Both penetration testing and vulnerability assessment seek to identify vulnerabilities in your system’s security and performance. Regular testing can help not only identify vulnerabilities, but improve protection so that your data, and the data of your customers, stays safe.

Areas of Focus

These tests can be performed on different areas of focus based on your business’ goals. Each type of test is focused on testing for weaknesses in a specific area of attack.

  • Network Based: Testing devices connected to your network such as computers
  • Host Based: Testing network hosts including servers and workstations
  • Wireless: Testing the access points of your network
  • Databases: Testing database applications such as email systems
  • Applications: Testing web-based, native, and hybrid applications

What Vulnerabilities Do They Search For and Why?

The five most common vulnerabilities when it comes to keeping your data safe are authentication, sensitive data exposure, broken access control, cross-site scripting, and server security misconfiguration. A 2022 study by IBM reported that globally on average, it takes 207 days to identify a data breach and 70 to contain it. The longer the data breach lifecycle, the more costly and dangerous the breach. Let’s discuss penetration testing versus vulnerability assessment and the pros and cons of both.

What is Penetration Testing?

Penetration testing is an active form of vulnerability testing where professionals legally attempt to hack or break into your company’s systems. This testing helps identify weaknesses—like those mentioned above—that real hackers may try to exploit. Both internal and external tests are conducted to identify any and all points of weakness. There are also different approaches including: black box, white box, and gray box penetration testing. 

Black box

This is the most intense type of penetration testing. The tester is given little to no information about the business’ systems or IT infrastructure, playing the role of a true cyber attack. This type takes a massive amount of technical skill, though it is a time consuming test and cannot access all areas.

White box 

This gives the tester full access to IT infrastructure and source code of a business, allowing an internal audit of the business’ security systems. It goes into detail and is more thorough than black box testing as it has access to source code and application design.

Gray box

This gives the tester partial access to a business’ security network. This approach is advantageous in some instances as it allows for a more focused assessment. The tester can focus on specific areas to identify risks.


Pros of Penetration Testing

Cons of Penetration Testing

Identify a wide range of vulnerabilities Can cause damage associated with a real attack
Provide reports along with advice to clean up vulnerabilities Prior knowledge of a pen test by employees can make systems look stronger than they are
Recognize small vulnerabilities that result in larger weaknesses Inadequate testing can lead to overlooking vulnerabilities
Represents how a real world attack would be conducted and handled High cost associated with frequent testing


What is Vulnerability Assessment?

Vulnerability assessment of your company’s systems uses a computer program to comb through networks, computers, applications, and mobile devices to identify vulnerabilities in security. This kind of testing for vulnerabilities does not include active attacks against your systems and is usually automated, resulting in a list of potential weaknesses. A comprehensive vulnerability assessment will include identifying a list of vulnerabilities, analyzing the source of the vulnerabilities, ranking and prioritizing vulnerabilities by risk, and developing solutions to fix the weaknesses. 


The first step is to create a list of vulnerabilities. Analysts can do this with programs or manually to test the security health of each type of your company’s systems. Automated tools are also employed to seek out weaknesses.


This step of vulnerability assessment determines the source of the weaknesses that the programs, tools, and analysts identified in the first step. This helps point at the cause of the vulnerability and provide an idea of how to fix the problem.


After vulnerabilities and their causes are identified, analysts rank how severe each one is. Developing a list of priorities helps bolster security efforts more quickly.


Security staff, development, and operations teams determine the best way to repair or remediate each vulnerability, prioritizing the highest risk weaknesses to increase security. New security measures, updating outdated systems, fixing misconfiguration issues, and developing patches are some of a variety of ways the teams work to fix weaknesses.


Pros of Vulnerability Assessment

Cons of Vulnerability Assessment

Quick results that are time and cost effective Opportunity for missed vulnerabilities
Determine effectiveness of security measures Automated systems can result in false positives
Tools are user friendly Systems and tools need constant updates
Can offer constant monitoring of systems Cannot prepare business’ employees for a real attack

Choosing the Best Method

In short, penetration testing and vulnerability assessment are tools your business can use to make sure your systems, networks, and applications are properly secured. Both operate differently and result in different outcomes. If your goal is to conduct a deep dive into every part of your systems’ security, penetration testing will be your best option. If you want frequent and consistent security tests that give you insight into your business’ security, you should choose a vulnerability assessment. You could also choose both options. Regardless of your choice, the important thing to ensure is that your company’s assets are protected from attacks. If you’re looking for a business partner who takes your vulnerability assessment seriously, give us a shout. We’ll take care of the rest.