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  • Bryan Cowing

Penetration Testing vs. Vulnerability Scanning- What's the Difference?

Penetration testing and vulnerability scanning are extremely important when trying to maintain a secure network environment. Many companies are often misinformed about the differences between penetration tests and vulnerability assessments, and when their organization should conduct them. Both services are important in different ways, necessary in cyber-security risk analysis and are required by several different security standards such as PCI, HIPPA, ISO 27001. With cyber attacks growing in complexity and sophistication every day, it is important to be aware of these differences and to know how and when to conduct these assessments.

What is a Penetration Test?


A penetration test, AKA a “pentest”, is a process where a certified ethical hacker manually conducts an assessment on an organization’s network infrastructure. The goal of a pentest is for an ethical hacker to simulate the actions of a malicious entity and gain unauthorized access through the exploitation of system vulnerabilities.

Pentests are most often broken down into 5 phases. Reconnaissance, Scanning and Enumeration, Exploitation, Post-exploitation and Covering tracks. Each phase of a pentest is documented thoroughly throughout the testing process. Depending on the scope of the assessment, the time it takes to complete each phase varies. On average it takes between 1-3 weeks to fully complete a penetration test and deliver the results.

When deciding on how often to perform a pentest, you should consider your organization’s risk to cyber-attacks, how often changes are made to critical infrastructure and any compliance requirements that qualify your organization to operate legally. Most security professionals recommend that organizations perform one or two pentests annually.

What is Vulnerability Scanning (Assessment)?

Vulnerability scanning, also known as vulnerability assessment, is the process of identifying vulnerabilities and threats in your organization’s network environment through the means of automated vulnerability scanners. The goal of vulnerability scanning is to identify, categorize and track all vulnerabilities found on your network.

Most vulnerability scanners discover and categorize vulnerabilities based on severity. Typically, those severities are Critical, High, Medium, Low and Informational. This allows your organization to easily prioritize remediation efforts to the vulnerabilities with the highest risk for exploitation.

To comply with most security standards, organizations must conduct vulnerability scans on a quarterly basis. However, most security professionals recommend scanning be performed on a monthly basis for any newly added or business critical assets. Depending on the size of your organization and the number of assets in your infrastructure, vulnerability scans can take anywhere from less than an hour to several hours to complete.

What is the difference?

Vulnerability scans differ from a pentest in that they only discover known vulnerabilities. Vulnerability scans give organizations a list of all vulnerabilities that have been found to possibly exist on their network. During a penetration test, the ethical hacker will conduct one or more vulnerability scans against the target network. Using this list of possible vulnerabilities, they will attempt to exploit each to verify its existence.

Reports from both vulnerability scanning and penetration testing typically follow the same structure. Findings will be ranked from Critical to Informational. However, Penetration Test findings should be considered higher priority to organizations due to the vulnerability’s existence having been verified.

Before starting the process of setting up vulnerability scanning or hiring a penetration testing team, it is essential to understand the differences between a pentest and vulnerability assessment. Vulnerability scanning identifies basic system weaknesses, while pentests assess those weakness and identify the likelihood of a successful attack. Certain laws and industry standards often require both be conducted on a regular basis. Understanding the differences and advantages of both services substantially increases your organization’s security posture.

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