What Are Major Differences Between Vulnerability Assessments and Penetration Tests?

Businesses must implement efficient security solutions due to the rising frequency of cyberattacks in the modern world. However, many companies need more resources and budgets to keep up with the escalating security threats. This may result in unpatched vulnerabilities that raise the possibility of an attack on your company.

This is where both vulnerability assessments and penetration tests can prove super useful. While we compare these two security activities for this blog, it does not mean they are pitted against each other. Both of them have a similar end goal — evaluating the security strength of your systems. So why are we highlighting their differences here? 

In a previous blog, we outlined the basics of vulnerability assessments and penetration tests. When we dove deep into these security activities and how they were viewed in the cybersecurity world, we realized that only a few know how they differ and what significant gap exists between the two regarding methodologies and pricing. In this article, we will give you a brief overview of both security activities and then dive right into their differences.

But first, let’s define what vulnerability assessments and penetration tests are.

What are Vulnerability Assessments and Penetration Tests?

Identifying and evaluating vulnerabilities in your network, devices, applications, or website is a vulnerability assessment. This security activity generally involves an automated vulnerability scanner referencing a vulnerability database to search your systems for common flaws and exposures.

A penetration test, on the other hand, refers to the practice of mimicking an attack on a system to identify and address security flaws. Security professionals typically carry it out. They use various hacker-like techniques to discover potential entry points into your system and investigate them to determine the damage they could cause.

How do they connect? Vulnerability assessments and penetration tests are both used to find security vulnerabilities. Furthermore, vulnerability scanning falls under the umbrella of penetration testing.

Who Needs Vulnerability Assessments and Penetration Tests?

Regular vulnerability assessments are necessary for anyone seeking to manage a company connected to the Internet. You need to regularly check for vulnerabilities whether you are in charge of a multi-million dollar SaaS company or a small e-commerce startup attempting to harness the power of data. Vulnerability assessments are necessary to comply with security laws such as PCI-DSS, HIPAA, SOC 2, or other standards.

Penetration tests, however, are appropriate for businesses that handle profitable data and have sophisticated applications. These are intended for companies with robust security measures who still need to identify and close potential security gaps. Penetration testing is far more expensive than vulnerability scanning because it requires security experts to actively search through your system for vulnerabilities that could be exploited. It is, therefore, intended for businesses with substantial security budgets.

If you would like to know more about why you need a vulnerability assessment or a penetration test, you can refer to this blog.

In the following section, we will discuss the differentiating features of both vulnerability assessments and penetration tests.

Differences Between Vulnerability Assessments and Penetration Tests

Here are the five major differences between vulnerability assessments and penetration tests (pen test):

Difference 1: Executional Speed

One of the main advantages of vulnerability scanning is speed. It can take several minutes or several hours to finish a vulnerability scan.

The penetration testing process takes a lot longer. The planning, recon, scan, post-exploit, reporting, and remediation phases make up the stages of the pentest process. A penetration test may take many weeks to finish, and when the issues have been resolved, further time will be needed for rescans.

Difference 2: Risk Analysis

Vulnerability risk analysis is far more significant than is often acknowledged. It enables you to focus on the areas that require the greatest attention regarding resource allocation and cleanup. You may find out each vulnerability’s CVSS score, which indicates how serious it is, in a vulnerability assessment report.

In this case, penetration testing is superior. Pen testers try to take advantage of any weaknesses in your system. They can determine the precise amount of loss a certain exploit might cause, the extent and speed at which a hacker can elevate their privileges, and the amount of access to sensitive assets that a particular vulnerability may grant. Since a penetration test is so precise, you can see the return on investment for the test and the remediation.

Difference 3: Testing Depth

Thousands of common vulnerabilities, including CVEs identified by security communities such as OWASP and SANS, can be found by running over 3000 tests with a good vulnerability scanner. However, it could be better. 

Among other challenging, environment-specific vulnerabilities, business logic mistakes are not detectable by an automated vulnerability scanner. There is also the problem of false positives or vulnerabilities that are reported but are not real.

Penetration testing is designed primarily to identify challenging vulnerabilities. It requires not just the expertise of security professionals but also strong reconnaissance, scanning, and exploit technologies. An expert pen tester’s instincts are a powerful weapon for finding weaknesses in an otherwise impenetrable security posture.

Difference 4: Remediation Reports

A vulnerability assessment report includes recommendations for resolving any issues that are discovered. However, things go very little after that. For the most part, the research and implementation are left to your developers.

Pen test reports include comprehensive, step-by-step instructions for reproducing and resolving vulnerabilities. If you are working with the correct pentest supplier, you can receive a video proof of concept. To get over any obstacles in the remediation process, your development team can work with manual pentesters.

Difference 5: Pricing

Vulnerability scans are far less expensive than manual pen tests, and for good reason. While you have an automated tool at your disposal to generate a high-level pen test report whenever you would like, security specialists are also monitoring your codebase to look for security misconfigurations and other issues. 

Depending on business needs and the vulnerability assessment provider, the annual cost of a vulnerability assessment can vary greatly, from $999 to $5,000. However, penetration testing could be a little more costly, ranging from $4,000 to $100,000. The average price range for a top-notch, expert pen test is $10,000– $30,000. 

Depending on the size of your applications, the number of attack vectors, and the test type you select, the cost of both cybersecurity practices can vary. You need to do a scoping exercise first to receive an accurate quote.

Here is a comparison table listing the major differences between vulnerability assessments and penetration tests at a glance:

Vulnerability AssessmentsPenetration Tests
The goal of a vulnerability assessment is to identify and classify a system’s vulnerabilities.Exploiting vulnerabilities is part of penetration testing in order to learn more about them.
It tests a collection of sensitive data and establishes the extent of an assault.It identifies the possible dangers to every resource and creates a directory of the resources and assets available in a system. 
The method is primarily automated and uses tools for scanning vulnerabilities.In addition to automatic scanning, you need manual interaction for penetration testing.
It is ideal for physical environments and network architecture.It is ideal for lab environments. 
It is a goal-oriented procedure and should be carried in a controlled manner.It is considered safe to perform in any situation.
You can almost never achieve zero false positives with an automated vulnerability assessment.Zero false positives can be guaranteed by manual penetration testers.
Compared to pen testing, automated vulnerability assessment is much less expensive and time-consuming.For good reason, penetration testing is a time-consuming and costly process.

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