Penetration Testing vs. Vulnerability Scanning: What’s the Difference?

Vulnerability Management
Attack Surface Management
5 min read
James Mignacca
July 20, 2022
James Mignacca
July 20, 2022
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To keep up with data compliance and data protection strategies, IT and security teams use a combination of processes and technologies to track digital assets - such as hardware, software, cloud programs and sensitive data - and gain a better understanding of the company’s internal and external attack surface.

When companies don’t implement and keep on top of these solutions, however, legacy and disparate technologies can create data silos that limit the visibility an organization has into its sensitive data.

When this happens, orphaned and unclassified data puts the organization at risk of regulatory non-compliance and cyber security risks like data exfiltration and ransomware attacks.

To avoid these risks, organizations must implement technologies and processes into their organization that give them visibility into where their sensitive data lives and what their attack surface is.

To do that (if they even do it at all), most businesses turn to either penetration testing or vulnerability scanning. Businesses usually bucket these two processes together, but it’s important that they are seen as separate techniques to enhance data protection and compliance strategies.

What is pen testing vs. vulnerability scanning?

In this blog we take a look at what exactly these two terms mean and what the difference is between the two processes.

What is penetration testing?

Penetration testing, also known as “pen testing”, is an authorized simulated cyberattack on a computer system which is performed in an effort to evaluate the security of a company’s IT network.

A penetration test aims to exploit weaknesses in the architecture of the IT network from a cyber attackers point of view, looking for ways in which they could gain access to business assets and systems.

What is vulnerability scanning?

Vulnerability scanning, also known as a vulnerability assessment, is automated software that scans a network to identify, quantify and prioritize vulnerabilities across an organization’s networks. It looks for known vulnerabilities across business systems, producing a report to highlight potential exposure.

Vulnerability scanning is not to be confused with a risk assessment. While they both process catalog assets and capabilities within systems, assign value and rank them by importance, identify vulnerabilities and threats to each resource and mitigate or eliminate the most serious vulnerabilities, vulnerability scans are run to gather the information needed to support a risk assessment.

What’s the difference between penetration testing and vulnerability scanning?

In the argument of penetration testing vs vulnerability scanning there is no one winner, and that’s because organizations require both of these to ensure they have complete visibility of their attack surface.

While vulnerability scans look for known vulnerabilities across a company’s systems and report potential exposures, penetration testing is a process that intends to exploit weaknesses in a company’s IT architecture in an effort to determine the degree to which a malicious attacker can gain unauthorized access to business assets.

Here are a few key differentiators between penetration testing and vulnerability scanning.

Penetration testing differences:

  • It’s a test to exploit IT network weaknesses from the point of view of a cyber attacker.
  • It’s a point-in-time activity that gives no real-time visibility into attack surface risk.
  • It’s usually outsourced to professional penetration testers, and performed between one to four times a year.
  • The average penetration test costs around $5,000
  • The average penetration test can take anywhere from one to three weeks to complete.

Vulnerability scanning differences:

  • Vulnerability scans identify, quantify and prioritize vulnerability across a company’s computer systems.
  • Technology companies also offer products for vulnerability scanning. This software must be set up and managed by the purchasing company.
  • Vulnerability scans are typically outsourced to expert consultants and security practitioners.
  • Vulnerability scans are also a point-in-time exercise, which assess systems in the moment.
  • The cost of vulnerability scans differ greatly depending on the size of the business and the amount of systems, servers and applications that are used. They are usually under $5,000.
  • The average company conducts at least one vulnerability scan a year for regulatory compliance purposes.

Why Cavelo’s Vulnerability Management is unique

As organizations increasingly rely on connected and remote systems, their attack surface grows. Yet many IT and security teams are still relying on traditional vulnerability scanning and penetration testing to mitigate that risk.

These traditional vulnerability scans only capture a point in time and do not give administrators an accurate picture of the company’s assets and sensitive data risk. With no real-time visibility into their growing inventory of digital assets and the sensitive data they contain, teams simply cannot confidently assess and address their company’s overall attack surface.

To address those challenges, managing and mitigating attack surface risk should start with data discovery and eliminate the needs for outdated point-in-time risk management activities.

Real-time data is crucial to ensure businesses have ongoing and continuous visibility into their attack surface risk.

That’s why Cavelo’s vulnerability assessment offering is unique. Our innovative attack surface management platform provides businesses with continuous vulnerability reporting, giving them constant, real-time visibility into their attack surface risk.

Its reporting capabilities go deeper than traditional vulnerability assessments, providing data liability insights that further guide remediation priorities, Cavelo provides accurate and thorough risk reports that cover both agent-based scans and network peripherals.

With Cavelo, businesses are able to:

  • Get endpoint-to-endpoint coverage across all of their networks and subnets.
  • Map sensitive data and unique vulnerabilities to best practice frameworks like the NIST cybersecurity framework and Center for Internet Security (CIS) benchmarks - traditional vulnerability assessments don't do this.
  • Consolidate spend and get a single pane of glass that does more (vulnerability assessments plus data discovery, classification and risk management).
  • Take control of their vulnerability management by running scanning as often as they need to.

Are you interested in learning more? Request a demo today.

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