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Vulnerability Scanning vs. Penetration Testing

Vulnerability Scanning: An Overview

When deciding between a vulnerability assessment vs. a penetration test, it helps to first know how each works. 

Vulnerability scanning uses a computer program to identify weaknesses in the security or performance of your systems, including networks, computers, applications, and mobile devices. A vulnerability assessment will not involve active attempts to penetrate a device, application, or network, while a penetration test will invariably include an attempt to get past your digital defenses.

Benefits of Vulnerability Scanning

Vulnerability scanning generates quantifiable numbers that assess the risks your data and systems face should a breach attempt materialize. A vulnerability scan can also help you figure out which assets are in trouble if malicious code is introduced to the system. 

Using the information the scan provides, you can take steps to bolster the security around particularly sensitive or valuable assets, such as customer payment data. Protecting customer data is necessary to stay in compliance with the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS).  

Vulnerability testing follows a series of steps to identify flaws in your system and how to prevent attacks in the future. In addition to strengthening the security of your system, the testing process can improve your reputation with competitors, customers, and third-party vendors that may be considering doing business with you.

Challenges of Vulnerability Scanning

Here are a few challenges to keep in mind when considering getting a vulnerability scan vs. a penetration test:

Incomplete Inventory of Assets

Many companies do not systematically keep track of their digital assets, making it a challenge to perform the right assortment of vulnerability tests to adequately protect their systems. This is particularly true for organizations that do not keep an asset list or a flowchart illustrating how different assets are protected. 

Before getting a vulnerability scan, take an accurate, comprehensive inventory of all your digital assets, focusing on those that malicious attackers may want to target.

Pinpointing Vulnerabilities Without Interrupting Operations

The purpose of vulnerability scanning is to identify system weaknesses so you can fix them and create a safer operating environment. However, improving operational safety may involve interrupting work in some business units or departments, which may not sit well with one or more areas of your organization. As such, get all departments on board before developing a vulnerability testing strategy. 

Instantly Outdated Vulnerabilities

A vulnerability scan becomes instantly out of date the moment it is finished. This is because new threats emerge on the landscape all the time. For this reason, some organizations perform regular, frequent tests to minimize the chances of missing a vulnerability.

Penetration Testing: An Overview

Penetration testing is also known as white-hat or ethical hacking. As these nicknames suggest, penetration testing is essentially giving someone permission to hack your system to discover weak points and what it takes to take advantage of them. After a penetration test, the tester provides a comprehensive description of the test results, the severity of any uncovered threats, and what can be done to strengthen your defenses.

Benefits of Penetration Testing

Here are some of the most significant advantages of penetration testing:

Pinpoint and Fix Specific Vulnerabilities in Your System

A penetration test is often one of the best ways to isolate certain vulnerabilities. Also, you can use the data from the test to determine the degree of threat each vulnerability poses to your security—and then take definitive steps to strengthen your system. Also, if you are working on an application, a penetration test can reveal security weaknesses that you can repair during the development lifecycle.

Better Understand How Your Digital Systems Work Together

Even the most experienced IT teams may not fully appreciate the connections between every component of an organization's network. Nothing shines a light on how everything is interconnected like a penetration test. For example, a web application and a customer relationship management (CRM) system may connect to the same database. A penetration tester can explain how these components interface, as well as how a hacker can  take advantage of the interconnectivity.

Challenges of Penetration Testing

Although penetration testing offers clear benefits, there are some challenges to consider as well:

Tests That Are Not Thorough Enough

Some penetration testers may apply the same types of tests to multiple companies and only make minor adjustments from one organization to another. So while the test for the other company had been thorough, your results may be incomplete, simply because no two ecosystems are the same.

Also, a penetration tester may use the same tests over a considerable period, which is another serious risk because new attack strategies and technologies pop up on the landscape all the time. For instance, a test that discovered key vulnerabilities six months ago may miss a range of new weaknesses today.

Setting Up the Best Test Conditions

Network security, network components, and in-application assets work differently under different conditions, and adequately testing a wide range of assets in various situations can be extremely challenging.

For example, your company’s website functions as expected and provides the necessary ecommerce tools to visitors—under normal conditions. But how does it perform during the holiday season when hordes of shoppers browse, select items, and check out at the same time? It can be hard to tell, and a penetration tester needs to simulate a range of different situations to definitively tell what your system's vulnerabilities are.

Similarities Between Vulnerability Scanning and Penetration Testing

Penetration testing and vulnerability scanning are similar in several ways, including:

  1. Both can identify vulnerabilities in your system.
  2. Both are done in part using automation.
  3. Both can reveal connections between various network components, application elements, and specific sensitive data you want to protect.

Differences Between Vulnerability Scanning and Penetration Testing

While similar, vulnerability scanning and penetration testing are vastly different:

  1. Although penetration testing involves some automation, much of it is done manually by the pen tester.
  2. A vulnerability scan only uncovers weaknesses in your system, but a penetration test discovers weaknesses and attempts to exploit them.
  3. Often, a penetration test costs more than a vulnerability scan. This is because a pen test requires more human hours, while a vulnerability scan can be done solely using automated tools.

Vulnerability Scan vs. Penetration Test: How To Choose the Best Fit for Your Enterprise

In certain situations, a vulnerability scan may be the best option. For example, if you are developing an application and want to know if a specific component has vulnerabilities, it makes sense to perform a vulnerability scan.

On the other hand, a penetration test provides all the benefits of a vulnerability scan, plus insights into what happens when a hacker takes advantage of the application's weaknesses. As long as the tester is thorough, a pen test is the better option.

Differences between vulnerability scanning and penetration testing

How Fortinet Can Help

With the FortiPenTest, a penetration testing service provided by Fortinet, your system is tested for various vulnerabilities, particularly the Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP) Top 10 threats. Powered by research from FortiGuard, FortiPenTest tests for the most recent threats.

In addition, with FortiWeb, a web application firewall (WAF) programmed to detect and stop the most recent threats, you get reliable protection for your web applications. This ensures your applications are protected even after making updates, adding new features, or incorporating new application programming interfaces (APIs).


What is the difference between vulnerability assessment and penetration testing?

A vulnerability assessment involves using a computer program to identify weaknesses in the security or performance of your systems. In contrast, much of penetration testing is done manually, which explains why it is costlier. Also, a penetration test exposes weaknesses and tries to exploit them.

Which is better: vulnerability assessment or penetration testing?

Although the needs of each organization differ, generally speaking, regular penetration testing may reveal more information regarding how your system can be hacked compared to a vulnerability scan.