Penetration testing vs vulnerability scanning, is there a difference? Should you choose between them or both?
There is a lot of misunderstanding and confusion between penetration testing and vulnerability scanning. Using either of these methods you are able to reveal weaknesses in your infrastructure, but there are important differences between the two which you need to be aware of.
Penetration Testing is Manual and In-Depth Testing
Penetration testing is a manual and in-depth security assessment, where the cybersecurity professional (aka pentester or ethical hacker) attempts to find weaknesses in your defenses and break into your systems. During the testing the effectiveness of your security controls are evaluated because many complex tests are taking place in order for a weakness to be uncovered.
This type of testing takes from several days to weeks to complete, depending on the complexity of the network, applications and systems which are in scope.
It is carried out usually on an annual basis, but this depends on the human and financial resources of each organization. Some prefer to have a test carried our quarterly or semi-annual.
The real value of a penetration test is the final report. It is where all findings are documented, along with the steps the tester performed to uncover them. The tester should focus to produce a report which also include the actions the organization should take to enhance its security controls and minimize its risk.
This is what the management of an organization pay for and expect from a penetration test.
Vulnerability Assessments are Automated and Require Less Expertise
A vulnerability assessment (VA), or vulnerability scanning is an automated process carried out by tools like Nessus or Qualys.
Those can be installed inside your network, typically with full network access to the resources you want to run your tests against. Some times authenticated access is required as well if you require more thorough testing on the systems.
VA tools run thousands of security checks against their targets and produce a report with the vulnerabilities found along with advice on their remediation.
Vulnerability assessments unlike penetration tests are carried out more regularly in organizations, as the cost and expertise require to do so is significantly less.
It is essential to have a process in place to run regular VA scans to aid in your Vulnerability Management program.
What is better, an annual penetration testing, or a regular vulnerability scanning?
Penetration tests are essential, but assuming that you don’t have the time and/or resources (human/financial), to perform a penetration test more than once a year, then you are finding flaws in your security only in a certain point in time.
If a vulnerability in a web application is discovered between your annual tests, then you are left exposed to attackers until the vulnerability is discovered during the next penetration test.
The main difference between vulnerability scanning and penetration testing is their purpose: one seeks to discover vulnerabilities by running tools against a target system, application, or network while the other attempts to actually exploit those weaknesses using various tactics such as social engineering and manual testing.
The conclusion to which of the two is better? Both penetration testing and vulnerability scanning combined!
There shouldn’t be a matter of “Penetration testing vs vulnerability scanning” in the first place. Scanning your information assets on a regular basis is a great method to complement your manual testing.
Dimitris is an Information Technology and Cybersecurity professional with more than 20 years of experience in designing, building and maintaining efficient and secure IT infrastructures.
Among others, he is a certified: CISSP, CISA, CISM, ITIL, COBIT and PRINCE2, but his wide set of knowledge and technical management capabilities go beyond these certifications. He likes acquiring new skills on penetration testing, cloud technologies, virtualization, network security, IoT and many more.