Highly accurate Information Security Testing

Vulnerability Assessment vs. Penetration Test: The Difference

Even though we know how important security is, most of us tend to overlook it until it becomes an issue.  When people hear about these security issues, they often say things like, “It can not happen to me because…”. But this stereotype is wrong, as security breaches can happen to anyone at any time. And the only way to prevent it is to proactively protect your organization, and it starts by regularly conducting security testing to ensure your security measures are up to date. So, what does the security testing involve? 

Cybersecurity threat vectors are so many and can be utilized in various diverse ways, that it is almost impossible to say your organization is 100% secure. Knowing this fact, when conducting your security testing, there are certainly vital components to ensure you take note of.  The penetration testing and vulnerability assessment are essential parts of this testing. However, only a few people know the difference between the two tests, and they often use them interchangeably. 

So, what are the key differences between penetration testing and vulnerability assessment? Read on to know them. 


Vulnerability Assessment


To know the difference between the two tests, you should know what each one means. So, what is a vulnerability assessment? 

A vulnerability assessment is a test or review that reveals how secure –or insecure-  a system, application, or network is, by evaluating and showcasing the weaknesses that an attacker could use to breach the security system. Apart from identifying these weaknesses, the vulnerability assessments determine the chances of the weaknesses being a problem and advise on how best to work on the issues found. This is different from penetration testing which identifies these weaknesses and fixes them. 

The vulnerability test, on the other hand, will just list out these weaknesses and recommend ways to fix them. Some of the weaknesses the vulnerability assessment might find out are hardware and software running on your network even if it is on a mobile device. The vulnerability assessment can be a manual or automatic test, either way, it will be a form of test and evaluation. If you are going for the manual vulnerability assessment, you will need an IT professional to test all systems you use in the organization. But the automatic vulnerability assessments scan all the infrastructure in your organization with software. The result you get will let you know which issues need urgent attention and the best solution for the problems. 


Types of Vulnerability Assessments 


  1. External network scanning: Since the firewall filters trusted sources from untrusted ones, any loopholes in it can cause a breach, so the external network scanning tests for weaknesses outside the organization’s firewalls. Some vulnerabilities include IP addresses, open ports, and MAC dresses. It also analyzes the software running on the devices. 
  2. Internal network scanning: this identifies vulnerabilities in systems you use within the organization and the devices you connect to them. Devices like printers and projectors. 
  3. Internal system scanning:  This reveals weaknesses in the organization’s systems, e.g. outdated software and weak passwords that attackers could exploit.
  4. Network penetration testing: this type of testing imitates tracks hackers could try on your network. So, the test tries to access the organization’s sensitive information or attempts to bring down the system with the aid of a denial of service attack (DoS). 
  5. Web application scanning: this simply tests your website’s security. It aims to identify weaknesses like SQL injection, cross-site scripting, and malware injection. 


How Does a Vulnerability Assessment Work?


Now, that you know that the vulnerability assessment ensures you have no loopholes in your organization’s security and tells you ways to protect your community, you should know the processes involved in the assessment. First, you should know that the vulnerability assessment is mostly conducted through an external scan. So, the software or IT professional sends out probes to your network to check for open ports and running services. If you have outdated operating systems or software, the vulnerability assessment also tests for them because they can also be weaknesses attackers take advantage of.

An organization might not be able to conduct the scan themselves if they do not have the time or requires technical expertise; hiring an IT company or professional is their only solution. The company will show you the result and tell you what to do to fill the loopholes,  and when the IT company is settling the vulnerability assessment, the organization can focus on penetration testing, incident response planning, or other aspects of cyber security.


Penetration Testing


Penetration testing assesses a system or application’s security by imitating a real-world attack. Penetration testing can be done by the system or application developers or a security company specialist/company. 

Unlike vulnerability assessment, penetration testing will attack the target instead of passively looking for ways in which the system can be attacked. Penetration testing is different from a vulnerability assessment in that it takes a step further by finding the vulnerabilities and then maliciously attacking them, while the vulnerability assessment just stops at discovering these vulnerabilities. 

Like vulnerability assessment, penetration testing can also be a manual or automatic process. The process is also the same; there are testers that perform the attack by targeting the system. While the automatic penetration testing process uses software tools to automate all tasks. The tasks are network mapping, port scanning, identifying vulnerabilities and services, attacking the identified vulnerabilities, and showing the result of the testing process.


Advantages of Penetration Testing over Vulnerability Assessment


As said above, the penetration test verifies the organization’s assets’  security by attacking the assets. Using this method makes it possible to protect the organization from cyber-attacks fully. 

While the vulnerability assessment also verifies the organization’s digital asset’s security, it uses an entirely different method. Rather than attack the assets, vulnerability assessment look for vulnerabilities that could cause attacks. This means vulnerability just shows the result and not the road leading to it, you will know the vulnerability, but you will not know how the attacker might take advantage of them. 

So the upper hand the penetration testing has over vulnerability assessment is that it is more comprehensive. A penetration test will imitate the test and show you how an outsider can do it, giving you enough information to know how an actual attack could feel like instead of just knowing the root of the attack. 


When Should I Schedule a Vulnerability Assessment or Penetration Test?


When to schedule either of the security tests depends on your organization, its needs, and its accomplishment. If you want a comprehensive understanding of your current security state as a whole, you should go for a vulnerability assessment. The vulnerability assessment will show the weaknesses you have in the system, and how to address them appropriately. 

On the other hand, if you suspect a  threat and you want to test it to know if an attacker can gain access through it, you should go for penetration testing. The penetration test will imitate the suspected or possible breach by the attack and see if you have a good defense and what would happen if the attacker tries it. 




Even though both methods are good for testing your security, penetration testing is the better way. With penetration testing,  you can know what a real-world attack will look like and how secure you are in the face of a real-world attack. So, if you have a  threat actor in mind, you should use penetration testing for fishing out your vulnerabilities and methods. As good as vulnerability assessments are, they can only identify your weaknesses; they will not show you where you stand in the face of a real-world attack.