Penetration testing

What is the Difference Between Penetration Testing and Vulnerability Assessment?

Fakhar Imam
August 1, 2018 by
Fakhar Imam

There is a substantial amount of confusion in the IT industry with regard to the difference between Penetration Testing and Vulnerability Assessment, as the two terms are incorrectly used interchangeably. However, defining these information security strategies and understanding their implications is a daunting task. Penetration testing, also known as ethical hacking or pen testing, is the proactive and systematic approach used by ethical hackers or pen testers to scale a simulated cyber attack in the face of corporate IT infrastructure to safely check for exploitable vulnerabilities. These vulnerabilities may exist in the systems, services, applications, misconfigurations, and/or precarious end user's behavior.

On the other hand, a vulnerability assessment is used to find and measure the severity of vulnerabilities within the system in question. It provides a list of vulnerabilities that are often prioritized by severity and/or business criticality. Unlike penetration testing, a vulnerability assessment merely finds and reports noted vulnerabilities. It involves the comprehensive and thorough evaluation of security defenses designed to discover weaknesses and recommends appropriate remediation to reduce or remove risk altogether.

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In this article, you will learn the differences between penetration testing and vulnerability assessment in greater details. In fact, both terms are integral components of a threat and vulnerability management program.

Method #1 – Penetration Testing

Unlike a vulnerability assessment, which is a list-oriented, penetration testing is generally a goal-oriented exercise. Penetration testing has no business with discovering vulnerabilities and is rather more concentrated on the simulated attack to test security posture and identify porous holes that a real hacker could exploit to penetrate your corporate network.

Penetration testing typically is more useful when an organization’s maturity level of security is high—meaning that this organization has a strong security posture but needs to check whether or not it is hack-proof. Thus, pen testing is more appropriate in the situations where the vulnerability coverage approach—namely, depth over breadth – is preferred.

Method #2 – Vulnerability Assessment

On the other hand, a vulnerability assessment is more appropriate were a vulnerability coverage approach— in this case, breadth over depth – is preferred. In this scenario, the maturity level of organizations is from medium to high and security professionals aim to uncover as many security weaknesses as possible. The purpose of a vulnerability assessment is to enhance the security posture of organizations, rather than test it. This approach merely provides the list of vulnerabilities, rather than evaluating particular attack goals. To further elaborate, a vulnerability assessment allocates a significant and quantifiable value to available resources, whereas a penetration testing aims to glean targeted information or/and inspect the system in question.

A vulnerability assessment attempts to eliminate or mitigate potential vulnerabilities, whereas a pen testing cleans up a system and provides the final report. Another difference between the two is the degree of automation; while a vulnerability assessment can be automated, pen testing is a combination of both manual and automated techniques and based on instinct and problem-solving.

Another important difference between penetration testing and vulnerability assessment is the choice of professionals. Since a vulnerability assessment only involves automated testing, you do not need to hire highly skilled professionals. Instead, your in-house security staff can perform this task. However, in some cases, you may need third-party vulnerability assessment vendors because some advanced level of vulnerabilities may not be found by your company’s security personnel. On the other hand, pen testing requires a high level of expertise, as it’s a manually intensive process. Therefore, you should outsource a pen testing method to a pen testing service provider.

A report in the aftermath of a penetration testing includes a ‘call to action’ document that further encompass exploitable vulnerabilities. The accuracy level is high in this scenario. On the other hand, a vulnerability assessment provides a comprehensive list of all possible vulnerabilities that may incorporate false positives. Therefore, the accuracy level is low in this scenario.

Another difference between these two information security services is their abilities to control threats. A vulnerability assessment provides a detective control that is applied to detect vulnerabilities when the equipment is compromised. Pen testing, on the other hand, gives a preventative control that is utilized to reduce exposures.

The cost factor is also essential between these two security strategies. The cost of vulnerability assessment is from low to moderate, as your in-house security members can perform this task. A pen testing approach, on the other hand, will likely involve a high cost due to the involvement of outsourced pen testing service vendors.

In terms of time, a vulnerability assessment is a one-step process; the only goal is to find vulnerabilities. In the case of pen testing, it is a two-step process. The first step involves finding the vulnerabilities, while the second step includes exploiting these vulnerabilities. Normally, a vulnerability assessment forms the first part of the pen testing process (detecting/finding vulnerabilities). The second step is to exploit any detected vulnerabilities and to discover the potential damage that may result in by virtue of vulnerabilities being exploited and their impact on the enterprise.

Limitations of Penetration Testing vs. Vulnerability Assessment

Though both information security services are crucial to ensure the security of your corporate network infrastructure, yet they have several limitations. The following section lists these limitations in detail.

Limitation of Pen testing:

  • Cannot discover server-side vulnerabilities
  • Cannot give information regarding new vulnerabilities
  • May not discover obvious vulnerabilities
  • Uncovers only those vulnerabilities that pose threats

Limitation of Vulnerability Assessment:

  • Cannot exploit flaws
  • Is a hybrid solution
  • Cannot discover potential access path
  • Provides false positives

Conclusion - The Way Forward

Though there is a considerable amount of difference between penetration testing and vulnerability assessment, both information security strategies are indispensable for organizations’ security posture, especially for threat and vulnerability management programs. These security strategies should be performed periodically to enhance security defenses of enterprises in the face of notorious cyber-attacks. The core feature of a pen testing project should be a targeted and technical report that focuses on uncovering the path of attackers, documenting vulnerabilities, and providing enterprises with remediation activities to prevent like-minded future attacks. On the other hand, the core deliverables of a vulnerability assessment should be a technical report that includes a list of discovered vulnerabilities, their risk-ranking, and a set remediation activities. For the non-technical audience, the report should be accompanied by the executive summary for translating results of the test into the business objectives.



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Fakhar Imam
Fakhar Imam

Fakhar Imam is a professional writer with a master’s program in Masters of Sciences in Information Technology (MIT). To date, he has produced articles on a variety of topics including on Computer Forensics, CISSP, and on various other IT related tasks.