Penetration tests allow users to see cybersecurity vulnerabilities from a hacker’s perspective, while vulnerability scanning is software that finds and patches cybersecurity vulnerabilities.
Vulnerability scanning and penetration testing are important, because they help a company understand the cybersecurity risks within their IT infrastructure. If those weaknesses go unnoticed, they can be breached by cybercriminals.
See below to learn all about how vulnerability scanning and penetration testing are different and both important parts of a company’s network security posture:
What is a vulnerability scan?
Vulnerability scanning is cybersecurity software that scans for vulnerabilities within a company’s IT infrastructure.
“Vulnerability scanning technology can help you identify potential weak points in your software, so you can take steps to fix them before they’re exploited, said Abu Bakar, co-founder, Coding Pixel, a Los Angeles-based software development company.
“By identifying and addressing vulnerabilities before they can be exploited by hackers, penetration tests help reduce the risk of data breaches and other cybersecurity issues.”
A vulnerability scanner can identify and create an inventory of a company’s systems, such as servers, desktops, laptops, virtual machines (VMs), containers, firewalls, switches, and printers connected to a network, according to a post by the cybersecurity company Rapid7
Vulnerability scanners will attempt to log in to systems to build a visual scan of the system. The result of a vulnerability scan is focusing on any known vulnerabilities within a network and patching them.
What is a penetration test?
A penetration test is an intentional cyberattack against a company’s network and computer infrastructure to find their vulnerabilities.
“Penetration testing is a vital part of a critical infrastructure assessment that allows all parties to assess risks and implement cybersecurity mitigations and standards,” said Matt Morris, managing director, 1898 & Co., a Kansas City-based consulting firm focused on cybersecurity.
Penetration tests use the “tools, techniques, and processes” of cybercriminals to find and demonstrate how hackers find a company’s weaknesses, according to a post by Synopsys, which provides application security software
“A penetration test is a hands-on exercise,” said Ray Canzanese, director, Netskope Threat Labs, a cybersecurity company aiming to redefine cloud, data, and network security.
“A team of attackers is given rules of engagement and tasked with finding their way into protected information systems. Penetration testers might use software to automate parts of the process, but unlike vulnerability scans, penetration tests cannot be automated.”
Penetration tests can examine whether a system is strong enough to handle cyberattacks from multiple positions. Most penetration tests can look into any aspect of a company’s infrastructure.
Main differences between penetration tests and vulnerability scans
Automated vs. manual: While a vulnerability scan is automated, a penetration test requires a cybercrime expert to direct the intentional cyberattack.
Methods: A vulnerability scan will detect many vulnerabilities, such as outdated protocols, certificates, and services, while a penetration test aims to show how existing flaws could be exploited in a cyberattack.
Frequency: While vulnerability scanning requires continuous scans, penetration tests do not need to be conducted as often as vulnerability scans.
Should you do a penetration test or a vulnerability test?
Experts recommended doing a vulnerability scan as well as a penetration test as part of a broad vulnerability assessment.
“Vulnerability scanning and penetration testing are two methods for monitoring an organization for potential threats and security gaps,” said Chad Peterson, managing director, NetSPI, a Minneapolis-based cloud cybersecurity company.
“Both techniques, while different, are an important part of a well-run penetration test and ongoing offensive security program.”
While vulnerability scanning helps give a company a baseline of their cybersecurity weaknesses, adding penetration testing can enable another layer of tested security.