What's The Difference Between Penetration Testing And Vulnerability Scanning?

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Penetration Testing
by John Svazic/ on 25 Aug 2023

What's The Difference Between Penetration Testing And Vulnerability Scanning?

To the untrained eye, they have similar-sounding names, but penetration testing and vulnerability scanning are very different services. While both intend to identify vulnerabilities in the interest of bolstering your company’s security posture, these two methods are incredibly disparate. Generally speaking, penetration testing services go much further than a simple vulnerability scan.

This article from EliteSec"> seeks to compare and contrast pen testing and vulnerability scans to help you better understand which one suits your business. We’ll draw from our vast cybersecurity expertise to help you understand the differences.

The Big Difference

The most significant distinction between penetration testing and vulnerability scanning is that penetration testing is manual, while vulnerability scanning is automated. As such, many of the implementations of the two practices are downstream from that.

Given that penetration testing (or “pen test”) is a manual process, you cannot carry it out as frequently as a vulnerability scan. A pen test tends to be a lot more thorough as well.

What is Penetration Testing?

Penetration testing is a multi-step technical process where cybersecurity experts actively engage with your computer network to uncover vulnerabilities. The penetration tester tailors their approach to the specific nuances and complexities of the target system.

By simulating real-world attack scenarios, pen testers think like attackers, exploiting potential weaknesses and identifying critical security flaws. The manual nature of penetration testing allows for creativity and adaptability, going beyond what automated tools can detect. However, it can be time-consuming and requires significant expertise. That’s why it’s essential to hire a cybersecurity expert to conduct a penetration test.

The 5 Steps Of Pen Testing

1 - Gathering Information & Planning

This involves defining the scope of the attack, including the systems to be tested and the testing methods to be used. Relevant information such as your compliance requirements, boundaries, and key stakeholders is also gathered during this phase.

Thus, the tester collects as much information as possible about the target system. They will identify IP addresses, network services, and potential attack vectors. The tester combines various technical tools and manual research to extract insights into the target system’s architecture and potential vulnerabilities.

2 - Scanning

Next, the tester identifies how the target application or system responds to various intrusion attempts. Automated scanning tools may be used to perform static analysis (reviewing code before it’s run) or dynamic analysis (inspecting code while it’s running). This helps reveal how the system behaves, and ultimately amounts to a vulnerability scan.

3 - Gaining Access

Here, the penetration tester attempts to exploit the identified vulnerabilities and gain access. The objective is to understand how malicious hackers could gain unauthorized access to the system or manipulate its functionalities. Some of the tactics they employ include:

  • Escalating privileges
  • Intercepting traffic
  • Executing malicious code.

Ultimately, the pen tester tries to gain as many access privileges as possible. Of course, this is not meant maliciously, but they are doing you a favour by testing the limits of the system.

4 - Maintaining Access Privileges

Once a prospective attacker establishes a foothold in your system, it’s unlikely they would want to let it go. As such, the tester tries to create a backdoor for themselves, demonstrating how malware can remain in the system undetected and providing insights into how an attacker could gain continuous access to sensitive data or critical systems.

5 - Post-test Analysis

At the end of the test, the tester will provide the managers or executives overseeing the systems with a full report of your company’s security weaknesses. The report should include evidence of the findings and a full account of the risks involved. You can use that information to plan for a new cybersecurity strategy, and the pen tester will make recommendations in this area as well.

The 6 Benefits of Penetration Testing

Identifying Weaknesses Before Attackers Do

Pen testing uncovers vulnerabilities in systems, applications, and networks that might otherwise go unnoticed. By identifying these weaknesses ahead of time, companies can address them before a malicious hacker can exploit them.

Complying With Industry Regulations

Many industries are subject to strict regulations regarding data security and privacy. Penetration testing helps ensure compliance with these legal and regulatory requirements, reducing the risk of fines and legal repercussions.

For instance, in the financial industry, you would usually handle and protect large amounts of ultra-sensitive customer data. It’s easy to see why hackers want to access this data. Apart from finance, there is a large range of industries that handle customer data, including education, healthcare, and governmental bodies.

Avoiding Financial Loss

A cyberattack can cost you lots of money in theft, but also in the disruption of business operations. By uncovering and addressing security gaps proactively, pen testing helps in averting these potential financial impacts.

