Within the realm of cybersecurity, there are a multitude of steps your organization can take to help better secure your infrastructure, network, and applications. While it might sound easy to go with an out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach, a particularly important component of a strong security posture involves digging to uncover weaknesses before they become a real security incident. Oftentimes discerning what these various tests, scans, and reports are in the first place can leave one confusingly scratching their head, let alone recognizing which option might be best suited for your business. Two of the more common techniques that often get lumped together are penetration testing and vulnerability scanning, but while there can be some overlap, it’s important to distinguish and understand the differences between the two.
Both penetration testing and vulnerability scanning can be beneficial to an organization in their own way. Depending on a multitude of factors and circumstances, one might be chosen over the other, i.e. if there are budget limitations, or perhaps one is required by a standard, regulation, or contractual agreement. While on their own both options carry great value, the strongest results come from a combination of the two as both methodologies complement each other to form a comprehensive approach. To briefly define, vulnerability scanning is a process that uses automated tools to search for and identify known vulnerabilities across an organization’s devices, systems, and networks. Penetration testing, often referred to as ethical hacking, takes a more manual approach by attempting to actively exploit any weaknesses that exist, in order to simulate what damage could be done by a real attacker.
Aside from the core definition, there are benefits and comparisons between the two that are important to discuss when you are considering implementing either or both options. When a vulnerability scan is completed, the results are generated into a report that identifies, categorizes, and scores each found vulnerability. Since there is no attempt to actively exploit, the purpose here is primarily informative. It requires manual analysis to sift through the false positives and carry out the remediation steps to mitigate the risks associated with the findings, prioritizing the most critical findings first. Vulnerability scans are performed more frequently than penetration tests (ideally quarterly) and are useful to compare to previous scans to monitor progress. Due to their more lightweight nature, vulnerability scans are much quicker and cost-friendly than penetration tests.
By contrast, as the goal of a penetration test is to think like the “bad guys”, they are significantly more detailed and thus require substantially more time and effort. Because of the thorough and in-depth nature, a penetration test takes days to weeks to complete. Naturally, the cost associated with a penetration test is higher than a vulnerability scan, but it’s worth noting that a retest is frequently included in the cost. Additionally, they do not need to be conducted as frequently as vulnerability scanning; annually is the most common interval.
Pages could be written diving into the details of each, but the aim here is to give you a short synopsis and explanation of these often confused terms, and hopefully by doing so allow you to have a better understanding of the real world applications of each. Each carries its own value, but the best approach combines the advantages of both to take your company’s security strategy to the next level.
Here at CyberData Pros, our team is proud to offer these services to our clients, and we encourage you to contact us to discuss how vulnerability scanning and penetration testing can help your ability to strengthen your company’s security. The best defense is a good offense.