Penetration Testing vs. Vulnerability Scanning: Side-by-Side Comparison

You know the importance of keeping your network as safe as possible. Deploying software to help you spot issues on the network, so you can fix them before a hacker finds them, is important.

To help, you will usually choose between penetration testing and vulnerability scanning. Though many people consider these two security tools to be almost identical, there are actually very important differences. We’ll help you understand these differences so you can able to pick the best tool for your needs.

Our Recommendation = Get Penetration Testing Software

For cases where you need the most detailed look into potential network issues, the best penetration testing tools will deliver the desired results. Penetration testing, also known as pen testing, delivers highly detailed information on your network’s security issues.

At its core, a penetration testing tool will behave in a manner similar to a criminal hacker. Penetration testing tools seek out areas of your network that they can exploit to steal data or to gain access to highly restricted areas of the network. Think of it as a live experiment or stress test on your network.

Such weaknesses likely won’t be obvious to you or other network security personnel. But the penetration testing software operates a large number of tests and is highly efficient and effective at discovering network weaknesses. 

Once you have the information about various weaknesses that the penetration tester discovers, you and your security team can then go back and strengthen those areas. The idea is that the penetration testing software can find the weak areas before a hacker could, giving you time to make corrections.

When to Get Vulnerability Scanning Software Instead

The best vulnerability scanning tools will also probe your network for weaknesses. However, the vulnerability scanner doesn’t dig as deeply as the penetration tester.

Think of the vulnerability scanning tool as more of a general but shallow scan for network issues. It may be able to spot specific areas where a hacker could exploit your network, but it also focuses on finding general network weaknesses. 

Vulnerability scanners don’t require as much time or effort to set up and use as penetration testers, so it’s easier to deploy them more frequently. 

One of the best times to use a vulnerability scanning software tool is after you make significant changes to the network’s operation. The scanner can give you an idea of any areas of the network where these changes may lead to vulnerabilities that hackers could exploit. 

Think of the vulnerability scanner as a starting point for finding network issues, while the penetration tester drills down to specific exploitable weaknesses. Because of these differences, you could deploy both types of tools, if desired.

Pricing – Are Penetration Testing Tools or Vulnerability Scanning Tools the Better Deal?

Winner = Draw

Costs for both penetration testing tools and vulnerability scanning tools will appear in a wide range of price points. You will find some of the tools in both categories available as open-source software, meaning they are free to download and use. However, these free tools may have some operational limitations. They will have very few technical support options as well.

When purchasing a paid version of a penetration testing tool or a vulnerability scanning tool, you will receive better customer support and technical support. You will often receive a graphical interface, too, which can make the software easier to use. 

You could pay as much as a few thousand dollars annually for these tools. Some tools charge based on the number of users, while others charge a flat fee. 

One other aspect of the cost that is worth mentioning: Penetration testing tools require more employee hours to run. They cannot run as a fully automated process as vulnerability scanners can. So you will need to invest some money in paying your security personnel to manage and decipher the process and results of the penetration testing tool. 

Because of the differences in complexity, you may even need to hire a third party to run your penetration testing tool, while you could likely run the vulnerability scanning tool in-house. Having to hire a third party increases the cost of the penetration testing tool’s operation.

In the end, per year, running the average penetration testing software will carry a higher price point than running the average vulnerability scanning tool. However, you are receiving a greater level of detailed information with the penetration testing tool. You may find this more valuable than the general information in the vulnerability scanning tool, making it well worth the extra expense.

Ultimately, because there are so many free options in both categories and because of the wide range of potential price points, it simply isn’t worth making a decision between these two types of software tools based on price alone.

Finding New Exploits

Winner = Penetration Testing Tools

Perhaps the greatest advantage penetration testing software holds over vulnerability scanning software is its ability to discover both known and unknown network weaknesses. 

Vulnerability Scanners Only Find Known Issues

The vulnerability scanner will scan the network and then compare its results to any known vulnerabilities. The vulnerability scanner is not going to track down weaknesses that don’t appear on its list of known vulnerabilities.

It is looking for known weaknesses in firewalls, servers, connected hardware, software, and any web applications. Until the scanner’s manufacturer adds an exploit to its list of known issues, the vulnerability scanner won’t be able to find it.

Penetration Tests Can Identify Zero-Day Vulnerabilities

When you have a concern about falling victim to exploits yet to be publicly known, penetration testing tools are the far better choice. Such vulnerabilities, called zero-day vulnerabilities, can give hackers a huge advantage over your security team. After all, you can’t patch a vulnerability if you don’t know about it.

This is where penetration testers enter the picture. Rather than relying on a list of known vulnerabilities, the penetration testing tools will act like a human hacker and probe various areas of the network. Through these probes, the tool may discover an unpublicized weakness. It then can run further testing and probing to see how far it can push the weakness.

Even though unknown vulnerabilities and weaknesses receive the name zero-day vulnerabilities, the name is a little misleading. The zero refers to the amount of time that security personnel have known about this type of weakness. The zero does not refer to the number of days hackers have known about the weakness. 

After probing another network, a hacker may have knowledge of a zero-day vulnerability for quite a while, placing your network at risk. Penetration testing software gives you a fighting chance to discover a zero-day vulnerability before hackers do or before hackers can deploy it against you.

