Technical Expertise

October 21, 2020   •   3 minute read

What's the Difference Between a Vulnerability Assessment & Penetration Test?

Security assessments are critical for detecting weaknesses in your system. With so many types available, however, decision makers may struggle to select the most valuable for their organizations. 

Vulnerability assessments and penetration tests are two distinct evaluations. Each uncovers insights that can protect you from potential risks, but through different approaches. When deciding to test your security defenses, vulnerability assessments and penetration tests provide very different insights into your strengths and weaknesses.

What Is a Vulnerability Assessment? 

A vulnerability assessment takes a methodical approach to identifying gaps in defenses. Namely, it scans for any and all susceptibility to known threats, using high-volume tests with automated tools. It usually does not involve actual exploitation but rather the possibility of such. Findings are then assigned severity levels with appropriate actions for remediation. This analysis utilizes a one-size-fits-all approach that is neither customized nor situationally aware.

What Is a Penetration Test? 

Penetration tests simulate cyberattacks to identify exploitable weaknesses. Expert analysts conduct their tests attempting to breach defenses. They will often create custom elements or combine various components to achieve their objective. Penetration tests do not focus on finding every weakness but are considered successful if the specific goal is achieved.

A Red Team, Blue Team, and Purple Team may participate in penetration tests. The Red Team acts as attackers trying to breach the system, while the Blue Team internally defends against those threats. The Purple Team incorporates both these methodologies, focusing on communication and cooperation to maximize effectiveness.

Key Differences Between Vulnerability Assessments & Penetration Tests 

  • Who Conducts Them

    Vulnerability assessments rely on automated scanning tools. Since these do not require an advanced skill set, an in-house team may oversee them. Penetration tests are less automated and call for expert-level skills, so organizations frequently hire third-party consultants.
  • Focus

    These two evaluations have different focuses, so security teams often use both for a more comprehensive examination. Vulnerability assessments look for known weaknesses hackers could exploit, and penetration tests aim to reveal and exploit previously unknown exposures. 
  • Potential Benefits

    Vulnerability assessments paint a broad picture of the devices on your network, and their potential deficiencies. This can serve as a roadmap for revisions to your policies and protocols. Penetration tests, on the other hand, pinpoint security gaps that automated assessments may otherwise miss, while also analyzing your response to an attack. 
  • Reporting

    Vulnerability assessment reports typically share the detected exposures and how they have changed since the last examination, whereas penetration test reports are more comprehensive and show a far wider scope of findings. 
  • Cost

    Vulnerability scans cost a fraction of a full penetration test. Hired Red Team hackers work on a budget that affords them a finite amount of time to locate and exploit vulnerabilities. However, hackers have unlimited time, so a thorough penetration test requires a significant enough budget to give the Red Team the time it needs to uncover exploitable weaknesses.
  • Frequency

    Since vulnerability assessments don’t require as much hands-on work as penetration tests, most companies complete them at least quarterly. They’re also commonly performed during major network changes or equipment upgrades. Penetration tests are typically conducted just once or twice per year due to their greater expenses, but organizations may also do so following significant equipment adjustments.

While vulnerability assessments and penetration tests are very different, either may be appropriate based on the realistic probability of a hack. Some organizations do not carry out frequent penetration tests because of their associated costs, but these seem minuscule when compared to the estimated $2.6 million average price tag of a malware attack. 

Cybersafe Solutions offers a suite of security assessments, ranging from vulnerability scans utilizing the latest technology to penetration tests executed by our team of expert analysts. Our Penetration Testing and Risk Assessment & Mitigation services carefully evaluate your systems to identify gaps and strengthen your defenses. Our Continuous Security Monitoring provides an additional layer of protection by scanning your network, cloud, and endpoints around the clock for signs of an attack.