Vulnerability Assessments versus Penetration Testing

In the realm of IT security, penetration testing and vulnerability assessments are two ways to ensure that malicious cybercriminals will not hack into your systems. But what’s the difference between these two security techniques?

Which one should you use? We’ll cover the answers to these questions and more in this article.

What are Security Vulnerability Assessments?

A vulnerability assessment is a passive activity; it scans and probes computer systems, networks, and applications for known vulnerabilities to identify security weaknesses. It is a verification exercise designed to ensure that your systems are not compromised.

The vulnerability assessment results will be a prioritized list of security issues, with specific suggestions on how they can be remediated. It is also often used as an initial step before performing a penetration test. Then, testers actively attack these vulnerabilities to gain access to your system or sensitive data.

As a result, vulnerability assessments are typically limited in scope and rely on automated tools that perform broad sweeps; they tend to lack depth and accuracy compared to more hands-on approaches like penetration testing.

What Are Penetration Tests?

A penetration test (aka pentest) is a way to assess your network security comprehensively. The purpose of a pentest is to find potential threats and flaws in your system so that you can fix them before an intruder takes advantage of them.

It is typically done by an independent third party who attempts to exploit vulnerabilities on your system without prior knowledge or permission. Pen tests will attempt all known exploits that have been seen or researched from current events and social engineering tactics used against companies in past hacks.

Once an organization has completed the assessment, it should provide enough detail for management to prioritize remediation items based upon their risk rating.

Timeframe and Cost

Both vulnerability and penetration tests are time-consuming and costly processes, but there are some crucial differences between them.

The most obvious difference is that a vulnerability assessment only takes place once. In contrast, a penetration test involves at least two tests: one to locate all flaws in a company’s system, followed by a second check to determine whether any of those flaws have been fixed.

Why Choose One Over the Other?

Before deciding to go through either a vulnerability assessment or penetration test, it’s best to research both and look at your budget. The terms vulnerability assessment and penetration testing are sometimes used interchangeably, but they’re not identical.

Vulnerability assessments and penetration tests are essentially two sides of a similar coin: one involves proactive measures and reactive steps.

That said, we can generalize their functions into four steps in conjunction with each other. In both cases, organizations perform these steps:

  1. identify vulnerabilities
  2. determine appropriate security controls
  3. assess and report vulnerabilities, and
  4. prioritize needed fixes

Do I Need Both for My Business?

Many businesses confuse vulnerability assessments and penetration testing with one another, even though they’re two very different services. To determine whether you need both for your business, it’s best to break down what each does and its purpose.

The consensus is that penetration testing is more comprehensive than a vulnerability assessment; after all, penetration testing drills deep into networks to discover security holes and then allows you to take measures to patch them before an attacker can use them against you.

If you want to discuss this further, feel free to reach out to us and we can help you see what makes sense for your organization. Along with these services, you may want to consider our VCISO services to help you ensure the proper posture, policies and procedures are in place for your organization now and in the future.