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

March 29, 2024

A Proactive Approach to Security

With cyber-attacks continuously rising in frequency, publicity, and cost, organizations are increasingly emphasizing strong security postures. They are taking more proactive approaches to identifying opportunities to fortify their security and avoid costly breaches.

Vulnerability management and penetration testing are essential strategies for identifying and mitigating security risks. While both approaches are designed to help organizations secure their systems and data, they have different objectives and methods.

Understanding Vulnerability Management

Vulnerability Management is a proactive approach to identifying, prioritizing, and mitigating security vulnerabilities within an organization’s IT infrastructure. It begins with a scheduled, automated scan of all IT assets, identifying vulnerabilities like outdated patches, misconfigurations, and default passwords. The assessment findings will then be documented with a severity rating for each vulnerability.

Remediation efforts may then take place to address the vulnerabilities. The goal of vulnerability scanning is to reduce the risk of a successful cyber-attack by continually assessing and addressing vulnerabilities in a timely and efficient manner.

Key Features of Vulnerability Management

Continuous Assessment

Vulnerability management is an ongoing process that involves regularly scanning IT systems for vulnerabilities and assessing the risks they pose to the organization. This helps organizations stay current on vulnerabilities and make iterative improvements to their security posture.

Risk Prioritization

Once vulnerabilities are identified, they are prioritized based on their potential impact on the organization, allowing security teams to focus on the most critical issues first. For organizations with budget concerns, this helps them get the most return on investment.

Patch Management

Vulnerability management involves applying patches and updates to software and systems to address known vulnerabilities. Done in conjunction with continuous assessments, these remediation activities help increase an organization’s security posture over time. Vulnerability scanning also provides an independent validation that the patches applied have addressed the weaknesses that the system had prior to being patched.

Understanding Penetration Testing

Penetration testing, also known as pen testing, is often the next step in fortifying an organization’s security posture. Pen testing is a simulated attack on an organization’s IT systems to identify and exploit vulnerabilities that demonstrate how a bad actor could comprise the organization’s network. Some vendors, like our partner Fortra, employ Certified Ethical Hackers (CEH) to perform pen testing.

Two types of pen testing, external and internal, can be performed in conjunction with each other or separately.

External Pen Testing

The pen tester simulates an attack from outside the organization, attempting to gain access to the perimeter layer (public facing) of the organization’s network in an effort to gain access. This may include web servers, email servers, and firewalls.

Internal Pen Testing

The pen tester simulates an attack from within the organization’s network, like a malicious insider or compromised device. The pen tester will attempt to move throughout the network to assess the amount of damage they could cause, testing the strength of the organization’s access controls and network segmentation.

Key Features of Penetration Testing

Simulation of Real-world Attacks

Penetration testing simulates real-world attacks to identify vulnerabilities that attackers could exploit, whether the attack comes from outside or inside the organization.  

Comprehensive Testing

Penetration testing typically involves a comprehensive assessment of an organization’s IT systems, including testing of web applications, network infrastructure, and other critical systems.

Identification of Exploitable Weaknesses

Penetration testing identifies specific vulnerabilities that could be exploited by an attacker, providing actionable insights for improving security.

What are the Differences?

The main difference between vulnerability management and penetration testing is the human element. Vulnerability management is an automated, scheduled event that identifies and prioritizes vulnerabilities for remediation. This is typically performed on a regular cadence, such as monthly or quarterly.

Penetration testing, on the other hand, involves a human tester attempting to exploit vulnerabilities and demonstrate possible damage. They’ll then relay these insights to the client organization so they can fortify their security posture. Penetration testing is typically performed less frequently than vulnerability management, often occurring after several rounds of vulnerability scanning and remediation efforts.

Choosing the Right Approach

Both vulnerability management and penetration testing are essential strategies for securing an organization’s IT environment. The right approach depends on the organization’s specific needs and security goals. Vulnerability management is a good choice for organizations that want to proactively identify and mitigate vulnerabilities systematically.

Penetration testing is a good choice for organizations to build upon vulnerability management efforts by simulating real-world attacks to identify exploitable weaknesses and improve their overall security posture.

Ultimately, combining these approaches is often the most effective way to secure an organization’s IT environment. They are also effective for demonstrating alignment with compliance requirements, framework initiatives, client-driven audits, and cybersecurity insurance mandates.

Avoid Tomorrow’s Emergency, Today

Are you interested in learning more about vulnerability management and penetration testing? Our experts can walk you through the benefits of our chosen partner Fortra’s Vulnerability Management and Pen Testing solutions. Don’t wait until you have a security incident; schedule a conversation with one of our experts today to begin improving your security posture.

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Dewpoint, an award-winning, Michigan-based technology firm, has been helping businesses prepare for, stay ahead of, and respond to IT challenges for over 27 years. From IT security to infrastructure management to automation, cloud migration, and beyond, Dewpoint has long been a trusted technology resource for businesses.

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