Vulnerability Scans & Penetration Testing

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Vulnerability scanning cannot replace the importance of penetration testing, and penetration testing, on its own, cannot secure the entire network. Both are important at their respective levels, needed in cyber risk analysis, and are required by standards such as PCI, HIPAA, ISO 27001, etc.

But what is the difference, you ask?

Penetration testing exploits a vulnerability in your system architecture while vulnerability scanning checks for known vulnerabilities and generates a report on risk exposure.

Either penetration testing or vulnerability scanning depends mostly on these factors:

  1. Scope
  2. Risk and criticality of assets
  3. Cost and time

Penetration Testing

Penetration testing scope is targeted and there is always a human factor involved. There is no automated penetration testing – penetration testing requires the use of tools but, it also requires an extremely experienced person to conduct.

Testing can be at application or network level but specific to function, department, or number of assets. One can include the whole infrastructure and all applications but that is impractical because of cost and time. You are able to define your scope on several factors based on risk and how important an asset is.

Penetration testing normally takes from a few days to a few weeks and is often conducted once a year.

Vulnerability Scanning

Vulnerability scanning is the act of identifying potential vulnerabilities in network devices such as firewalls, routers, switches, servers, and applications. It is automated and focuses on finding potential and known vulnerabilities on the network or at an application level. It does not exploit the vulnerabilities.

The scope of vulnerability scanning is business-wide, requiring automated tools to manage a high number of assets. It is wider in scope than penetration testing. Vulnerability scans can be run frequently on any number of assets to ascertain known vulnerabilities are detected and patched. Meaning, you can eliminate more serious vulnerabilities for your valuable resources quickly.

Vulnerability management can be fed into patch management for effective patching. Patches must be tested on a test system before rolling out to production.


Both vulnerability scanning and penetration testing can feed into the cyber risk analysis process and help to determine controls best suited for the business, department, or a practice.

It is also important to note that cyber criminals also have access to vulnerability scanning tools, so it is vital to carry out scans and take restorative actions before hackers can exploit any security vulnerabilities.

Vulnerability scanning and penetration testing lets you take a proactive approach to close any gaps and maintain strong security for your systems, data, employees, and customers. Data breaches are often the result of unpatched vulnerabilities, so identifying and eliminating these security gaps, removes the low-hanging fruit and keeps hackers out.

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