Vulnerability Scanning Vs Penetration Testing

by Tashina

Often people misunderstand the difference between vulnerability scanning vs penetration testing and use the two terms interchangeably. A vulnerability scan seeks to search a system for known vulnerabilities, whereas a penetration test attempts to exploit a weakness in a network environment. Penetration tests require different expertise levels but vulnerability scans can be automated.

What is Vulnerability Scanning?

Vulnerability scanning is an automated process that identifies and classifies vulnerabilities in computer systems, applications, and networks. These scans are typically performed using specialised software tools that search for known vulnerabilities within a system or network.

Vulnerability scanning at regular intervals is important to maintain an organisation’s information security. It is always recommended to perform scans for every new equipment before deploying it at first. Afterwards, organisations should perform vulnerability scans at least quarterly. If there are any changes to an equipment, it should again be followed by a vulnerability scan. Vulnerability scanning helps to detect any issues like missing patches and outdated certificates, services or protocols.

Organisations need to manage baseline reports of their equipment. They need to investigate any changes in added services or open ports. A vulnerability scanner can raise an alarm to network defenders if it detects any unauthorised changes to the environment. Integrating the changes with change control records helps determine if they were authorised changes that occurred as a result of a problem such as violation by a staff member in change-control policy or a malware infection.

Key Features of Vulnerability Scanning:

  • Automated Process: Vulnerability scans are largely automated and can be scheduled to run at regular intervals.
  • Broad Coverage: Scans provide a wide overview of potential vulnerabilities across all systems.
  • Database-Driven: They rely on databases of known vulnerabilities, such as the Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVE) list.

What is Penetration Testing?

Penetration testing, often referred to as “pen testing”, is a simulated cyberattack against a computer system, network, or application. The primary goal is to identify weaknesses before malicious hackers can exploit them.

Penetration testing helps identify unsecured business processes, weak security settings or any other weakness that a hacker can exploit. Penetration tests can discover issues such as password reuse, transmitting unencrypted passwords or an old database storing user credentials. You don’t need to conduct a penetration test as often as a vulnerability scan. However, you must perform it regularly.
A third-party vendor providing specialised penetration testing services can conduct the test better than internal staff members. This ensures the avoidance of conflict of interest and provides a clear, honest and objective view of network environment. There are various tools involved in a penetration test. However, for the test to yield effective results the tester must be reliable and professionally experienced. They must have in-depth knowledge of information technology. They should also be able to think abstractly and have proactive approach towards anticipating threats. It requires thorough and comprehensive focus.

A penetration test report is brief and to-the-point. It can give specific details as appendices. However, the main report should concisely mention the what and how of compromised data. A useful report also mentions the attack and exploit method, value of data exploited and recommendations to improve the security posture of the organisation.

When it comes to cybersecurity, understanding the difference between vulnerability scanning and penetration testing is crucial. Both are essential tools in the cybersecurity toolkit, but they serve different purposes and offer unique insights into the security posture of an organisation. In this article, we’ll delve deep into the world of “Scanning vs Penetration Testing” to help you determine which approach is best suited for your business needs.

Key Features of Penetration Testing:

  • Manual Process: While some tools can automate parts of the process, pen testing often requires human expertise to simulate real-world attacks.
  • Targeted: Pen tests are typically more focused, targeting specific systems or applications.
  • Real-World Simulation: It mimics the actions of an actual attacker, providing insights into how a real breach might occur.

Scanning vs Penetration Testing: The Differences

While both vulnerability scanning and penetration testing aim to identify vulnerabilities, they differ in approach, depth, and outcome.

  • Depth: Vulnerability scans offer a broad overview, while pen tests dive deep into specific vulnerabilities.
  • Purpose: Scans identify potential vulnerabilities, whereas pen tests exploit them to determine their real-world impact.
  • Frequency: Scans are typically conducted more frequently than pen tests, often daily or weekly. Pen tests might be annual or bi-annual.
  • Cost: Due to its automated nature, vulnerability scanning is generally less expensive than the manual expertise required for penetration testing.

Which One is Right for Your Business?

The decision between vulnerability scanning and penetration testing often comes down to your business’s specific needs and the current state of your cybersecurity infrastructure.

  • New Businesses or Systems: If you’re just starting out or have recently implemented new systems, a vulnerability scan can provide a quick overview of your security posture.
  • Mature Businesses with Established Security Protocols: If you have a mature cybersecurity infrastructure, regular penetration testing can provide deeper insights and ensure that your defences can withstand real-world attacks.
  • Regulatory Compliance: Some industries or regulations may require regular penetration testing as part of compliance standards.

Best Practices for Both Approaches

Regardless of which method you choose, there are best practices to ensure you get the most out of your cybersecurity efforts:

  • Regularly Update and Patch: Whether a vulnerability is identified through a scan or a pen test, it’s crucial to patch it promptly.
  • Stay Informed: Cyber threats evolve rapidly. Stay updated with the latest vulnerabilities and threats.
  • Educate Your Team: Human error is a significant factor in many breaches. Regular training can mitigate this risk.


In the debate of “Scanning vs Penetration Testing”, it’s not about choosing one over the other. Both have their place in a comprehensive cybersecurity strategy. Vulnerability scanning provides a broad overview, while penetration testing offers depth and real-world simulation. By understanding the differences and benefits of each, businesses can make informed decisions to protect their digital assets effectively.

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