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The Difference Between a Vulnerability Assessment and a Penetration Test

Posted: July 30, 2014

What’s the Difference?

The purpose of this post is to explain some differences between a vulnerability assessment and a penetration test so you know what to expect when you purchase either service.

The primary difference between a penetration test and a vulnerability assessment is that a vulnerability assessment is threat-agnostic.

Where a penetration test focuses on emulating specific threat actors and actions in order to seek out the resultant impact and risk, a vulnerability assessment does not.

The goal of a vulnerability assessment is to identify potential vulnerabilities.  

The goal of a penetration test is to identifying actual risk.

Below are some characteristics of both a vulnerability assessment and a penetration test.  Both types of security testing have their value and purpose.

Vulnerability Assessment

Periodic vulnerability assessments are a very important piece in an effective Information Security program.  They identify “low hanging fruit” and when done correctly, make a would-be attacker’s job much more difficult.  Most organizations conduct quarterly vulnerability scanning, but the more secure organizations conduct scanning more often than that – many conduct daily or continuous scanning.

Penetration Test

Periodic penetration testing assessments are a critical part of an Information Security program and play a crucial role in overall business or organizational risk management.  Most organizations conduct annual penetration testing assessments, but the more proactive and secure organizations conduct more frequent testing.

In Summary

As you can see, a vulnerability assessment is very different from a penetration test.  The focus and end result is completely different. Both are an essential part of a solid Information Security program.  Conducting quarterly vulnerability scans can help fix the low hanging fruit, while the annual penetration testing can help alleviate the more complex security problems.  Together, these two assessments can greatly enhance a company’s security posture, and help prevent an intrusion or other security breach.