What Are Penetration Testing and Vulnerability Assessment?

Oliver Moradov
What Is Penetration Testing?What Is Vulnerability Assessment?
Penetration testing is a security method that allows organizations to identify, test, and prioritize vulnerabilities in computer systems and networks. Ethical hackers usually perform penetration tests—these may be internal employees or third-party contractors. 
Penetration testers imitate the tactics and behaviors of attackers to assess the security posture of an organization’s network, computer system, or web application. Organizations can also use penetration testing to test compliance with industry standards and regulations.
Vulnerability assessment (VA) is a process of defining, detecting, categorizing, and prioritizing security vulnerabilities in a computer system, application, or network.
Organizations rely on vulnerability assessments to provide the crucial intelligence and risk context to understand and respond to cybersecurity threats.
The vulnerability assessment process aims to identify threats and their associated risks. It usually involves using an automated testing tool, such as a network security scanner. At the end of the process, a vulnerability assessment report lists the results obtained from the assessment tool.

In this article:

Why Is Vulnerability Assessment Important?

Vulnerability assessments provide organizations with detailed information about security vulnerabilities in their environment. They also offer guidelines for assessing the risks associated with these vulnerabilities. This process allows organizations to understand their assets, security vulnerabilities, and overall risk, making it less likely for attackers to compromise their systems and steal their information.

Vulnerability assessments help identify flaws and threats as soon as possible and take remedial action to patch the gaps in the organization’s infrastructure. Vulnerability assessments are also important for ensuring organizations meet cybersecurity compliance requirements, such as the HIPAA and PCI DSS standards.

Vulnerability assessments can incorporate different methods, tools, and scanning mechanisms to identify the vulnerable parts of different systems and networks. The type of vulnerability assessment may differ depending on the discoverability of vulnerabilities in a particular system.

Related content: Read our guide to web application vulnerabilities

Why Is Penetration Testing Important?

The incidence of distributed denial of service (DoS), phishing, and ransomware attacks is increasing rapidly, placing all internet-based businesses at risk. The consequences of successful cyberattacks are greater than ever, given businesses’ reliance on digital technologies. 

Penetration testing leverages a hacker’s perspective to identify, prevent, and mitigate security risks before a malicious actor can exploit them. It helps the IT leadership implement smart security upgrades to minimize the chance of a successful attack.

Businesses must be able to update their security measures simultaneously to protect their assets from penetration attacks effectively. It is important to note that it might be difficult to determine which methods to use or how to use them in an attack. However, an ethical hacker can help organizations quickly and accurately identify, update, and replace the vulnerable parts of their systems. 

Penetration Testing vs. Vulnerability Assessment

Here are some of the main areas in which vulnerability assessment differs from penetration testing.

Coverage

Vulnerability assessments are more internally-oriented than penetration tests. They emphasize the identification of all security vulnerabilities in a system and the strengthening of internal defense mechanisms. 

Penetration testing is more external and focuses on identifying vulnerable areas of the system from the outside. It involves external tests to determine the system’s level of exposure to unknown threats.

Applicability

Vulnerability assessments are ideal for organizations that use an insecure network and want to identify known security threats. They usually involve an assessment process designed to identify all possible security holes in the system. Organizations typically run assessments of their entire central resource base and regularly assess endpoint samples.

Penetration tests are useful for organizations that claim to have strong security defenses but want to determine the hackability of their systems and identify the unknown mechanisms exposing the system to a potential attack or compromise. Pentesting helps organizations test their existing defenses and is especially useful for organizations with a strong security posture. Organizations typically only perform penetration testing for critical infrastructure (servers, databases, firewalls).

Process

The vulnerability assessment process begins with discovering assets in a computing environment. The assessment team identifies flaws in networks and applications, ranks the risk level of each vulnerability, and prioritizes high-risk issues. It then provides reports that highlight problem areas and suggest improvements. Vulnerability remediation typically involves reconfiguring the system, managing patches, and security infrastructure hardening.

The penetration testing process begins with determining the scope of testing and the level of exploitation. Pentesters can then identify vulnerabilities and assess the severity of the associated risks. They simulate real-world attacks and exploit the identified vulnerabilities, injecting agents to enable access to the system for a specified period. Next, the testers perform a risk analysis to understand the level of access to the system the attack achieved. After the initial test and analysis, the pentesting team submits a report highlighting any identified risks, assessing their severity, and recommending remediation actions. Once the organization Implements the suggested fixes and fixes the vulnerabilities in their security system, the pentesters retest it to ensure the recommended fixes work.

Related content: Read our guide to penetration testing tools

Who Can Perform Each Type of Test

Organizations regularly schedule vulnerability assessments, especially when the affected systems, networks, and controls change frequently. Internal technicians can perform these assessments using their company credentials and vulnerability management tools to identify known threats affecting internal applications networks. Organizations may also engage third-party vendors to evaluate, identify, and review results manually.

Organizations can implement penetration annually or address specific, major changes to their systems, networks, and controls. An experienced, qualified penetration tester must perform the tests (this usually involves an external pentesting service provider). Pentesters are usually qualified ethical hackers with the ability to hack secure systems and networks and identify weaknesses allowing access from external networks and applications.

VAPT: Vulnerability Assessment and Penetration Testing

Vulnerability Assessment and Penetration Testing (VAPT) is a comprehensive suite of security assessment services that help identify and mitigate cybersecurity threats and the associated risks to an organization’s IT assets.

VAPT provides businesses with a highly detailed assessment of their applications, offering deeper insights than individual penetration tests. The VAPT approach helps organizations better understand the threats their applications face, allowing them to protect their data and systems from malicious attacks. 

Vulnerabilities are often present in internally created or third-party applications and software. However, most issues are easy to fix once discovered. VAPT providers allow security teams to focus on addressing critical flaws while the providers continue to discover, triage, and prioritize vulnerabilities.

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