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Vulnerability Scanning vs Penetration Testing: Key Differences

When it comes to cybersecurity, there are two critical processes to help ensure your system is well-protected from malicious actors; vulnerability scanning and penetration testing. While both concepts aim to secure a particular aspect of the network or piece of software, they serve different purposes and aren’t interchangeable. In this article, we look into the differences and similarities of vulnerability scanning vs penetration testing, helping you understand each approach’s unique role in bolstering your cyber defenses.

📖 Definition and Purpose of Vulnerability Scanning

Vulnerability scanning, also known as security assessment, is a systemic process used to identify, quantify, and prioritize security vulnerabilities in a system. It serves as the first line of defense in any security strategy, offering security officers a preliminary view of potential risks that could be exploited if left untreated.

It’s often performed using automated tools and dedicated vulnerability scanners rather than manual scans. Also, it’s largely generalized, casting a wide net that spans the entirety of a network to identify weaknesses on the surface. Common issues typically include outdated software, missing patches, and configuration errors that could expose a network to potential threats.

Vulnerability scans need to be performed on a regular basis to be effective. Frequent scans keep you up-to-date on your system’s security status and any areas where it may need improvements. That way, your internal teams will have ample time to address risks before they become significant issues.

📖 Definition and Purpose of Penetration Testing

Penetration testing, more commonly known as pen testing or ethical hacking, is the simulation of actual attacks to uncover paths or vulnerabilities that actual attackers may take. Pen testing aims to assess the effectiveness of existing security measures, identify potential points of entry for attackers, and evaluate your organization’s ability to detect and respond to security incidents. 

Third-party security companies often conduct penetration tests to evaluate the response and capabilities of a business’s internal security teams. For that, testers employ a wide variety of vulnerability tools to help them breach a system’s defenses like phishing, brute-force attacks, or SQL injections.

Penetration testing can help you understand not only where your vulnerabilities lie, but also how a skilled hacker can navigate a security system to their benefit and take advantage of any blind spots in your monitoring.

Vulnerability Scanning vs Penetration Testing: Key Differences

While both vulnerability scanning and penetration testing are essential security practices, they’re fundamentally different in what they can offer you.

Scope and Focus of Assessment

Vulnerability scanning focuses on the outermost layer of your network’s security system, scanning for known issues across a wide range of assets. Its holistic and broad-view approach to system security lets it highlight potential weaknesses. It’s a routine assessment of a security system’s health and efficacy and should be performed regularly and after every update or new patch is rolled out.

Penetration testing, on the other hand, delves deeper into the innermost layers of your security system and can uncover risks in network segmentation and intranet communications. It’s generally more focused on finding specific paths attackers may take, rather than a wide scan that catches all possible avenues of entry.

Level of Automation

In terms of automation, vulnerability scanning relies heavily on automated tools compared to pen testing. This makes it more affordable and accessible to smaller companies, as it can be set to run in the background either constantly or on a schedule. Specialized software is quick and highly accurate, resulting in few false positives, making them an effective way to maintain ongoing awareness of your system’s security status.

Penetration testing tools combine automation with human-lead expertise. The manual portion of the test is usually what allows it to uncover more deeply-rooted vulnerabilities as there’s an element of intelligence and creativity required to successfully hack a company’s systems.

Expertise and Skill Requirement

When it comes to skills and expertise, vulnerability scanning is much more forgiving than penetration testing. It’s important for the software to be supervised by security professionals with knowledge of the network’s architecture in order to interpret the results and guide it in case it fails, but a lot of the work can be done with the software.

Penetration testing can only be done by a seasoned ethical hacker. Otherwise, even detailed reports may not accurately represent the current state of your security. Pen testers are often knowledgeable in network security, cryptography, and programming, allowing them to simulate sophisticated attacks either individually or as part of a testing team. Also, penetration testers must think like hackers, using their creativity and technical expertise to bypass security measures and uncover hidden vulnerabilities.

Timing and Frequency

Depending on the level of activity in your system, vulnerability scanning can be performed weekly or daily, with the higher frequency yielding the best results. A single scan doesn’t take long to conduct and it keeps you updated on new vulnerabilities or issues in the system.

Penetration testing, on the other hand, is usually conducted less frequently, often annually or bi-annually, due to its more intensive and time-consuming nature. A single pen test takes one to two weeks, depending on the size and complexity of the digital ecosystem, so the findings of the test aren’t immediately available for analysis.

🔍 Handle Vulnerability Scanning With Kiuwan

You need the right tool to do the job right, and Kiuwan is a comprehensive solution for vulnerability scanning that gives you support for over 30 programming languages and integration with all common development environments.  Plus, Kiuwan doesn’t just highlight the issues — it provides detailed remediation plans, so you can address vulnerabilities effectively. 

If you’re looking for the industry’s leading vulnerability scanning tool that you can rely on for thorough analysis and actionable insights, Kiuwan is the answer. Experience the difference with Kiuwan’s scanning capabilities firsthand by requesting a free trial to elevate your security posture and make sure your apps are ready for the world.

Get Your FREE Demo of Kiuwan Application Security Today!

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