Concept of simulating cyber attack on software applications known as penetration testing, this illustrates how some of the cyber attacks can break the security systems through weak security standards, configuration and code
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Many IT security terms have proved challenging to understand due to their similarities and contextual applications in cybersecurity discussions. Some of these related terms are vulnerability scanning and penetration testing, commonly known as pen testing.

Although these terms represent some form of security strategies adopted by IT organizations to mitigate the incidence of security breaches, they are quite different in scope.

This piece provides a breakdown of these two terminologies and their key differences.

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What is penetration testing?

Penetration testing is a type of test conducted mostly by ethical hackers and experienced DevOps engineers to test and determine possible security gaps in an organization’s security architecture. Pen testing is also a form of ethical hacking deployed to fully understand security vulnerabilities and ways to remove them from an organization’s security environment.

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Most penetration tests are done through the simulation of cyberattacks on organizational systems to determine how these systems would react if they come under any form of cyberattacks by hackers.

How often should organizations carry out a pen test?

The rise in cybercrime has made penetration testing an essential feature in the security arrangements of security-focused organizations. Since cyber attackers are always on the lookout for how to exploit security vulnerabilities, how often should an organization carry out pen testing?

It’s widely recommended that organizations carry out pen testing at least once per year. Some organizations that adhere to compliance benchmarks may be required to carry out pen testing twice per year to meet the established standards.

What is vulnerability scanning?

Vulnerability scanning is a security management strategy used to identify and report vulnerabilities in web applications, servers and firewalls. The main goal of vulnerability scanning is to help your organization’s IT department detect, classify and report weaknesses in your internal and external networks, computers, IP addresses and communication equipment.

A typical vulnerability scan automates the scanning of the components mentioned above and also provides a detailed report on how they can resolve the misconfigurations and vulnerabilities.

Vulnerability scanning comes in two types: External and internal. An external vulnerability scan checks for loopholes in your organization’s external systems and networks, while an internal vulnerability scan checks your organization’s internal network endpoints for possible gaps in the security configurations.

How often should organizations carry out a vulnerability scan?

How often an organization should perform a vulnerability test depends on certain factors such as external regulatory provisions and internal management decisions. However, IT security experts recommend that a vulnerability scan be performed on your organization’s network architecture at least once per quarter or month.

Key differences between vulnerability scanning and pen testing


Vulnerability scanning

Vulnerability scans are typically automated since they rely on vulnerability tools to conduct tests.

Pen testing

Although pen testing relies on automation to execute testing on network and application components, it still requires a great deal of manual checks to ensure that the check is thorough and without any traces of false positives in the results. That’s why seasoned testers usually conduct pen testing without overreliance on automation tools to detect possible gaps in network security.

Vulnerabilities handling

Vulnerability scanning

Vulnerability scanning does not entail the exploitation of vulnerabilities when they are detected: It focuses on identifying the exploitable security gaps and reporting them.

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Pen testing

In penetration testing, testers go beyond identifying security gaps but launch an exploitation process to determine the strength of your security configurations. Hence pen testing involves deploying a variety of hacking techniques to test what happens to a security setup when it comes under a cyber attack.

End goal

Vulnerability scanning

The end goal of every vulnerability scan is to detect security issues on your organization’s networks and computers.

Pen testing

Penetration testing has a preventive undertone to its goal. Pen testers aim to figure out vulnerabilities, and in doing so determine the best ways to ensure that the weaknesses found in your organization’s networks are fixed to avoid being exploited by hackers.


Vulnerability scanning

The cost of performing vulnerability scanning is lower when compared to pen testing. This is because your DevOps engineers can carry out vulnerability scans with vulnerability scanning tools without the assistance of penetration testing experts from external organizations. This means that once you pay for a tool, you can use it for your tests without incurring additional costs.

Pen testing

Pen testing is deeper than a vulnerability scan and usually involves the help of pen testing professionals from cybersecurity firms. Apart from the cost of purchasing pen testing automation tools, the cost of hiring an experienced pen testing team is high.

Benefits of pen testing and vulnerability scanning

The benefits of pen testing and vulnerability scanning far outweighs the price your organization might pay if they fail to carry out these tests. Below are why you should do both.

  • Both can help to identify exploitable vulnerabilities in your networks and applications.
  • They ensure that your organization’s security strategies align with the available security realities.
  • They help you know the scope of the risk that will befall your organization if the vulnerabilities are not tackled.
  • Pen tests will help your organization identify what needs to be done to fix a security gap in your configurations.
  • They provide your organization with the best ways to maintain recommended compliance standards.

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Strengthen your organization's IT security defenses by keeping abreast of the latest cybersecurity news, solutions, and best practices. Delivered every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday