We frequently encounter the terms “vulnerability assessment” and “penetration testing” in cybersecurity. But many people use them interchangeably, reflecting an incomplete understanding of what these services entail.
While both vulnerability assessments and penetration tests are integral components of a threat management process to help discover vulnerabilities in websites, applications, networks, or systems, they’re far from the same. Understanding the differences can help you select the appropriate service to meet your objectives.
What is a Vulnerability Assessment?
A vulnerability assessment is an integral part of a vulnerability management process. A software application automatically scans for known vulnerabilities in your systems and reports potential exposures. You get a comprehensive list of issues to evaluate your cybersecurity posture, pinpoint weaknesses and identify the appropriate mitigation procedures.
A vulnerability assessment starts with cataloguing all the assets and resources in a system and assigning a quantifiable value to each item. Then, a security professional identifies the vulnerabilities or potential threats to each resource and proposes how to mitigate the most severe issues for the most valuable resources.
What is Penetration Testing?
Also called a “pen test” or a “red team exercise”, a penetration test simulates the actions of an internal or external attacker who tries to breach your systems and networks. A penetration tester (or “ethical hacker”) attempts to exploit critical systems and access sensitive data using multiple tools and techniques.
These exercises test implemented security controls after they have matured. A professional white-hat hacker looks for weaknesses in your IT infrastructure and determines how far a cybercriminal can go to gain unauthorized access to your assets.
Unlike an automated vulnerability assessment, penetrations tests are performed manually and have a narrow but deep scope. Companies often need to perform pen tests to meet compliance requirements (e.g. PCI, NERC) or verify the security of business infrastructure after it has undergone a significant change.
Vulnerability Assessment vs Penetration Testing: How Are They Different?
A vulnerability assessment gives you a broad overview of your security posture. It’s like going up to a door and turning the knob to see if it’s locked. A pen test exploits the weaknesses in your system to see how hackers may hack it. It’s like going up to a door and trying to break in. Here are the key areas where the two differ:
A vulnerability assessment aims to uncover known vulnerabilities in your systems. It also ranks and reports each weakness to help you prioritize security resources. Meanwhile, a pen test is a simulated attack designed to evade or overthrow existing security features and determine your risk level.
A vulnerability assessment is done with automated tools. Then, a security professional reviews the reports and confirms the results. Meanwhile, a white-hat hacker performs a pen test using different tools and techniques, including vulnerability scans, to find and exploit potential attack vectors.
A vulnerability assessment uncovers internal and external risk areas hackers could exploit. A penetration test identifies risk exposures and demonstrates how malicious actors can target your critical assets, how far they can go, and to what extent your network and data are at risk.
Automated vulnerability scans are quick to perform and won’t disrupt business procedures. Meanwhile, pen tests are more time-consuming because of their manual nature. They may also disrupt business processes.
Vulnerability assessments should be conducted regularly, ideally weekly, while pen tests should be done at least annually and preferably every 6 months. You should also perform both after installing new software and equipment or making significant changes to your systems and networks. You can automate vulnerability scans, but you need to arrange pen tests manually, though some automated tools are also available.
Vulnerability assessments are relatively low-cost, thanks to automation tools. If you partner with a SOC as a Service (SOCaaS) provider, these scans may be part of your service package, and you don’t even have to worry about purchasing any software. Pen tests are more costly and dependent on the scope size due to their more manual nature.
Vulnerability assessments deliver reports that outline weaknesses that can be exploited by threat actors. Meanwhile, pen test reports detail your risk exposures, rank the vulnerabilities, and show you how the weaknesses can be exploited and what data could be compromised.
Vulnerability Assessment Vs. Penetration Testing: Which One is Right For Me?
Vulnerability assessment and penetration testing are both critical for strengthening your defense. A vulnerability scan provides an overview of all the existing security gaps, while a pen test shows you what could happen if you leave specific issues unaddressed.
A vulnerability scan shows you all the surface-level weaknesses and how you can fix them. A pen test goes deep into how an attacker can break into your infrastructure and what data or business processes are at risk.
Both are essential to a comprehensive vulnerability management program. You should conduct them regularly to ensure ongoing improvements to your cybersecurity posture and confirm that your defense is up-to-date.
Bring It All Together With a Vulnerability Management Program
Vulnerability management is a cyclical, ongoing process that identifies, classifies, quantifies, prioritizes, and treats security issues. It gives you accurate insights to remediate vulnerabilities in your infrastructure and your clients’ networks to reduce attack surfaces and minimize risk exposures.
This process is an essential preventive measure and helps you save a lot of time and cost in the long term. It can help you pinpoint high-risk issues early, understand their risk levels, evaluate their business impacts, and implement the appropriate security controls.
The insights from a vulnerability management program can help you enhance your security posture, increase operational efficiency, improve visibility, and create tangible reports to communicate with key stakeholders.
However, purchasing the software, scheduling the scans, interpreting the reports, and hiring the right white-hat hackers are costly and time-consuming. The investment and workload can be daunting for MSPs and MSSPs who want to offer these services to their clients.
That’s why more MSPs and MSSPs are using inSOC’s turkney SOCaaS solutions to provide comprehensive vulnerability management to their clients without the high upfront or ongoing costs. We conduct weekly scans to ensure that your systems and clients’ networks are in shape while providing the reports to demonstrate the value you bring to the table.
Learn more about our vulnerability management services and book a time to talk.
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