Penetration Testing vs Vulnerability scanning. What is the main difference between Vulnerability Scanning and Penetration Testing?

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A/c to Gartner, the security market will reach $170.4 billion by 2022. In the last 3 years, hacking activities have increased exponentially. This is the reason why ethical hackers and pen testers are in so much demand these days.

There can be a new set of potential vulnerabilities every day that might already exist in your system, so it is important to stay up to date. You can find all the known vulnerabilities so far in the National Institute of Standards and Technology Vulnerability Database. You will get all the vulnerability details at  https://nvd.nist.gov/. As networking and security professionals, you need to find the weak links by regularly performing vulnerability scans. There is a lot of confusion between penetration testing and vulnerability scanning because they both kinds of do similar things, but they are also both very different.

In this article, today I will explain the differences,  penetration testing vs vulnerability scanning. 

 

What is Vulnerability Scanning?

Vulnerability scanning is the process of finding weaknesses in the system without performing any exploits on the system. For example, you can run a port scan to check which services are open on a particular server and find the version of the services which are running. To gather such information, you don’t need to run exploits on the system or get inside the system. Vulnerability scanning can be performed from outside the networks, or you can also run your own scans from inside the network.

The output of a vulnerability scan is a large amount of information. Few details generated by a vulnerability scan can be useful, few can be of very low priority, and some information can be of very high priority or critical in nature. The idea is to gather as much information as possible from the scan and once the scan is complete, sort the information details according to their priority. Today, there are plenty of vulnerability scanners available which will help identify weaknesses in your system/application. Nikto and Nmap are the most popular vulnerability scanning tools currently. They have plenty of techniques to gather server, network, application information.

On the Vulnerability scan finishes, it generates an automated report. This report helps you in giving the starting point to make your system more secure. This report will give you information such as your firewall is not running, or your antivirus is out of date, a drive on your system is open to all, and anyone can access it, etc. It will give the details of real vulnerabilities that exist on the operating system, which needs to be patched.

Vulnerability Scanning benefits:

  • Helps to keep the system/application more secure and in control
  • Can be automated and repeatedly run as defined by you
  • The learning curve is not high to learn to perform vulnerability scanning
  • Saves time and cost in the long run 
  • Identifies vulnerabilities before hackers do

 

What is Penetration Testing?

Penetration testing, in simple terms, is the art of finding vulnerabilities and digging deep to find out how much a target can be compromised in case of a legitimate attack. The primary purpose of penetration testing is to identify any weak spots or vulnerabilities in the system’s defences which attackers could take advantage of. Apart from this, the other reasons for penetration testing include measuring the compliance of organization security policy, tests the staff’s awareness of security issues, and determine whether and how the organization would respond to security disasters.

Penetration testing is mainly broken down into five phases. A penetration tester usually begins by gathering as much information about the target as possible, then he/she identifies the possible vulnerabilities in the system by scanning, after which he/she launches an attack, post the attack he/she analyses each vulnerability and the risk involved, finally, a detailed report is submitted to higher authorities summarizing the results of a pen test which was conducted.

The third phase is the execution phase, where the crucial step has to be performed with due care. This is the step where actual damage is done. It requires special skills and techniques to launch an attack on the targeted system. Using few techniques, an attacker will try to get data and compromise the system or launch a DDoS attack to check to what extent the computer system or an application, or the network can be compromised in a legitimate attack. So basically, this is the phase where an actual attack is being made.

Penetration testing of a system is the ultimate test of security. It is good to try breaking the security of your system by yourself or a third party you know, instead of hackers breaking your security system. Metasploit and Wireshark are the two most popular tools used for penetration testing.

Penetration Testing benefits:

  • Help you find weaknesses/vulnerabilities in your system/application
  • Matures the security of your organization’s environment
  • Prevent hackers from breaching the system
  • Helps you save cost and a lot of other losses due to data breaches
  • Addresses the compliance with Industry Standards and Regulation

Penetration testing vs Vulnerability scanning: Key Differences

Purpose

Vulnerability scanning is done to find vulnerabilities in the system, which hackers can use to gain access to the system. It generates a report which has all the details of the vulnerabilities found.

Penetration testing is a simulated attack (like a real hacker) to understand if the vulnerabilities found can be exploited to really get access to a company’s system. This is performed to uncover the weaknesses in the system.

Machine vs Human

Vulnerability scanning is done using an automated tool that has automated scripts in it to find the vulnerabilities in your system/application. It gives you a report of the vulnerabilities that might be there after the scan has been completed.

Penetration testing is done by a human (White Hat Hacker or Ethical Hacker), where a person (pen tester) acts as a hacker and tries to exploit the vulnerabilities found in the system/application to get its access or compromise it. The report of vulnerability scanning is an input for a pen tester.

Time Period

Vulnerability scanning is done frequently. Few organizations do it every week, but as per regulation standards, quarterly is sufficient. Also, it is done after any new installation of hardware or software in an organization’s environment.

Penetration testing is not done frequently. It is not that easy also to hack into a company’s system. Penetration testing should be done every 6 months, or at least once a year.

Tools Used

Nikto, OpenVAS, Nmap, Intruder, Aircrack are few popular vulnerability scanning tools.

Although penetration testing is done by an ethical hacker, but they also use multiple tools. Wireshark, Metasploit, Burp Suite, Netsparker, Kali Linux, Cain & Abel are few popular penetration testing tools.

Cost

Performing vulnerability scanning is not very costly. It also depends on the scope of the scan. It will cost you a few hundred of dollars.

Doing penetration testing is costly. It can cost multiple thousands of dollars if the scope is big. The cost of experts performing penetration testing and the tools used is high.

Learning Curve

To perform a vulnerability scan is very easy. Almost all the work is done by an automated tool. To understand the report, you need to have some basic understanding of security.

Penetration testing is done only by experts. It is not an easy task to find ways to break a system and get inside it. This requires a few years of expertise in the cybersecurity domain.

 

Which one should I choose?

When it comes to making your organization’s system very secure, both Vulnerability Scanning and Penetrating Testing play a very important role. Both are very helpful for securing the network and application of the organization. Also, if you are performing penetration testing, you need to first do vulnerability scanning to find the weaknesses in the system.

Certain laws and industry standards like PCI DSS, HIPAA, GLBA/FFIEC, and U.S. Federal Security ask the organizations to perform both on a regular basis. 

Here is a table of differences between Vulnerability Scanning and Penetration Testing:

 

Criteria Vulnerability Scanning Penetration Testing
Objective To find the vulnerabilities To exploit the vulnerabilities to compromise the system
Execution Automatic Manual
Performed By Combination of automated tools White Hat Hacker / Ethical Hacker
Exploitation Cannot perform Can perform
Cost Not Costly, few hundreds of dollars Expensive, can cost thousands of dollars
Frequency At least every quarter Once every year
Duration It finishes in minutes It takes days to finish
Reports Automated reports by the tool. Can report false positives also Automated reports by the tool, which is verified by the pen tester to reduce the false positives

 

Conclusion 

That was all about Vulnerability Scanning and Penetration testing and their differences. Vulnerability Scanning just performs scanning, not exploitation, whereas penetration testing exploits the vulnerabilities. If you are a beginner, you need to learn about vulnerability scanning first and penetration testing. If you are a part of the cybersecurity domain, these two things are very important to keep your organization’s system secure.

 

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