What is the difference between a Penetration Test and a Vulnerability Scan?
Understanding the difference between a penetration test and a vulnerability scan is critical to understanding security posture and managing risk. Vulnerability scans and Penetration tests (pen test for short) are very different from each other in both process and outcome. However, sometimes the terms are incorrectly used interchangeably. In this article, we will explore the differences between the two as well as how they relate to each other.
Starting with the definitions of each you can see an immediate differentiator, the objective.
The objective of a vulnerability scan is to identify, rank, and report vulnerabilities or potential vulnerabilities that, if exploited, may result in system compromise. The objective of a penetration test is to discover and exploit existing exposures that could allow access to sensitive information or resources. Where the vulnerability scan is looking for open doors the pen test is entering those open doors.
Another major difference between the two is in the process and cost. Penetration testing requires the use of multiple tools and an experienced, certified security professional to conduct and monitor the test. During her/his engagement, the pen tester will generate scripts, change parameters of the attack and change settings on the tools being used. A very hands-on process.
On the other hand, a vulnerability scan is an automated process that does not require real-time management. The scan is automated and generally conducted using a single tool. Vulnerability scans can be scheduled to run automatically without manual intervention or manipulation. It does, however, require specific knowledge of the products/systems and the environment being scanned.
Additionally, there is a difference in scope. Depending on the requirement, a pen test will target high-value assets and the associated targets. This includes data assets and business functions. Vulnerability scans are generally enterprise-wide and touch servers, routers, firewalls, switches, and applications.
Even though a pen test is usually targeted/scoped for a single subject it requires more time to complete. In comparison, vulnerability scans take a short period of time. Depending on the size of the project a vulnerability scan can finish in hours compared to a pen test which can take days or even weeks.
There are various reasons for an organization to conduct pen tests and/or vulnerability tests. Satisfying compliance standards, defining a security posture, determining the effectiveness of security controls or testing an incident response program are among these reasons. Even though they are accomplished using different toolsets and processes, both pen tests and vulnerability scans serve important functions for protecting your environment and reducing risk.
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