A vulnerability assessment is the process of identifying IT security weaknesses in your network, operating systems, firewalls, and hardware, and then taking steps to fix them.

Penetration testing, also known as “pen testing,” is an intentional, simulated cyberattack against your IT systems to find vulnerabilities and test the efficacy of cybersecurity controls.

Both are essential components of a comprehensive vulnerability management and network security protocol.

The two terms may seem interchangeable, but differences exist. So what is penetration testing, and how does it differ from vulnerability assessment?

In three ways, primarily:

  • Breadth versus depth
  • Automated versus manual
  • Degree of skill needed

Breadth Versus Depth

The main difference between vulnerability assessment and penetration testing is coverage: breadth versus depth.

A vulnerability assessment goes wide, attempting to uncover as many weaknesses as it can find with the goal of remediation. A pen test goes deep by simulating an attack on a particular system to examine the network environment, test defenses, and exploit flaws.

One (vulnerability assessment) is like a thief casing a neighborhood to see which houses offer the best possibility of intrusion. The other (penetration testing) is a high-end cat burglar breaking into one specific house.

One problem is that a vulnerability scanner may sometimes trigger the “house alarm” in the form of false positives. In other words, the scan detects the presence of a thief (an SQL Injection, for example) that isn’t actually there.

Automated Versus Manual

Another difference is the degree of automation. Vulnerability assessments typically use automated vulnerability scan tools, which allow for broader coverage. Penetration testing uses a mix of automated tools and manual techniques, which helps to dig deeper into the weakness.

Degree of Skill Needed

Thanks to automation, vulnerability assessments don’t require as much skill as penetration testing. This means that most in-house cybersecurity teams can run the tests themselves. (Organizations also contract with third-party service providers to conduct the scans.)

Penetration testing, however, requires a greater degree of expertise because it relies on manually intensive techniques. Typically, organizations outsource the task to qualified pen testers (also known as “ethical hackers”).

In summary, a vulnerability assessment answers the question, “What are our weaknesses, and how do we fix them?” Penetration testing answers the question, “Can someone break in, and what can that attacker get access to?”

Despite the differences, the goal of both methods is to identify potential threats and keep organizations safe from cyberattack.

Do You Need Penetration Testing or a Vulnerability Assessment?

As mentioned at the outset, pen testing and vulnerability assessments are both critical components of a comprehensive threat deterrent matrix. Still, one may be more important to use than the other, depending on your specific need.

A good rule of thumb is that vulnerability assessments are helpful if an organization is uncertain about its network’s security posture, or is getting started and needs a baseline understanding of current vulnerabilities. A pen test is best suited to organizations confident in their information security controls and looking to prove or disprove their effectiveness.

Typically, a penetration test should follow a network vulnerability assessment. It makes less sense to run a pen test before identifying and fixing known vulnerabilities.

(The PCI DSS security framework explicitly demands that penetration testing and vulnerability scanning be part of an organization’s security governance. The HIPAA Security Rule does not expressly require the use of either protocol, although both measures are recommended.)

Assure Your Data Is Secure with ZenGRC

Regular vulnerability assessments, scanning, and penetration tests should be routine parts of a company’s security assessment plan because the risk environment changes over time. That’s where Reciprocity’s ZenGRC platform can help.

ZenGRC is a governance, risk management, and compliance tool that supports routine vulnerability assessments and penetration testing. It collects documentation, streamlines workflows, and eliminates the need for constant follow-up while tracing outstanding tasks.

ZenGRC lets organizations focus on strengthening their security posture while eliminating the tedium that accompanies such efforts.

To see how ZenGRC can improve your vulnerability assessments and penetration testing strategies, schedule a free demo today.