A Comparison Guide for Penetration Testing and Vulnerability Scanning

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Cyberattacks are becoming more frequent and complex. In essence, attackers are developing new ways to respond to advancements in enterprise security measures. Above all, you need to safeguard your business against cyberattacks. Additionally, you must protect your critical organizational assets by assessing your security with penetration testing and vulnerability scanning. 

Both penetration tests and vulnerability scans identify security gaps and weaknesses in your network. Using these strategies, you can fix the issues to improve your network’s security. That said, you need to know the main differences between penetration testing and vulnerability scanning to use them effectively. 

In this article, you’ll discover what penetration testing and vulnerability scanning is. You’ll also learn the differences between the two and how to choose the best fit for your security needs. 

What Is Penetration Testing?

Penetration testing is a strategy to assess your network’s vulnerabilities by creating one or more mock attacks. Often penetration testers will pretend they are bad actors and use multiple cybercriminal tools and techniques to find weaknesses in your security. If you find any flaws in your security, you can use this information to fix the issue before hackers exploit them. 

Your penetration testing strategy depends on the expected security outcomes. Broadly speaking, penetration testing can be customized to meet your specific requirements. 

Testers can use social engineering techniques like phishing to understand the existing email security practices and their effectiveness. It also provides a glimpse into employee behavior and the measures they take to avoid being a phishing attack victim.

As another example, penetration testing can use brute force and other strategies to gain access to a network through unencrypted and vulnerable passwords. Again, this testing throws light on the password and access policies within the company. 

Let’s take a look at some of this method’s benefits.

Benefits

  • Helps to evaluate any new policy or cybersecurity program’s effectiveness
  • Identifies problems like a poor password policy, system availability during an attack, etc.
  • Simulates attacks to help understand how your system responds to threats 

Penetration testing has some limitations you need to consider when implementing it.

Limitations

  • Can cause a denial of service and other disruptions to employees with intrusive attacks on production environments. Inform users in advance and run tests on test environments where possible
  • Can’t evaluate your internal security team’s preparedness during attacks 
  • To make penetration testing effective, you must define adequate testing objectives like identifying password vulnerability 

Next, let’s talk about vulnerability scanning before heading to a detailed comparison.

What Is Vulnerability Scanning?

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As the name suggests, a vulnerability scan examines your entire network, identifies vulnerabilities, and categorizes them based on risks. It also provides detailed information about each issue. To this end, it helps you address vulnerabilities effectively. 

Benefits

  • Identifies common vulnerabilities quickly to help stop automated malware attacks
  • Helps you regularly run scans automatically
  • Evaluates your security measures’ effectiveness
  • Meets third-party compliance requirements most of the time

Like any tool, vulnerability scanning comes with limitations too.

Limitations

  • Finding every vulnerability or advanced exploit isn’t possible
  • Getting false positives is possible
  • Evaluating system behavior during attacks isn’t possible

Now that you know more about penetration testing and vulnerability scans, let’s explore their differences. 

Penetration Testing or Vulnerability Scanning? 

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Let’s now compare the two security approaches across many broad categories. 

Automation

Penetration testing is conducted by security experts. These experts use similar strategies and tools as cybercriminals to assess the network. On the other hand, vulnerability scans are automated processes that scan the system to identify vulnerabilities. Simply schedule the scan during off-business hours and see the report after the scan. No human intervention is needed.

Assessment Resolution

Penetration testing is far more detailed as it identifies the system’s capability to withstand an attack. Conversely, vulnerability scans only detect the existing vulnerabilities and compile them as reports. 

Goal and Purpose

Both security strategies identify different security flaws. Penetration testing aims to understand how your existing system reacts to advanced attacks. In essence, it’s as if you’re attacked by a bad actor that may use more advanced non-automated techniques. By comparison, vulnerability scans detect known security issues and gaps in your company’s protection using automated tools. Hence, you can run scans as often as you need.

Resources

Penetration testing is pricey. It requires cybersecurity professionals to attack the system and identify its vulnerabilities manually. It can also be resource-intensive and require capital expenditure to fund it. Vulnerability scanning is a cost-effective security solution that only needs scanning software.

Here’s a snapshot of these differences. 

A table of the differences between penetration testing and vulnerability scans.
Hopefully this table helps you make your choice!

Let’s discover the cost differences between the two security strategies. 

