee and resource within a company should get the least possible set of permissions and accesses needed to perform their everyday tasks. This ensures the company’s integrity and secures it from employee misuse and other forms of cyberattacks. 


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