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Penetration Testing versus Vulnerability Scanning: How Do They Differ?

Penetration testing or pentesting for short and vulnerability scanning are critical processes that help organizations identify and mitigate security risks. However, the two approaches have some key differences.

The main distinction between pentesting and vulnerability scanning is that the first goes deeper yet is narrower. Pentesters try to exploit specific vulnerabilities within a given scope, while vulnerability scanners intend to identify all issues holistically. Both processes can help understand and ultimately reduce an organization’s attack surface.

With more than 200,000 records of common vulnerabilities and exposures (CVE) and the increasing number of zero-day vulnerabilities, organizations are more protected if they implement both vulnerability scanning and penetration testing programs. 

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Penetration Testing versus Vulnerability Scanning: Which One Do You Need?

Whether you need pentesting or vulnerability scanning more depends on your specific needs and budget. If you are on a tight budget, vulnerability scanning is a good option, as it is usually built into attack surface management (ASM) platforms. However, if you want to thoroughly test certain aspects of your security posture, you can consider pentesting an essential investment too.

To better understand penetration testing versus vulnerability scanning, we defined them below.

What Is Vulnerability Scanning?

Vulnerability scanning refers to the process of extensively identifying weaknesses and flaws in systems and software. Vulnerabilities make up an organization’s attack surface.

Vulnerability scanning is an integral component of ASM. It is usually done using automated vulnerability scanners or ASM platforms. Such tools generate a report that lists the vulnerabilities found, often with more information and possible remediation guidelines. ASM platforms typically also rank bugs according to their severity and potential impact.

What Is Penetration Testing?

Penetration testing or pentesting is a simulated attack on an organization’s computer system to evaluate its security. Its goal is to identify and exploit vulnerabilities that attackers could potentially use to gain unauthorized access to a system or the data stored on it.

Ethical hackers or security professionals with the same skills and knowledge as attackers typically perform pentests. They rely on the same techniques threat actors use but with the system owner’s permission.

Pentesters also use the reports generated by vulnerability scanners or ASM tools to review all the vulnerabilities found in systems and applications.

Penetration Testing versus Vulnerability Scanning: Distinct Differences

The two processes differ in several ways, although they share an overarching goal—to help protect an organization from breaches and sensitive data exposure. Below are some areas where penetration testing versus vulnerability scanning diverge.

Penetration Testing versus Vulnerability Scanning
  • Scope: Penetration testing is more technical since it includes manual testing and vulnerability exploitation. It intends to see how far into a target system attackers can penetrate. Given its deeper nature, penetration testing is often limited to a specific set of identified vulnerabilities. On the other hand, vulnerability scanning is mostly restricted to identifying vulnerabilities, though at a more extended scope.
  • Methodology: Vulnerability scanning is usually automated, while penetration testing combines automated and manual processes to simulate real-world attacks.
  • Cost: Though it may vary depending on the scope of analysis and the number of assets analyzed, vulnerability scanning is generally less expensive since it can be automated using ASM platforms and other tools. However, penetration testing requires the expertise of skilled pentesters and is time-consuming, which makes it more costly.
  • Frequency: Vulnerability scanning can be done continuously since it is typically automated. Pentesting is often done at least once a year or more frequently by medium-sized and large organizations.

While penetration testing and vulnerability scanning have differences, both are essential components of any effective cybersecurity program. They help bring to light potential attack vectors, enabling security teams to reduce their attack surfaces, minimize threat exposure, and reduce the risk of data breaches and other security incidents.

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