Penetration Testing vs. Vulnerability Assessment: What is the difference?

A business organization constantly worries about deriving the true worth of what it spends while paying for any product or service. While hiring cybersecurity professionals for penetration testing, businesses might fret over this same concern. Will the penetration testing engagement fulfill the purpose it was meant to accomplish? Are you being served the vulnerability assessment platter instead of the main course of penetration testing? How does penetration testing differ from a regular vulnerability assessment? These questions deserve the attention of all forms of business organizations thinking of upgrading their cybersecurity posture.

Do not confuse a vulnerability assessment with a penetration test.

Many see vulnerability assessment and penetration testing as siblings. However, as clients, any business entity looking to undertake a penetration test should abide by the principle of “caveat emptor.” You should stay alert to the possible scams some cybersecurity companies can practice. At times, deceitful service providers might perform a basic vulnerability scan in the name of a pentest. You might end up spending a fortune for some farce form of a penetration test.

Both vulnerability assessments and penetration tests have their own set of objectives that each of them satisfies. Understanding the variances between these two types of cybersecurity evaluation methods can enable organizations to improve their decision-making power regarding which option is better for them. NaviSec experts are here to help business entities view the almost invisible yet significant border of variations between penetration testing and vulnerability assessment. Let’s begin!

Comprehending the contrasts between penetration testing and vulnerability assessment

We shall evaluate the two testing approaches using some critical parameters to gauge their differences.

  • Meaning of each term
    Vulnerability assessment-
    A vulnerability assessment refers to a testing process primarily meant for detecting vulnerabilities in a given system or application. Each system inherently has some weaknesses or vulnerabilities that can act as a source of a security breach. Even when organizations implement robust firewalls, vulnerabilities seep into the app or system. Entities usually undertake vulnerability assessments with the aid of software or network scanning tools. The results obtained from the automated process are listed in a formal report.

    Penetration testing-
    Penetration testing denotes the procedure of discovering vulnerabilities in a network or system and exploiting them with a simulated attack to penetrate further. The pentesting process tends to be much more rigorous than a regular vulnerability assessment. It represents a controlled form of hacking that a tester or an ethical hacker undertakes. Organizations realize the effect that real-world adversaries can forge using the vulnerabilities present in their digital infrastructure after the penetration test. It offers extensive insights regarding the sufficiency of the overall security posture coupled with the areas for improvement.

  • The primary focus of the assessment
    A general vulnerability assessment emphasizes just putting forth as many vulnerabilities as discoverable using automated software. On the flip side, a penetration test goes above and beyond the mere detection of known vulnerabilities. It brings to light both exploitable and unknown weaknesses and also simulates an exploit to mimic the impact of any possible offense from adversaries.

  • Level of professionalism needed
    Since vulnerability assessment is essentially an automated procedure, many entities engage their in-house security teams to conduct the same. Vulnerability assessments do not demand a high-level skill set from the testing team.
    In the case of a penetration testing project, you need a proficient team to perform it successfully. Only a professional can understand the multiple nuances of the cybersecurity domain. Again, it is desirable to have a bias-free evaluation of the prevailing security posture to get an accurate picture of the misconfigurations and the modifications necessary. Thus, one should consider hiring an external penetration testing service provider with the needed agility to manage the pentesting requirements robustly.

  • The extent of automation
    The amount of procedural automation involved in a vulnerability assessment as against a penetration test varies by leaps and bounds. One can rightly say that a vulnerability assessment is automated, while a pentest is a human hacker. It is pretty convenient and practical to conduct vulnerability assessments using some software system that efficiently offers a broader coverage to pinpoint vulnerabilities. While performing penetration testing, the pentesters apply a combination of manual and automated methodologies depending on the client’s needs and the scope of the penetration test. There is considerable brainstorming involved regarding the complex decisions that need to be taken during the different phases of the tests. It is difficult to rely on mere automated processes for a deeper analysis of various vulnerabilities.

  • Coverage offered
    In the tussle between a vulnerability assessment and a penetration test, another factor you should consider is the form of coverage each test offers. Entities need to understand the breadth versus depth factor while using any of these testing approaches. The focal point of vulnerability assessments is regarding laying out a broader net to entrap as many vulnerabilities as possible. They also provide details about which vulnerabilities might be riskier and lead to more damage. In comparison, penetration tests prioritize going into the depth of significant misconfigurations and exposures. It goes beyond unveiling as many of them as possible. Businesses can get a more abstruse update on the durability of their existing data security framework and policies with a penetration test. Each of these coverage approaches is necessary for any organization. It also depends on the objective and need of a given company to determine which testing form shall prove effective.

  • The normal frequency of conducting the test
    Predominantly, business enterprises undertake vulnerability assessments monthly or at least quarterly. Many also recommend performing a vulnerability assessment when they implement a major update to their network or computer system or introduce a new application or equipment all together. Penetration tests are usually a yearly or a half-yearly phenomenon for most organizations. There are regulations like PCI DSS that also dictate the periodicity of holding a vulnerability assessment and a penetration test.

  • Cost involved
    There can be sizeable variations between the outlays involved in a vulnerability assessment and a proper penetration test. Penetration tests demand much more resources and a higher budget than vulnerability assessments. Companies claiming to do a penetration test for $999 to a few thousand dollars will perhaps just perform a simple antivirus scan or a vulnerability assessment in the name of a pentest. The expenditure entailing a penetration test is obviously subjective to factors like the type of test and the complexity involved. The cost of a professional penetration test service from a good service provider begins from $10000- $15000. The high cost associated with conducting a penetration test is justified by the benefits that business entities can reap for their cybersecurity infrastructure using the test.

  • Time taken for completion
    Since vulnerability assessments are automated scans done with software systems, you can expect them to conclude within a short frame of time. Contingent to the intrusiveness of the assessment and the target defined, it takes a few minutes to some hours to complete a vulnerability assessment. In contrast, the penetration test is a time-intensive project. Penetration tests held with cybersecurity experts take about a week to a month to conclude. Due to the profound level of research and evaluation connected to a penetration test, the duration of the test tends to be longer. It would help if you stayed away from companies that claim to conclude a penetration test within a few days. They might not actually be using the required procedure and resources to conduct the test.

Which is better for your organization’s cybersecurity needs?

After going through the points of difference between a vulnerability assessment and a penetration test, many organizations might want to know which of the two tests will float their boat. Each of these security evaluation approaches has its own purpose and usefulness. You do not wish to showcase particular preference to just any one of the two while parting ways with the other completely. Many regulations need the liable companies to perform both vulnerability assessment and penetration testing regularly within the defined intervals.

Client entities must define their cybersecurity necessities and look into the state of their current posture to realize which of the assessments will work the best for them. A vulnerability assessment might suffice if you just want a plain report on the prevailing weaknesses in your data security measures. However, a detailed analysis of the cause and effect of many forms of misconfigurations and the remediation measures needed is best available with penetration testing.

Discover the best course of action for your cybersecurity needs with the penetration testing experts of NaviSec!

At NaviSec, we understand the trouble business entities from diverse industries face while determining the best action to improve their cybersecurity posture. We assess every aspect of your organizational posture to help you carve the ideal path for you. Our authentic penetration testing services can allow you to augment your data protection preparedness efficiently. Consult us now to get top-notch advisory!

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