The Cost of Penetration Tests and Vulnerability Scans

On average, penetration tests cost USD4,000 to USD100,000 per test. It’s expensive because it’s hard to find ethical hackers. In essence, ethical hackers are people that are willing to think and work like a cybercriminal without stealing your data. Additionally, the time and resources required for a penetration test add to its cost.

Vulnerability scanning software can cost around USD2,000 to USD3,000. This depends on the number of IPs and applications in your network. Moreover, many vulnerability scan providers have a pricing model for different IPs. 

Besides cost, you must also consider other factors like the outcome’s effectiveness and relevance before choosing between the two techniques. 

Next, let’s look at some questions to consider while choosing between penetration testing or vulnerability scanning. 

How to Chose between Penetration Testing and Vulnerability Scanning

Choosing between penetration testing and vulnerability scanning isn’t easy, because both serve different security objectives. That said, here are some questions to ask yourself before taking the plunge:

  • What do your compliance regulations require?
  • What are your security strategy’s expected outcomes? Is it preventive or detective?
  • How much budget can you allocate?
  • Does your company need a reactive or proactive approach to security?
  • Are you looking to evaluate a cybersecurity strategy or tool’s effectiveness?

Based on these questions, you can decide between penetration testing vs vulnerability scanning.

In general, go for penetration testing if you want a proactive cybersecurity approach and don’t mind the costs that come with it. It can also be a good choice to evaluate a specific cybersecurity strategy or policy in your company. However, keep in mind that finding the right security experts for penetration testing isn’t easy.

On the other hand, go for vulnerability scanning if you need to comply with industry standards. Additionally, this method can be good to evaluate your internal teams’ preparedness when an attack occurs. This reactive security approach can help you plug the existing vulnerabilities into a shoestring budget. 

Before we end, here’s a quick recap.

Final Thoughts

Cybersecurity is a major concern for companies today. To implement streamlined security, you can use security tools and strategies like penetration testing and vulnerability scans. 

In short, vulnerability scanning is easy to implement by installing scanning software. Additionally, you can often find one integrated into common security solutions, and you may have one already installed without your knowledge.

Penetration testing is the polar opposite. This strategy requires costly specialists to ethically attack your system with various cyberattack tools. 

You’ll need to consider your business needs when choosing between these strategies. In general, go for penetration testing if you’re looking for a proactive approach and aren’t worried about costs. Choose vulnerability scanning as a reactive approach for compliance and to evaluate your internal teams’ preparedness. 

Want to know more about penetration testing vs vulnerability scanning? Check out our FAQ and Resources sections below. 

FAQ

How long do vulnerability scans and penetration tests take?

Vulnerability scans take around 20 to 60 minutes, depending on the number of IPs in your network. Conversely, penetration tests take anywhere from one to three weeks, depending on the scope of work. Typically, testing individual systems or small networks takes about a week. Alternatively, testing large networks across different geographies can take about three weeks. 

How often should I conduct a vulnerability scan and a penetration test?

The exact frequency depends on your business needs. In general, it’s good to do a vulnerability scan once every quarter. That said, note that you may have to make major changes to your infrastructure, enhance network capabilities, etc., depending on the scan’s outcome. As for penetration tests, experts recommend once to twice a year. 

Are vulnerability scans and penetration tests the same?

No, they’re different. A vulnerability scan is a reactive approach that uses automated tools to identify any security gap or vulnerability. A penetration test, on the other hand, is a real-time attack done by security professionals. The aim is to understand the existing security and the possible vulnerabilities that hackers can leverage

Is vulnerability scanning or penetration testing better?

Penetration testing is more rigorous because it’s done manually and mimics a real cyber-attack. At the same time, it’s also expensive and takes more time. Conversely, vulnerability scans assess the system for vulnerabilities but don’t take a proactive and rigorous approach like penetration testing. 

Is vulnerability scanning or penetration testing more detailed?

Penetration testing is way more detailed than vulnerability scanning as it provides the context for every vulnerability. It’s also a proactive approach that helps you to fix the security gaps as early as possible. Vulnerability scanning, on the other hand, gives a more general idea about the vulnerabilities. 

Resources

TechGenix: Article on Security Automation

Discover how security automation can help reduce risks to cyberattackers.

TechGenix: Article on Black Hat 2022

Find out all the latest news from Black Hat 2022.

TechGenix: Article on Ethical Hacking

Learn more about ethical hacking in cybersecurity.

TechGenix: Article on Vulnerability Assessment

Find out more information about vulnerability assessment.

TechGenix: Article on Application Security Tools

Read about the top 5 application security tools.

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