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Penetration Testing vs. Vulnerability Scanning

Penetration Testing vs. Vulnerability Scanning

 

When searching for information on network security testing, keeping all of the jargon straight can get a little overwhelming. For example, penetration testing vs. vulnerability scanning. Many people mistakenly assume that both of these types of security tests are the same. The reality is that they are actually two different types of tests.

Vulnerability scanning is automated. It identifies weaknesses in your system and creates a report on potential weaknesses. Penetration testing, on the other hand, is a hands-on test that exploits possible points of failure in the structure of the entire IT network and reports on the probability that a hacker can gain unauthorized access into the system.

To uncover their differences even further, we’ll explore each type of test individually, and then discuss which one may be best for your business.

 

Vulnerability Scanning

Another name for this test is the “vulnerability assessment.” This test involves using automated tools to scan for vulnerabilities on a network, system, or application. Once a scan is complete, and the possible points of failure are detected, it’s up to the business owner and their IT personnel to either patch the vulnerability, or see if the test was inaccurate, and run the scan again.

For an unauthorized user, a vulnerability is like finding an unlocked door to an otherwise secure building that they can simply walk into and commit nefarious acts. Vulnerability scanning looks for those unlocked and open doors to provide IT staff a way to close and lock the door to secure the building. The goal is not to exploit the opening, but rather to point out where openings occur.

 

Penetration Testing

Penetration testing is also referred to as “ethical hacking.” More often it’s referred to simply as a “pen test.” The test is a manual, hands-on security audit, that stretches beyond the capabilities of vulnerability scanning. The goal is to find potential loopholes in the entire IT infrastructure and applications running the system in an effort to attack them.

The conventional approach used here is to implement both automated tools and manual procedures to determine if there is a way to exploit the system. Part of the manual aspect of penetration testing is that the tester must interpret their findings and address the issues coming up. They also must search for vulnerabilities that an automated scanner may miss. After holes are found in the system, they must then attempt to exploit those weaknesses simulating how a real-world attack could impact it.

 

Differences Between Vulnerability Assessments and Penetration Testing

A great example of the difference between penetration testing vs. vulnerability scanning is found in the x-ray scanner at the airport that you put your carry-on luggage through. The machine quickly scans for threats much as a vulnerability scanner would automatically scan your network ecosystem for weaknesses.

The penetration test then would be the equivalent of the TSA agent that chooses carry-on bags at random, or because they happen to see something suspicious in the scan, so they can manually inspect your carry-on for threats. Vulnerability scanning is quick and can be done on a large-scale, but penetration testing requires a person to physically search for risks.

Put another way, penetration testing is a targeted approach with the human element intervening as necessary. Penetration requires experienced IT professionals to handle and interpret the test reports. If you are an excellent tester, you know the precise moment to start scripting and change parameters of the tools to get the desired effect.

A pen test also allows for narrowing down the scope to a department depending on various factors, such as the importance of assets. Penetration testers may discover new vulnerabilities that are new in the business operation world as well.

On the other hand, vulnerability scanning has the ability to quickly identify potential holes on network devices such as firewalls, switches, routers, servers, and applications. The scope of the test is business-wide, they are considered more affordable, and are automatic. They can be set up to run quarterly, or as frequently as you would like - even weekly if you would prefer.

In fact, many companies choose to set up their vulnerability scanning in-house by IT staff because they can run additional tests any time they have a suspicion of a security breach. The trouble lies in when a suspicion doesn’t produce the results you would like. That’s when you need to bring in an expert penetration tester to really dive into the system and manually search for weaknesses. Although a penetration test can take a lot longer than an automated vulnerability scan, they are much more thorough and will provide more details for mitigating threats.

 

That brings us back to the question we posed earlier - which security audit is best for your business?

The answer is that it depends. Both types of tests provide reports on threats, and give suggestions on how to remedy them. Because penetration tests are more time consuming and costly, you may be tempted to only use vulnerability scanning. We would caution against that, however.

In our opinion, the better option is to have ongoing vulnerability scanners running either weekly, monthly or quarterly, and then bring in a penetration testing team on a bi-annual or annual basis at the bare minimum to inspect your systems even deeper.

 

To learn more about Rivial Security’s Security Testing Services, visit this page:

 

https://www.rivialsecurity.com/services/security-testing

 

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