Vulnerability Scanning vs Penetration Testing - What You Need to Know

Vulnerability scanning vs penetration testing – equally important but often confused. We’re here to pull back the veil on these two valuable tools to help you understand whether your business needs one (or both) to keep your digital landscape secure.

Keeping your organization safe from cyber attacks is a 24x7x365 responsibility. The wicked never rest. It requires every tool in the toolbox to keep evildoers from running off with your organization’s crown jewels.

Sensitive data, money, your reputation… it’s all on the line.

So what do you do about it? How do you protect your fortress?

There are two key ways to get ahead of the bad guys, and we’re going to cover them in depth: vulnerability scanning and penetration testing.

Let’s go.

Vulnerability Scanning Vs Penetration Testing

Since you’re here, you’re probably wondering what is the main difference between vulnerability scanning and penetration testing?

Although they are often confused and the terms used interchangeably, vulnerability scanning and penetration testing are significantly different despite supporting the same end goals: identify vulnerabilities, mitigate risk, and secure your assets.

A vulnerability scan, also known as a “vuln scan” or “vulnerabilities test’, is a defensive play that leverages automated processes to identify weaknesses and flaws in your network, application, and security posture.

A penetration test, or penetration scan, is an authorized, simulated cyberattack on your organization. It is designed to test cybersecurity to identify vulnerabilities in both cloud and on-premises software applications.

You can be sure that while your IT department or third-party security service provider is running these scans, so are your adversaries. Let’s get into what they are, why they’re different, and why you need them in your cybersecurity playbook.

What is vulnerability scanning?

Running a vulnerability test, otherwise known as vulnerability scanning, leverages automation to identify and create an inventory of all the systems connected to a particular network. It then attempts to extract and collect data about the systems and software installed on it, as well as other attributes such as open ports and user accounts.

The vulnerability scanner then checks this data against databases of known vulnerabilities. At your fingertips, oftentimes in under an hour, is a collection of vulnerabilities that need to be addressed by your in-house IT team or your chosen third-party cybersecurity vendor ASAP.

Who should use vulnerability scans?

The short answer: everyone.

Vulnerability scans are easily accessible, so there’s no excuse not to use them as part of your cybersecurity strategy. The difference maker here is that you need to use the data when you get it, don’t sit on it. This data is quite literally giving you the answers to every hackers’ hot question: how do we get in?

What are the pros and cons of vulnerability scanning?

While having a generated list of vulnerabilities in front of you is helpful, the scan doesn’t go any farther than that. These items need to be prioritized and then quickly remediated.

Additionally, be aware there are likely false positives. Results of these scans can be difficult to understand, and the tool may mistakenly flag something that looks suspicious when it’s not.

Although it will never be a perfect solution, vulnerability scans are advantageous in that they can save you time and money, they can help identify vulnerabilities before your adversaries do, and can assist in defining the level of risk that currently exists in your systems.

At [redacted], we offer routine vulnerability scanning as part of the layered defense approach in our Managed Security Services (MSS) offering. When leveraged alongside other defenses, vulnerability scans can be a critical component of your cybersecurity front line.

What is penetration testing?

Penetration testing uses a variety of tools to poke, prod, and challenge every inch of your cybersecurity infrastructure to find the weak link in – exactly the same way that an attacker would. It uncovers whether your organization’s cybersecurity is (or is not) as secure as you think it is. Because of that, engaging with a top-tier professional cybersecurity vendor is critical.

Who should use penetration testing?

With the damages of cybercrime expected to reach $10.5 trillion annually by 2025, it is mission-critical to be prepared, no matter the size of your organization.

Not only is it a requirement for many industries, it’s essential for anyone who has a digital presence and assets to protect. Organizations that are subject to PCI DSS (Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard) are mandated to perform regular penetration testing, while organizations seeking ISO 27001 and GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) compliance are recommended to perform regular penetration testing.

What are the pros and cons of penetration testing?

Here are a few of the biggest reasons an organization should regularly run penetration scans:

  • To uncover hidden system vulnerabilities before cyber criminals do.
  • To beef up your security processes and strategies.
  • To adhere to regulatory compliance around security and privacy, like PCI DSS and SOC 2.
  • To preserve brand integrity and customer loyalty. Don’t end up like Sharp HealthCare.

Before the critical work begins, it is important to understand some of the roadblocks that may arise.

First, penetration testing can open Pandora’s box. There is no shortage of things to test but it is critical to have a clear scope and rules of engagement.

Limit yourself to the highest priorities with a narrow scope — consider your devices, applications, networks, and the overarching goals for your business. What do you want? What do you not want? Your scope should be hyper-specific to the results you’re seeking.

Second, randomly choosing any vendor from a quick Google search may leave you worse off. You want a dedicated team of professionals such as [redacted] that are interested in a long-term partnership with your business, rather than one looking to make a buck churning out pen tests.

Want true partnership and peace of mind? Work with the pros at [redacted] for a dedicated team of nation-state-level experts. Contact our team of cybersecurity experts today.

Penetration Testing and Vulnerability Scanning with [redacted]

Now that you know what vulnerability scanning vs penetration testing looks like, you’re prepared to take the next step. You’ve worked hard to build your business – don’t let bad guys take it from your hands because you weren’t prepared.

Engaging [redacted] for a penetration test and/or vulnerability scan connects your business to our entire organization, pulling in actionable intelligence, incident response, professional services, and other expertise as needed. We help you improve your security posture, ensuring that your team understands best practices when it comes to controls and configurations for your industry.

We understand security, we’re masters of our craft, and we’re trustworthy.

We’ve got 140 combined years of nation-state-level experience and we’re ready to go to the battlefield for you.

Don’t wait until it’s too late – schedule a call with one of our cyber security experts.


[r Authors

Portrait of Cheryl Babcock

Cheryl Babcock

  • Senior Operator

Cheryl Babcock is the Senior Operator at [redacted], leading cyber engagements and providing SME level experience on a variety of security topics. She has 12 years of experience in cybersecurity with careers at the National Security Agency and Sandia National Laboratories before joining the [r team. She holds a MS in Computer Science – Cybersecurity from the George Washington University.

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