Vulnerability Scanning vs. Penetration Testing

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Vulnerability scanning and penetration testing are both vital to your network and application security. They are often confused about the same service, and many business owners purchase one when they really need the other. A vulnerability scan is an automated, high-level test that checks for known vulnerabilities and generates a report on risk exposure. A penetration test is a detailed, hands-on examination of the network to detect and exploit weaknesses in your system. Both services are needed in cyber risk analysis and are required by standards such as PCI, HIPAA, ISO 27001, and more. 

Vulnerability Scanning

A vulnerability scan identifies potential vulnerabilities in network devices such as firewalls, routers, switches, servers, and applications. Scanning your network may impact system performance and cause bandwidth issues, so it’s recommended that vulnerability scans be conducted outside of normal business hours. A vulnerability scan can be done manually or run on a scheduled basis, and it can take anywhere from several minutes to several hours.

Vulnerability scanning focuses solely on finding vulnerabilities on a network or application level — it does not exploit them. Therefore, they are not built to find zero-day exploits. It’s up to the business owner or their IT staff to patch weaknesses based on priority or determine that a detected vulnerability is a false positive, then rerun the scan. 

Penetration Testing

A penetration test identifies and tests entry points within an organization’s security environment to exploit weaknesses and vulnerabilities. The test is performed by a team of penetration testers, or ethical hackers, and requires the use of several specialized tools. A pentest is usually carried out as a simulated cyber attack to determine how easy it would be for real-world cybercriminals to hack into the organization’s internal network. 

Compared to a vulnerability scan, it’s a more effective way to expose and manage your overall cyber security risk. Pen testing relies on the knowledge and expertise of highly skilled individuals, so it can be costly. Testers often exploit a new vulnerability or locate vulnerabilities that are not known to normal business processes. A pen test can take anywhere from days to a few weeks and should be conducted at least once a year. 

Key Differences Between A Vulnerability Scan & Pen Testing

While vulnerability scanning and penetration testing sound similar in scope, there are a few key differences. It’s important to understand the purpose and outcome of each service as it relates to your company’s security.  

Manual vs. Automatic Testing

A vulnerability scan relies on security scanning tools, making it a completely automated assessment. Pen testing uses a combination of automated tools and manual testing from expert testers to find the exploits. 

Exploiting Vulnerabilities

The goal of a vulnerability scan is to discover vulnerabilities, not to exploit them. With pen testing, any found vulnerabilities are exploited to assess the strength of your security posture. Due to the detailed nature of penetration testing, it’s likely that testers may find a zero-day exploit in the process. 

Detective vs. Protective Controls

A vulnerability scan is a detective control, meaning the priority is to detect problems. Conversely, pen testing is a protective control, and the priority is to use the findings from the test to prevent weaknesses from being exploited in the future. 

Cost of Service

The cost of a vulnerability scan is low to moderate since it only involves the use of tools. Pen testing comes with a high price tag since organizations typically hire an external team to perform the test and report findings. 

Enhance Your Network Security with Mindcore

Mindcore provides businesses of all sizes in New Jersey and Florida with a wide variety of cyber security services, including vulnerability scanning and penetration testing. If you’re looking to boost your organization’s network security, we’re here to help. Our team will work closely with you to create a strategy tailored to your unique needs and goals. Contact us to schedule a consultation today!

Learn More About Matt

Matt Rosenthal is a technology and business strategist as well as the President of Mindcore, the leading IT solutions provider in New Jersey. Mindcore offers a broad portfolio of IT services and solutions tailored to help businesses take back control of their technology, streamline their business and outperform their competition.

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