Meeting Compliance Standards

Winner = Draw

If you need to show compliance with various industry regulations and laws, you may need to run network scans and tests on a regular schedule. You may need to make use of tools that support certain compliance standards, including:

  • FINRA
  • GDPR
  • HIPAA
  • ISO 27001
  • NIS
  • PCI DSS
  • SOC 2
  • SWIFT CSP

Fortunately, the majority of vulnerability scanning and penetration testing tools can meet a wide range of regulatory standards. Just make sure that any software tool you select has the certification to meet the particular standards you must follow.

Speed of Testing

Winner = Vulnerability Scanning Tools

If you primarily want a tool that you can run automatically on a regular basis to complete the process quickly, vulnerability scanning tools are going to simplify this process. Because of the detail involved in a penetration test and because of the significant amount of manual control required, it is more difficult to complete a penetration test quickly versus a vulnerability scan.

Run Vulnerability Scans at Least Quarterly

You should run a vulnerability scan using this software at least quarterly, although you can run it more often as desired. You also should run the vulnerability scanning tool any time you add components to the network or make significant changes to the network’s configuration.

The vulnerability scanning tools do not require you to have employees make manual changes to the process throughout the scan. This level of automation allows the vulnerability scan to run fast and efficiently. 

Run Penetration Tests at Least Annually

Generally, manufacturers of penetration testing tools will recommend running these tests one to two times a year. You also could run them any time you make significant changes to the network setup. As a time-saving option, you could have the penetration testing tool focus on a certain area of the network, rather than scanning the entire network.

Depth of Reports

Winner = Penetration Testing Tools

The detail provided in the reports from penetration testing tools is a significant differentiator between these two categories of software. 

Penetration Testing Reports

Through their reports, penetration testers will give you information on any vulnerabilities that they discover, which is similar to vulnerability scanners. However, pen testing tools go a step further by attempting to exploit the vulnerability (in an ethical manner). In other words, the penetration tester behaves like a hacker without actually stealing, exploiting, or damaging data on the network. 

The penetration testing then reports on whether the tool had any success in extracting data or in compromising the network.

The penetration testing tool will make use of a number of hacking methods to try to measure the true threat that the vulnerability poses to the network’s security. The pen testing tool may use methods of hacking like password cracking or SQL injection to try to exploit the vulnerability that it finds.

Through the high level of detail provided in the reports, the penetration testing tool gives you all the information you need to determine which vulnerabilities you need to try to fix immediately and which can wait. 

Vulnerability Scanning Reports

The vulnerability scanning tools provide more of a general overview of the network’s security issues. However, some vulnerability scanners are able to provide advice and steps you should take to attempt to correct the vulnerability.

The report will list all of the potential vulnerabilities it finds, and you then will have to determine which ones pose the greatest level of threat to your network. The report from the vulnerability scanner may attempt to sort the issues based on the level of threat they create for the network. 

Remember, however, that the vulnerability scanning tool does not attempt to exploit the issues it finds to the same level as the pen testing tool. This means it’s difficult to know exactly how big of a threat a certain issue creates for your specific network setup. You typically will need to invest time in tracking down each issue the vulnerability scanner finds to fully understand its true level of danger.

One area where the vulnerability scanning tool’s reports can be extremely helpful is in making before-and-after comparisons. When you make a change to some network hardware or to the way the network is operating, you may like to know if the change created any new network issues or weaknesses. 

Comparing the most recent vulnerability scan from before the change occurred to the vulnerability scan after the change occurred gives you insight into whether the change introduced network weaknesses.

Because it focuses so much on changes in the network when looking for vulnerabilities, the vulnerability scanning tool report could generate false positives. Investigating false positives will cost you time and money. Penetration testing tool reports tend to have fewer false positives.

Ease of Use

Winner = Vulnerability Scanning Tools

Because vulnerability scanning tools provide a general look at your network security issues, these tools will be easier to use than the detailed pen test tools. 

Automation of Vulnerability Scanning

Vulnerability scanners typically automate the majority of their tasks and do not need manual intervention to make the process work. If you have a huge network with a large number of components, trying to manually run the scan would be extremely time-consuming. 

If you don’t have a lot of experience with performing these types of network tests and scans, the vulnerability scanner is a better choice than the penetration tester. Some teams may need to hire third parties to operate and run a penetration testing tool for them because of the complexity involved.

The ease of use with vulnerability scanners gives you the option of running the scanner monthly or quarterly. You might only run a penetration testing tool once or twice a year, in part because of the amount of preparation and manual control work required to make the test function properly.

Penetration Testing Requires Manual Intervention

Penetration testing has some automated features, but it always will require some manual intervention to make the process work. By tweaking settings or changing the method of attack in the middle of the pen test, you will have a better chance of simulating an actual hack. 

You also may want to focus on a certain aspect of the network while the penetration test is running, which requires some manual intervention. 

With the pen test tool, you can have it focus on more sensitive and valuable areas of the network, maximizing your time and financial budget for the process. However, deploying this level of manual control brings more complexity to the process.

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Bryan Wise
Bryan Wise,
CIO of GitLab

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