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The Fine Line Between Penetration And Vulnerability Testing

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By Author: Diya Jones
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People often tend to get confused when it comes to differentiating between vulnerability testing and penetration testing. This is due to the similar objectives of both the testing methodologies in avoiding security breaches in an organization. In fact, people often use these terms incorrectly and interchangeably. As a result, we often overlook the vital elements in the security profile of an organization’s network architecture critical in preventing cybercrime. However, determining the cybersecurity strategies and understanding their implications can be a daunting task. Let us dig deeper to understand the fine line between these two well-known testing strategies.

Vulnerability assessment searches for weaknesses inside the IT architecture of an organization. While a pen test or penetration test tries to proactively exploit the weaknesses in an IT environment. Remember, vulnerability testing can be automated, but penetration testing would require human expertise at several levels. The regular method of evaluating vulnerability in a system would involve scanning of every device and software before their deployment. Also, any modifications to the devices should instantly be followed by a vulnerability scan. The scan would detect problems such as outdated protocols or expired certificates/services. Organizations should keep the baseline reports handy for every key device and must scrutinize any alterations in the newly added services or open ports. A vulnerability scanner such as GFI LANGuard, Retina, Rapid7 and Qualys would notify the network defenders when any unauthorized modifications are done to the IT environment. Integrating modifications that are against change-control reports would help network defenders to determine if the modifications are authorized or there is a malware infection, or an employee has infringed upon the change-control policies.

Penetration testing/pen testing or ethical hacking is different from vulnerability assessment. It is a systemic and proactive method applied by pen testers or ethical hackers to map a simulated attack. It identifies insecure business practices or slack security settings that hackers can easily exploit. Obsolete databases containing valid user details, unencrypted passwords, and reuse of passwords are examples of challenges that can be identified by penetration testing. Penetration tests do not require to be conducted as frequently as vulnerability scans but should be performed on a regular basis to prevent any intrusion.

Which method is ideal for a security testing strategy?

Both the testing methods possess different approaches and functionalities when it comes to security testing. For example, we can say vulnerability testing provides a much wider scope while penetration testing offers a deeper scanning process. Vulnerability assessment encompasses automated scanning that projects a broad scope across the network. Vulnerability testing scrutinizes the systems for security and provides patches for configuration items that could create security threats. However, the assessment does not incorporate the exploitation of vulnerabilities. Frequent evaluations are crucial because they enable organizations to comprehend what their attack surface may look like on a systematic basis. The landscape of vulnerability testing is continuously evolving as new patches are released and new threats discovered.

Penetration testing is a manual method that focuses on determining and exploiting threats within the applications and network. This testing process can assess all facets of the security of an organization including hardware, human interactions, devices, and applications. Pen testing involves identifying the vulnerabilities that hackers can actively exploit. For example, if your business website hosts an online catalog that has very less user engagement, vulnerability testing services would treat that catalog in a manner as if it offers a high level of user engagement. On the other hand, penetration testing would not focus on that particular catalog as it would not lead them to a suspicious activity. Instead, this testing process would fetch information from the catalog and focus on components that hackers can exploit.

The following table elaborates the fundamental distinctions between vulnerability testing and penetration testing:


Penetration testing

Vulnerability testing

Area of Focus

It explores unknown and exploitable inadequacies in any business process.

It lists familiar vulnerabilities that can be exploited

Executed by

It is recommended to engage experts because it needs a great deal of skill

It can be automated, so does not require a high level of expertise

Frequency of testing

Since the equipment which is connected to the internet goes through significant modifications, such a testing is recommended once or twice a year

Whenever a piece of new equipment is loaded or the network experiences specific changes, and then on quarterly basis

Reporting style

Offers a concise report based on what data has been compromised

Generates an exhaustive baseline report based on existing vulnerabilities and modifications since the last report

Are these two methods interrelated?

Of course, both testing methods are related to each other. For example, to commence penetration testing, an exhaustive vulnerability scan is necessary for the testing team to identify and remove any existing vulnerability.

Thus, with a vulnerability scan, one can find out the possible vulnerabilities in a system whereas with penetration testing, one can confirm the extent to which these vulnerabilities can be exploited.

Popular tools used for both types of testing

Vulnerability assessment- Nikto, OpneVAS, Nessus, SAINT

Penetration testing: Core Impact, Qualys and Metasploit

Since pen testing is a manual process, testers can write their own codes as they need.


Penetration testing and vulnerability assessment are two distinct activities that are carried out to make any application safe from cyber threats. While vulnerability testing determines the presence of any possible loopholes, pen test utilizes these to unravel the degree of damage that can impact any business-critical environment. Both types of testing work towards a single goal to avoid security breaches and potential attacks in the organization.

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