Penetration Testing vs Vulnerability Scanning

A vital distinction to make when considering business needs.

Penetration testing and vulnerability scanning are often confused as the same service. This leads to business owners purchasing one when they really need the other. Below, we will outline the differences between the two to help better your understanding and ascertain which service your business requires.

What is a vulnerability scan?

A vulnerability scan is an automated, high-level test that scans infrastructure targets for known vulnerabilities and misconfigurations. This is achieved by a specialised software that assesses targets against a database of known flaws, coding bugs, anomalies, configuration errors and potential routes into networks.

The scan is typically automated and can be scheduled to run at any time, with a completion time ranging between several minutes to several hours – depending on the size of the network.

High-quality vulnerability scans can search for over 50,000 vulnerabilities and are a requirement for accreditations such as IASME, GDPR, and PCI-DSS.

Vulnerability scans are passive in nature and do not go beyond reporting the vulnerabilities detected. After completion of a scan, a detailed report is generated which highlights the severity of each weakness along with a description and remediation suggestions.

Although the scan reports are generally accurate, they can sometimes include false positives. Therefore, it is important that the report is analysed by adequately qualified individuals who are aware of your infrastructure.

Let’s highlight some of the key benefits and limitations of vulnerability scanning:

Benefits Limitations
Quick, high-level view of possible vulnerabilities False positives
Cost effective (from £200 per month, depending on infrastructure size) Requires manual remediation before testing again
Automatic and convenient Does not confirm that a vulnerability is exploitable

What is a penetration test?

A penetration test simulates a hacker attempting to get into a business system through research and exploitation of vulnerabilities.

There are multiple methods a penetration tester will employ to gain access to your business e.g. password cracking, buffer overflow, SQL injection and social engineering techniques. Once a foothold is established, the tester will attempt to extract as much data as possible from your infrastructure.

Penetration tests are an extremely detailed and effective approach to finding and remediating both digital and physical security weaknesses. It is a deep extensive look into your infrastructure that highlights all the vulnerabilities, demonstrates how they can be exploited, and shows the impact it could have on the business.

The test is typically conducted by certified professional, who generate a report detailing the attacks used, testing methodologies and remediation protocols.

Due to the level of skill and detail, penetration testing is expensive, however it is a requirement for security standards such as IASME, PCI-DSS, HIPAA, and SOC 2.

The benefits and limitation of a penetration test are as follows:

Benefits Limitations
Manual test is more accurate and thorough Time intensive (1 day to 3 weeks)
Retesting after remediation is usually included Expensive
No false positives

Why do I need them and which is better?

Security weaknesses are widespread across organisations of all sizes. New vulnerabilities are discovered constantly or introduced with system changes. Criminal hackers use automated tools to identify and exploit vulnerabilities to gain access to systems, data and networks. This can have devastating consequences for any business and leaves every internet-facing organisation at risk. Identifying and patching these security weaknesses is vital in protecting your organisations data and integrity.

It is not accurate to compare these two services and suggest one is better than the other. Both services address a different purpose and in fact work together in providing a comprehensive picture of your organisations security state. Vulnerability scans are an excellent way to gain a weekly or monthly insight into your network security. Penetration tests on the other are an extensive examination of your security and can identify issues that are often overlooked.

We at Unity Metrix often recommend our clients to opt for monthly vulnerability scanning and an annual penetration test. This ensures regulatory and legal compliance as well as awareness of potential security vulnerabilities before they are exploited by a threat actor.


Penetration Testing vs Vulnerability Scanning


Author tgadmin