Penetration Testing vs. Vulnerability Scanning

Businesses are often confused about the best way to secure their systems from hackers. With the number of cybercrimes soaring day by day, you can’t afford to have your IT structures exploited by threat actors. Cyberattacks can hamper your profit margins and tarnish your brand image. In some cases, you can even end up in costly litigation.. 

Fortunately, there are ways to identify weaknesses and enhance your system security with different types of penetration testing and vulnerability scannings. Still, although they’re similar processes, they aren’t interchangeable.

So, what is the difference between penetration testing and vulnerability scanning? And which one is suitable for your organization? Keep reading to find out.


What is a Vulnerability Scanning?

A vulnerability scanning or vulnerability scanning is typically an automated high-level test used to identify potential vulnerabilities in a system. Companies get it done to look for security loopholes in computers or networks, both internally and externally. 

The major differences between vulnerability scanning and penetration testing include the frequency and usage of tools. An automatic vulnerability test can spot as many as 50,000 weaknesses. It can take anywhere between a few minutes to several hours to complete this test for an organization.

A vulnerability scanning vs. penetration testing is a more passive approach that doesn’t go beyond identifying and reporting vulnerabilities. Still, regular vulnerability scanning ranks and reports vulnerabilities, giving you a clear picture of what to prioritize. 

Vulnerability Scanning and PCI DSS Compliance

PCI DSS stands for Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard. It’s a set of security standards enforced to ensure that all companies accepting, processing, storing, or transmitting credit card information have a secured network. This is to mitigate the chances of cybercrimes.

Any company subjected to PCI DSS is mandated to run vulnerability scans every quarter and after any crucial changes to their network. Also, they have to run a rescan within 30 days if the first one fails. 

A qualified technician or Managed Security Service Provider (MSSP) typically reviews and confirms an internal vulnerability scanning. However, an Approved Scanning Vendor (ASV) must conduct external scanning for PCI DSS compliance.

Benefits of Vulnerability Scanning

To compare penetration testing vs. vulnerability scanning, you should know their respective set of benefits. Here are some valuable points of the latter:

  • Quick and high-level scanning
  • Inexpensive
  • Automatic (weekly, monthly, quarterly, etc.)

Risks of Vulnerability Scanning

Similarly, here are some limitation points that’ll make it easier for you to choose between a vulnerability scanning vs. a penetration test:

  • False positives
  • Manual checking required before retesting
  • No confirmation on whether reported weaknesses are exploitable

What is Penetration Testing?

In penetration testing, ethical hackers simulate an attack just like a black-hat hacker to expose all vulnerabilities. They conduct penetration testing step by step to detect and exploit weaknesses using various methods, techniques, and tools. 

Essentially, the goal of penetration testing is to check how deep a hacker can get into your system and cause harm, determining your company’s risk level.

Penetration testing usually involves checking application protocol interfaces (APIs), front-end servers, and back-end servers. The insights gained from internal and external pen testing help fine-tune web application firewall (WAF) and other vital security systems.

In the end, penetration testers submit a detailed report sharing the steps and approach of a test. They also recommend remedial actions to patch weaknesses and strengthen security systems. 

Typically there are five stages of penetration testing. The last stage, i.e., retesting, is an evaluation done after 2-3 months to test whether vulnerabilities have been adequately addressed.

Penetration Testing and PCI DSS Compliance

To obtain PCI DSS compliance, companies must perform a penetration test bi-annually and after a major change in their system. 

Most businesses prefer scheduling pentesting outside of office hours to avoid disruption of operations. However, at times, they intentionally schedule it during office hours to determine the staff’s attentiveness and preparedness.

Benefits of Penetration Testing

These top benefits will help you choose what’s right between a pen test vs. vulnerability test for your business model:

  • No false positives
  • Identifies cumulative vulnerabilities
  • Provides actionable improvement steps

Risks of Penetration Testing

Like with anything, it’s always wise to consider the risks and benefits of penetration testing before coming to a conclusion. Here are some limitations or risks of pen testing:

  • Can cause infrastructure damage if done incorrectly
  • Can take up to three weeks
  • Can be costly

Penetration Testing vs. Vulnerability Scanning

Both approaches are crucial to a comprehensive security testing strategy for businesses reliant on infotech. Let’s evaluate vulnerability scanning vs. penetration testing based on scope, risk and asset criticality, and cost and time.

Scope: Vulnerability Scanning vs. Penetration Testing

Involvement of a human factor is a must in a penetration test as it’s not entirely automatic. Various penetration testing tools help in simplifying a few steps. On the other hand, vulnerability scanning is automated, but it doesn’t attempt an actual attack. 

The scope of vulnerability scanning is wider as it can manage more assets. It’s run by professionals who know how to handle situations emerging from automated notifications and false alarms. 

However, vulnerability scanning is limited to identifying and reporting weaknesses. Unlike pen testing, it doesn’t provide an in-depth analysis and remedial recommendations based on an actual (simulated) cyberattack. 

Moreover, pen-testing vs. vulnerability scanning is much more specific, where particular elements can be targeted and tested. 

Risk and Asset Criticality: Penetration Tests vs. Vulnerability Scans 

The number of assets involved in a penetration test is lesser than vulnerability scanning. Although businesses can apply pen testing to an entire IT infrastructure, it isn’t practical due to the high cost and time. 

Whereas vulnerability scanning can be done for any number of assets, and that’s why it can detect more vulnerabilities.

Cost and Time: Vulnerability Scanning vs. Penetration Testing

You already know that a penetration test is dependent on a human expert; thus, it’s costly. It can take from days to a few weeks and is recommended at least once a year. 

On the other side, vulnerability scanning is automatic, hence significantly cheaper. 

Since its scope of application is wider, it takes more time to find vulnerabilities. This is why an organization might conduct a pen test instead of a vulnerability scanning.


Which One to Choose for Your Organization?

So, which approach wins between vulnerability scanning vs. penetration testing? Vulnerability scans can be done more frequently, while pen tests are thorough examinations, which can disrupt operations and can’t be performed as often.

Pen testing is an expensive and time-consuming method, but you get to know how an actual attacker can exploit your system. Meanwhile, vulnerability scanning are cheaper and give you a much quicker idea of system weaknesses, but they aren’t as in-depth. 

You can choose the right option between vulnerability scanning vs. penetration testing depending on your business model, budget, and expectations.


Final Thoughts

Vulnerability scannings are automated tests done to spot vulnerabilities in any number of assets in a system. It’s inexpensive but isn’t as detailed as pen testing.. As per PCI DSS, compliant companies are required to run it at least once in a quarter and after any crucial changes to their network.

Penetration testing involves attacking a system like a hacker to know all systems’ weaknesses. It’s done by a human being and is therefore more expensive. It should be done at least bi-annually for PCI DSS compliance. The goals of a penetration test are more precise and result-oriented.

Ultimately, though, you should include both vulnerability scanning and penetration testing into your security strategy for optimal protection against cyberattacks.

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