When it comes to protecting your technological systems and sensitive information, penetration testing and vulnerability scanning are both essential tools. In fact, they are both integral to your threat and security management process and are required by certain regulations, such as the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS). And they do both fall under the umbrella of vulnerability detection and are related.
However, while the processes are often confused and sometimes referred to interchangeably, they are separate and distinct.
What’s the Difference Between Vulnerability Scanning and Penetration Testing?
So, then, what exactly is the difference between vulnerability scanning and penetration testing?
Let’s start with vulnerability assessments. This process involves uncovering weaknesses — vulnerabilities — in your systems. The scan takes a high-level view of your technology and will assess all aspects of it before reporting on what it has uncovered. You will be able to see everything the scan found, but that’s where the vulnerability scanning stops. Essentially, it will alert you to the system’s weaknesses, but it won’t actually address them.
Vulnerability scanning can typically be performed by an automated system.
In contrast, penetration testing takes things a step further. Not only will it detect potential holes, but it will also exploit these vulnerabilities, evaluating whether and how a hacker might be able to penetrate your systems.
Another difference between penetration testing and vulnerability scanning is that the former needs to be performed manually by a qualified, experienced cybersecurity specialist. This specialist will require the aid of numerous tools to continue to essentially “hack” the system to expose weaknesses.
Benefits of Vulnerability Assessment and Penetration Testing
Both of these processes have plenty of advantages. Here are just a few of them.
- Ideal for newer businesses that are evaluating their security infrastructures for the first time
- Able to identify thousands of potential threats
- Can be automated and completed fairly quickly
- Can be scheduled ahead of time
You should also consider the limitations of a vulnerability scan. As you know, this is a far less detailed view than penetration scanning. There is also the possibility of false positives, and you may need to manually check the evaluation.
- Highly detailed and thorough
- Greater degree of accuracy
- Targeted and rigorous
- False positives are less likely to occur
- Ideal for larger, more complex systems
Like vulnerability scanning, this option has some drawbacks. For example, because it must be manually conducted by a trained professional, it will usually take far longer to complete than the less comprehensive vulnerability scan. It’s also generally more expensive.
What Is IDS/IPS Penetration and Vulnerability Testing?
The intrusion detection system (IDS) and intrusion prevention system (IPS) are 2 types of cybersecurity tools or systems. They must be configured to meet your particular needs and can be used similarly as security measures — it really just depends on how you set them up, although the responses are a bit different.
An IDS monitors your networks and systems. It will alert you to any suspicious behavior or activity it detects. Meanwhile, an IPS not only identifies attacks that are currently in progress but takes strides to actively prevent them from infiltrating and harming your systems.
Both cybersecurity systems can work in conjunction with tools like firewalls for a strong first-line defense.
How to Perform Penetration Testing and Vulnerability Analysis
Now, let’s look at how you can actually perform penetration testing and a vulnerability analysis toward the larger goal of defending and securing your systems.
Because a vulnerability scan is an automated process, after the script has been created, you need only initiate it. The length of time varies — it could take minutes or hours, even longer.
Once the scan is successfully completed, it will generate a comprehensive report, detailing the specific weaknesses it has identified. Remember that this type of analysis is susceptible to false positives, so you may need to go back and perform some testing manually, depending on the quality of the tools you use. The scanner may also categorize the weaknesses according to the threat level or assign a score to help you prioritize your efforts to resolve them.
Penetration testing, on the other hand, is an involved process that demands more expertise and technologies than the tools used for vulnerability assessment. A person, called an ethical hacker or white-hat hacker, will perform this exhaustive test. Of course, this professional should have a high degree of experience and skills.
The ethical hacker leverages a range of tools to dig into your systems and uncover weaknesses, looking at targeted areas. This type of testing should be performed regularly, usually once or twice per year.
Which Option Should You Choose?
It’s not necessarily an either/or situation — many organizations use a combination of vulnerability and penetration testing services to help secure their systems. However, others may elect to focus on one cybersecurity measure over the other.
With that said, start by taking stock of your current situation and immediate needs. Budding startups, as we have discussed, may not necessarily have an infrastructure that demands thorough penetration testing procedures just yet — although some might. Moreover, given the expense of this comprehensive option, a vulnerability scan could be the better choice.
Meanwhile, larger, established businesses with complex infrastructures and systems might demand the expertise of a white-hat hacker — and therefore be partial to penetration testing.
Either way, it’s important to continue to test periodically to keep your systems secure.
If you don’t have the expertise in-house, there are plenty of vulnerability assessment and penetration testing companies available to outsource the work. Just make sure you have carefully vetted your provider and ensured that they are certified vendors in your technology or tool of choice.