Pentesting vs Vulnerability Scanning: What's the Difference?

Pentesting vs vulnerability scanning: two very different ways to test your systems for vulnerabilities.

Do I Need a Penetration Test?

Before we delve into the differences between penetration testing and vulnerability scanning, let's address the question of whether you actually need a penetration test for your business.

If you're serious about your organization's security and want to ensure that your systems are robust enough to withstand real-world attacks, then a penetration test is a must. While vulnerability scanning provides valuable insights, it only scratches the surface of your system's security. On the other hand, a penetration test offers a comprehensive examination by expert analysts, simulating real hacking attempts to identify and exploit weaknesses. This detailed approach can unearth critical vulnerabilities that automated scans might miss.

What is a Vulnerability Scan?

A vulnerability scan, also known as a vulnerability assessment, is an automated, high-level test that searches for potential vulnerabilities in computers, systems, and networks. These scans provide a preliminary overview of possible exploitable weaknesses.

A high-quality vulnerability scan can check for over 50,000 vulnerabilities and is often a requirement for compliance with security standards like PCI DSS, FFIEC, and GLBA mandates. Vulnerability scans can be scheduled to run automatically at regular intervals.

However, it's important to understand that vulnerability scans are a passive approach to vulnerability management. They merely report on detected vulnerabilities, leaving it up to the business owner or IT staff to prioritize and patch weaknesses or verify that a reported vulnerability is a false positive before running the scan again.

Vulnerability Scan Reporting

After completing a vulnerability scan, a detailed report is generated. The report includes an extensive list of vulnerabilities found, along with references for further research and sometimes instructions on how to fix the issues.

Keep in mind that vulnerability scan reports may include false positives, which are threats that are not actual vulnerabilities. Businesses must manually verify each reported vulnerability before retesting.

Benefits of a Vulnerability Scan

Limitations of a Vulnerability Scan

What is a Penetration Test?

A penetration test, also known as pen testing, takes a much deeper and hands-on approach to assess an organization's security posture. Ethical hackers, known as penetration testers, simulate real-world attacks to find and exploit vulnerabilities.

Using methods like password cracking, buffer overflow, and SQL injection, penetration testers attempt to compromise and extract data from a network in a non-damaging way. The goal is to uncover critical vulnerabilities that could be exploited by malicious attackers.

Benefits of a Penetration Test

Limitations of a Penetration Test

Which is Better? A Vulnerability Scan or Penetration Test?

Both vulnerability scanning and penetration testing serve different purposes and can complement each other in an effective security strategy.

Vulnerability scans are ideal for regular, automated checks to get a quick overview of potential weaknesses in your system. They are cost-effective and can be scheduled to run at regular intervals, providing continuous monitoring.

Penetration tests, on the other hand, offer a thorough and detailed examination of your network's security, simulating real-world attacks to find deep-seated vulnerabilities. Though they are more expensive, they provide an invaluable insight into your organization's security posture and are often mandated by compliance standards.

In conclusion, both vulnerability scans and penetration tests are essential tools in ensuring optimal network and application security. Consider using vulnerability scans for regular insights into your network security, and conduct penetration tests periodically to thoroughly examine and secure your system from real-world threats.