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Penetration Testing and Vulnerability Assessments

While often used interchangeably, both penetration testing and vulnerability assessments are not the same. But they are indeed both critical parts of securing your IT systems and software and are hence used in a related sense. Here is a brief description of each of these network security operations, their different purposes, and how best to make use of them. 

What Is Penetration Testing?

Penetration testing is the process of testing the entire network, inclusive of all the applications and infrastructure components, to check for any possible data vulnerabilities and security exploits. It covers both the physical and social aspects of a testing process. 

A penetration tester employs a wide range of testing methods to cover every aspect of the organization’s security that could involve not just the IT infrastructure of the company but also its employees, third-party contractors, and vendors used by the organization. 

A penetration test thus can be more time consuming as it is a thorough process with various steps such as:

  • Open-source intelligence gathering 
  • Scanning and discovery of possible threats
  • Vulnerability identification 
  • Exploiting the vulnerabilities by testing via simulated attacks
  • Risk analysis 
  • Recommendations and setting up of remediation efforts to be taken in case of an attack
  • Documenting and reporting the findings

What Are Vulnerability Assessments?

A vulnerability assessment is similar to penetration testing because it helps identify security vulnerabilities in your system. But it does not take any other advanced measures like security exploitation to assess the extent of the security risk and find possible solutions. 

Vulnerability assessment provides a quick scanning and identification of all vulnerabilities. The vulnerabilities thus found are categorized and ranked based on their risk profile to help your security professionals prioritize and work on resolving them as soon as possible. 

Vulnerability scanning may also provide additional recommendations like patch management, hardening security infrastructure, and similar best practices that can be applied to make your systems more secure and protected. 

Some of the processes involved with vulnerability assessments are:

  • Automated scanning and discovery of all assets within your IT infrastructure and environment
  • Searching and identification of all vulnerabilities across all your identified assets like network, IT infrastructure and applications
  • Identified vulnerabilities are classified and ranked based on their priority and risk profile 

Security professionals will then use the vulnerability report from the vulnerability assessment tool to take up remedial action like updating your antivirus, reconfiguring security settings, hardening security infrastructure, and more. 

Major Differences Between Vulnerability Assessments And Penetration Testing

Both vulnerability assessment and penetration testing are preventive security measures that help identify any possible security exploits or vulnerabilities present in your systems. 

But as explained above, each follows a different set of processes and steps. Here are the major differences between the two listed out. 

Frequency Of Testing 

Vulnerability scans are usually done as a routine activity at least once every quarter as they are less time-consuming. They also do not require as many resources and skills as penetration testing does. 

Penetration testing is done once or twice a year and whenever your infrastructure undergoes a major update with significant changes. 


Vulnerability scan reports usually contain comprehensive data on the overall status of your systems. They indicate any change in vulnerabilities since the last scan and give a general idea of the issues that may be identified. 

Penetration testing goes deeper and will be able to provide an in-depth analysis of each vulnerability. The reports will be complete with all details regarding an issue, the root cause, and the necessary remediation steps. 


Vulnerability scans are focused on simply identifying and listing down possible security exploits. 

Penetration testing helps discover any existing weaknesses in the system and may also uncover previously unknown vulnerabilities. 

Who Conducts The Testing 

Vulnerability testing does not require a high level of skill as the scanning software takes care of the automatic discovery of assets and reports the identified vulnerabilities. It can be carried out by an in-house team or staff member with the authorization required to perform the vulnerability scan. 

Penetration testing is an advanced testing process that requires finer skill and expertise in the testing area. Hence it is often outsourced to an expert third-party service provider or an in-house expert testing team. 

Value Delivered 

Vulnerability scanning provides you a good way to deal with known vulnerabilities and take timely action before any of your security exploits are exploited. 

Penetration testing goes beyond the scope of a regular security scan and helps optimize your business processes to be more security efficient, and reduces any inherent weaknesses. 

Choosing Between Penetration Testing And Vulnerability Assessments

Penetration testing is a security requirement for all critical real-time systems as any data breach could lead to serious implications on the business continuity. 

On the other hand, vulnerability scans can be considered a best practice that can be employed to keep an eye on your systems to mitigate any potential vulnerabilities early on. It is more ideal for non-critical systems. It is also less expensive and less resource-intensive.

If you are running lab environments with little concern about sensitive data being leaked, a good vulnerability scanning tool will suffice your need. 

But for physical environments and larger network architectures, you will have to employ penetration testing at least once a year to ensure secured business processes. It helps you identify weaknesses and the potential harm those weaknesses can cause, thereby letting you take the right remedies on time. 

You can always plan for a healthy combination of both the security measures for optimized vulnerability identification and strengthened security with the help of a cyber security professional.