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Penetration Tests vs Vulnerability Scans: what's the difference

Penetration Testing vs Vulnerability Scans: What’s the Difference?

Penetration testing and vulnerability scanning are two key security services designed to highlight areas of weakness in your business security, so you can ensure they are resolved before a cybersecurity incident occurs.

Vulnerability scanning is often confused with penetration testing with the terms being used interchangeably. In reality, these two techniques are quite different, and both are important for understanding and mitigating cyber risk and maintaining a positive security profile. Understanding the differences between the two will prevent you from investing in one service when you really need the other.
Vulnerability testing also offers detailed steps to identify any current flaws and stop future attacks. The testing can also help improve your organization’s reputation and goodwill, and thus inspire greater confidence among customers.

5 Key Differences between Vulnerability Scanning and Penetration Testing

  1. A vulnerability scan typically covers all assets within a business whereas a penetration test is very targeted, covering critical assets only.
  2. Penetration testing requires highly skilled, security analysts, whereas vulnerability scanning can typically be conducted by analysts with knowledge of basic networking and security concepts along with automated tools.
  3. Vulnerability scans and penetration tests can be intrusive and may cause outages and other issues on corporate networks whilst being preformed
  4. Vulnerability scans have a lower cost than penetration tests and can be conducted frequently, penetration tests however are costly and are typically only conducted once per year.
  5. Vulnerability scans can be performed manually or automatically and will complete in as little as several minutes to as long as several hours. Penetration tests will always be manually instigated and last anywhere from days to weeks.

What is vulnerability scanning?

A vulnerability scan is an automated high-level test that discovers and reports on potential vulnerabilities. A vulnerability scan will typically look at your computers, systems and networks and report back on areas of your business that could be exploited. Being mostly automated, vulnerability scans are capable of searching for thousands of vulnerabilities in a very short space of time, typically completing within an hour. The results of which are required for most Cybersecurity certifications such as PCI DSS.

The benefits of vulnerability scanning

Vulnerability scanning provides a detailed list of the vulnerabilities discovered throughout your systems, enabling you to make informed decisions to improve your business security.

Vulnerability scans offer a quick and affordable way to highlight any security vulnerabilities within your business, requiring very little manual input along with regular scanning, Ideal for small to medium businesses.

Due to its high-level approach, the information provided by a vulnerability scan simply indicates if a weakness exists, regardless of its exploitability in that given circumstance and how that may ultimately affect your business.

Vulnerability scanning should be the starting point in your security program, allowing you to get a broad sense of your risk exposure.

What is a penetration test?

A penetration test is an exhaustive investigation that is carried out by a real person actually crawling through your network’s complexities to give a detailed and hands-on examination using a wide range of tools to actively exploit weaknesses in your security

Unlike vulnerability scanning, a penetration test simulates a hacker attempting to gain access to your business, penetration testing is quite costly, primarily due to the need to have highly skilled testers designing and executing the tests as this is one of the more effective ways to highlight exploitable areas. Analysts (ethical hackers), search for vulnerabilities and then try to prove they can be exploited, using methods like cracking passwords, buffer overflow and SQL injection. A penetration test might take anywhere from days to weeks and are done on a periodic basis

Understanding the benefits of pen testing

Penetration testing is extremely detailed and will help to pinpoint the risks involved with specific flaws within your business security, and include reports offering descriptions of attacks used, testing methodologies and suggestions for remediation.

Relative to vulnerability scanning, penetration testing is quite costly however using live and manual tests offer greater accuracy and information before remedial work is recommended and implemented.
The accuracy of a penetration test is dependent on the skills of the tester and their understanding of your business and how vulnerabilities can be exploited within your systems


Both vulnerability scanning and penetration testing play important roles in strengthening your cyber security. Your starting point should be Vulnerability scanning to gain a broad sense of your risk. Penetration testing can be used as a periodic add-on test for weaknesses using the same techniques typically leveraged by attackers.

Looking for help identifying weaknesses in your Businesses information security? Get in touch with us today to discover how we can support your security needs.

Give us a call at 01444 416641 or click here to fill in a contact form.

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