Which Is More Important: Vulnerability Scans Or Penetration Tests?

By Dan Baker, SecureTeam

Vulnerability scanning and penetration tests are two very different ways to test your system for any vulnerabilities. Despite this, they are often confused as the same service, which leads to business owners purchasing one service when they are really in need of the other. 

In an effort to help these business owners tell the difference between the two services and understand which is best suited to their needs, SecureTeam, a cybersecurity consultancy, has written this guide to explain vulnerability scans vs. penetration testing. 

In a brief summary, a vulnerability scan is an automated, high-level test that looks for and reports potential vulnerabilities in your system. A penetration test, on the other hand, is a detailed hands-on examination by a cybersecurity professional that tries to detect and exploit weaknesses in your system. Now, let’s look a little deeper at the two services. 

What Is A Vulnerability Scan?

Vulnerability scans can also be known as vulnerability assessments and are a scan performed by cybersecurity professionals that assess your systems, networks, and computers for any cybersecurity weaknesses or vulnerabilities. 

Once they have been set up vulnerability scans are typically automated and are used to give a beginning look at any weaknesses in your system that could be exploited. High-quality vulnerability scans can search for over 50,000 vulnerabilities. 

Vulnerability scans can be started manually or can be run on a regularly scheduled basis. In addition, vulnerability scans can take anywhere from a few minutes to several hours. 

Vulnerability scans are a passive approach to cybersecurity and only report on any vulnerabilities that are detected. It is then up to the business owner to arrange to take care of those vulnerabilities. 

Vulnerability Scan Reporting 

After a vulnerability scan is completed a detailed report will be created. Typically, vulnerability scans create an extensive list of vulnerabilities found that your team can perform further research on. Some cybersecurity consultancies will also offer direction on how to resolve any weaknesses you have. 

The reporting can sometimes include false positives where the scan identifies a threat that isn’t actually real. Unfortunately, sifting through the report is the only way to differentiate between the real threats and the false positives. Typically, cybersecurity professionals will rank vulnerabilities found by the scan into groups based on the severity of the risk, allowing you to prioritize high-risk weaknesses first. 

Benefits Of A Vulnerability Scan 

Vulnerability scans have a number of benefits that make them a useful tool for businesses.

  • Vulnerability scans are a very affordable cybersecurity solution
  • Quick to complete and provide a complete look at possible vulnerabilities
  • Can be run automatically on a schedule that works for you

Limitations Of A Vulnerability Scan 

However, vulnerability scans do have some limitations that might make them inappropriate for a businesses’ requirements. 

  • They can provide false positives
  • After the scan is complete you must manually check each vulnerability
  • Vulnerability scans don’t tell you if a weakness is exploitable

What Is A Penetration Test?

Penetration testing, also known as ethical hacking, is when a cybersecurity professional simulates a hacker attempting to get into your system through a hands-on attempt to exploit any vulnerabilities in your system. Penetration testers will search for vulnerabilities and then attempt to prove that they can be exploited. 

Penetration testing makes use of testing methods like buffer overflow, password cracking and SQL injection in an attempt to compromise and extract data from your network in a way that doesn’t damage it. 

Penetration tests are an extremely detailed and effective approach to finding any vulnerabilities in your applications and networks. If you really want to find deep issues in your application or network, you need a penetration test. And if you modify your systems and software over time, a regular penetration test is a great way to ensure continued security.

The main aspect that differentiates penetration testing from vulnerability scanning is the live human element. There is no such thing as an automated penetration test. All penetration tests are conducted by very experienced, very technical, cybersecurity professionals.

Penetration Test Reporting 

Usually, penetration test reports are much longer compared to vulnerability scans and contain a high-detailed description of the attacks used and testing methodologies. In addition, penetration test reports often include suggestions on how to remedy the vulnerabilities and weaknesses found. 

Benefits Of A Penetration Test 

Penetration tests have a number of benefits that make them the first choice for many businesses. 

  • Manual testing by a cybersecurity professional means results are more accurate
  • Retesting after remediation is often included as standard
  • Rules out any false positives

Limitations Of A Penetration Test 

Despite their thoroughness, penetration tests do have some limitations to be aware of. 

  • They can take far longer to complete (ranging from 1 day up to 3 weeks)
  • They are far more expensive than vulnerability scans, which can be an issue for smaller businesses

Which Is Better? A Vulnerability Scan Or Penetration Test?

Vulnerability scans are a quick and easy way to gain insight into your network security with weekly, monthly, or quarterly scans. However, penetration tests are far more thorough and deeply examine your network security. On the other hand, penetration tests are far more expensive. But, you are getting a cybersecurity professional to examine every part of your business in the same way a real-world attacker would. 

Both tests should be utilized by businesses to protect their networks and ensure security. However, as the more affordable option vulnerability scans are a tool that can easily be automated and used more frequently. While the more expensive penetration tests are very thorough and can be used less frequently. 

Effective cybersecurity is vital for businesses, regardless of size. For further advice on vulnerability scans and penetration testing or to arrange a test for your network, contact a cybersecurity consultant. 

Author’s Bio: Dan Baker is a Content Writer who works with SecureTeam, a cybersecurity consultancy practice based in the UK.

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