Generally, these two terms, i.e., Penetration Testing and Vulnerability assessment are used interchangeably by many people, either because of misunderstanding or marketing hype. But, both the terms are different from each other in terms of their objectives and other means. However, before describing the differences, let us first understand both the terms one-by one.
Penetration testing replicates the actions of an external or/and internal cyber attacker/s that is intended to break the information security and hack the valuable data or disrupt the normal functioning of the organization. So, with the help of advanced tools and techniques, a penetration tester (also known as ethical hacker) makes an effort to control critical systems and acquire access to sensitive data.
On the other hand, a vulnerability assessment is the technique of identifying (discovery) and measuring security vulnerabilities (scanning) in a given environment. It is a comprehensive assessment of the information security position (result analysis). Further, it identifies the potential weaknesses and provides the proper mitigation measures (remediation) to either remove those weaknesses or reduce below the risk level.
The following diagram summarizes the vulnerability assessment −
The following table illustrates the fundamental differences between penetration testing and vulnerability assessments −
|Penetration Testing||Vulnerability Assessments|
|Determines the scope of an attack.||Makes a directory of assets and resources in a given system.|
|Tests sensitive data collection.||Discovers the potential threats to each resource.|
|Gathers targeted information and/or inspect the system.||Allocates quantifiable value and significance to the available resources.|
|Cleans up the system and gives final report.||Attempts to mitigate or eliminate the potential vulnerabilities of valuable resources.|
|It is non-intrusive, documentation and environmental review and analysis.||Comprehensive analysis and through review of the target system and its environment.|
|It is ideal for physical environments and network architecture.||It is ideal for lab environments.|
|It is meant for critical real-time systems.||It is meant for non-critical systems.|
Both the methods have different functionality and approach, so it depends upon the security position of the respective system. However, because of the basic difference between penetration testing and vulnerability assessment, the second technique is more beneficial over the first one.
Vulnerability assessment identifies the weaknesses and gives solution to fix them. On the other hand, penetration testing only answers the question that "can anyone break-in the system security and if so, then what harm he can do?"
Further, a vulnerability assessment attempts to improve security system and develops a more mature, integrated security program. On the other hand, a penetration testing only gives a picture of your security program’s effectiveness.
As we have seen here, the vulnerability assessment is more beneficial and gives better result in comparison to penetration testing. But, experts suggest that, as a part of security management system, both techniques should be performed routinely to ensure a perfect secured environment.