Penetration testing vs Vulnerability Scanning: What’s the Difference and Which is Better?

It’s common for people to mix up penetration testing and vulnerability scanning. Both aim to uncover IT infrastructure weaknesses, mimicking real hackers' methods. While they have similar goals, it’s important to distinguish the difference between the two. 

The main difference between Penetration Testing vs Vulnerability Scanning

Penetration testing involves a hands-on security evaluation where a cybersecurity expert actively seeks ways to breach your systems. This comprehensive assessment evaluates security measures across different systems like web applications, networks, and cloud environments. Due to its complexity and cost, a penetration test typically spans across several weeks, and is conducted yearly. However, with Red Sentry, penetration tests can be scheduled and conducted in as little as a week. 

In contrast, vulnerability scanning is an automated process conducted through tools that can be installed within your network or accessed online (referred to as automated pen testing). These scanners execute a series of security checks on your business’ systems, generating a list of vulnerabilities along with recommended solutions. Unlike manual pentests, continuous security assessments can be performed without the need for a dedicated cybersecurity expert on the team.

Similar to scuba diving and snorkeling, penetration testing acts as a thorough deep dive of your business’ landscape, requiring the expertise of a trained professional, whereas a vulnerability scan is similar to snorkeling, examining the surface for easy-to-spot vulnerabilities. To learn more about how these assessments compare to scuba diving and snorkeling, read our blog here

The key difference between a penetration test and vulnerability scanner is that while penetration testing is generally more time consuming, they dive deeper into an environment, compared to vulnerability scanning, which evaluates the surface for easy-to-spot vulnerabilities.

What’s better: one-off Penetration Testing, or regular Vulnerability Scanning?

Penetration tests have long been an essential part of many organizations' strategies to protect themselves from cyber attacks and exploit weaknesses, and an excellent way to find flaws at a certain point in time. But the use of penetration testing alone can often leave such organizations defenseless for long periods of time.

Penetration testing tools have been crucial in safeguarding organizations from cyber threats, providing valuable insights into vulnerabilities at specific points in time. However, relying solely on penetration testing can render organizations vulnerable for extended periods of time.

For good reason, conducting annual penetration tests has gained traction over the years by security professionals and business owners alike and continues to remain prevalent in the cybersecurity industry. Though this approach is definitely better than having no defense strategy at all, it comes with a significant drawback: what happens during the intervals between each penetration test?

The short answer? Both. Utilizing manual tests AND an automated tool together can significantly bolster your organization's network security.

Imagine this: If a crucial new vulnerability is found in the Apache web server operating a customer portal during the year-long period between annual penetration tests, what happens then? Or if a junior developer accidentally introduces a security misconfiguration? What if a network engineer opens a port on a firewall, exposing a database to the internet, and forgets to close it? Who is responsible for identifying these issues that, if overlooked, could lead to a data breach or compromise?

Without ongoing monitoring, how confident are you that your business would be able to locate and remediate these issues before malicious attackers act on it first?

Areas requiring strong physical security measures typically need 24/7 automated solutions to discourage potential threats year-round. Considering the average discovery of 68 new vulnerabilities a day, why do some companies approach cybersecurity differently? 

Hopefully, you can now understand why infrequent penetration testing alone doesn't suffice. It’s similar to inspecting the locks of your high-security building just once a year, then leaving it unattended without verifying its security until the next annual check. 

How long do you keep your doors unlocked between each vulnerability assessment? 6 month? A year?

Conducting regular vulnerability scans serves as a valuable supplement to manual testing, offering organizations continuous security coverage between these manual assessments.

Many companies still rely solely on annual penetration testing as their primary defense. However, as awareness grows about the frequency of vulnerabilities, our perspective is shifting. We believe automated vulnerability scanning solutions will become the go-to choice for all companies, with manual penetration testing serving as a robust backup plan.

Thankfully, awareness is increasing of the need for a strategy which provides protection all year round, but we still have some way to go.

Luckily, year-round protection is becoming a growing priority for small and large businesses alike, but there’s definitely still progress to be made.

Discover more cybersecurity gems: 10 Ways to Improve Your Cybersecurity without Spending a Single Dollar

About Red Sentry

Red Sentry provides a range of services including penetration testing services and automated vulnerability scanning. While our internal security team of penetration testers deep dives into your environment to exploit more complex weaknesses, our continuous vulnerability scanner keeps you updated on the latest vulnerabilities and notifies you about emerging threats that impact your most vulnerable systems. Improve your organization's security posture and sign up for your 7-day free trial today!

Celine Pham
Content Marketing Manager

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