Protecting Reputation and Customer Trust

Another way that a cyber attack can cost you is in the loss of business that occurs afterwards. Customer trust is paramount. A breach can severely damage a company’s reputation. Penetration testing helps prevent breaches, thereby maintaining customer trust and loyalty. Moreover, being able to certify that you follow industry standards can be a key part of building trust with customers before a breach ever occurs.

Providing a Real-World Risk Assessment

Unlike automated vulnerability scanning, pen testing offers a real-world simulation of how actual attackers might approach a system. This gives businesses a more concrete understanding of their risk profile, allowing them to prioritize and address the most critical vulnerabilities.

Improving Incident Response

Since pen testing is a simulation of a real-life cybersecurity incident, it can also be used to test an organization’s incident response capabilities, revealing how well a company is prepared to respond to an actual breach. This ensures that appropriate measures are in place, reducing response time, and minimizing potential damage.

What Is Vulnerability Scanning?

Vulnerability scanning is a systematic process used to identify, analyze, and report on security weaknesses (vulnerabilities) in a computer system, network, or software application. Unlike penetration testing, which is often manual and seeks to exploit vulnerabilities, vulnerability scanning is primarily automated and focuses on simply identifying vulnerabilities. Indeed, vulnerability scanning is one of the first steps in a penetration test.

Vulnerability scanning utilizes specialized software tools to inspect systems, networks, and applications for known security weaknesses. The main purposes of vulnerability scanning are to:

  • Periodically discovering security flaws that could be exploited by attackers.
  • Provide insights into the overall security posture of an organization’s digital assets.
  • Assist in compliance with regulatory requirements by ensuring that systems are adequately secured.

4 Types Of Vulnerability Scans

External Vulnerability Scans: Targeting systems that are accessible over the internet, such as websites, web applications, and remote servers.

Internal Scans: Focused on internal networks, seeking vulnerabilities that might be exploited from inside the organization.

Authenticated Scans: Performed with proper credentials to simulate an insider attack, allowing for a more in-depth analysis of system configurations and potential weaknesses.

Unauthenticated Scans: The scanner operates without credentials to simulate an outsider attack, providing insights into what vulnerabilities are exposed to the public.

Vulnerability Scanning Tools

Since vulnerability scanning is automated, you usually conduct a scan with a tool that you can buy online. We won’t recommend any vulnerability scanner to you directly, there are quite a few already available on the market. It can be hard to sort through them and find the right one, reviews only tell you so much.

In most cases, it’s better to consult with a cybersecurity professional to find the right vulnerability scanning tools for your team. While they establish your security posture, they can spend time recommending the best tools for your use case.

The 3 Main Benefits Of Vulnerability Scanning

Proactive Security

Vulnerability scanning is a cornerstone of proactive security in today’s dynamic cybersecurity environment. By regularly identifying and addressing security vulnerabilities, organizations can enhance their security measures before an attacker exploits them. It’s like going to the doctor for a regular checkup.

This approach of early detection not only prevents potential breaches but also allows companies to act on weaknesses promptly. It shifts the security paradigm from reactive to preventive, enabling organizations to stay ahead of threats and minimize potential damage. Continuous monitoring through regular scanning ensures that the security landscape is constantly observed, adapting to new threats and emerging vulnerabilities.

Vulnerability scanners are like going to the doctor

Compliance Management

In an age where regulatory compliance is pivotal, vulnerability scanning serves as a vital tool to ensure alignment with industry standards and regulations. Whether it’s HIPAA in healthcare, GDPR for data protection, or PCI DSS in the financial sector, vulnerability scanning helps meet these regulatory requirements by ensuring that necessary security controls are in place. This alignment with legal standards not only protects organizations from potential fines and legal repercussions but also builds trust with customers and stakeholders. Demonstrating adherence to security regulations underscores a company’s commitment to responsible data handling and integrity.


Efficiency is at the core of vulnerability scanning. The automation that it brings to the security process enables frequent and comprehensive assessments without substantial manual effort. This not only saves time but also makes the process highly cost-effective, reducing the need for extensive human resources.

The scalability of vulnerability scanning tools ensures that large and complex infrastructures can be covered comprehensively without a corresponding increase in effort or cost. By allowing more frequent assessments, organizations can keep pace with the ever-changing cybersecurity landscape, making security not just a periodic exercise but an ongoing endeavour.

8 Differences Between Penetration Testing And Vulnerability Scanning

We’ve already mentioned the main difference between pen testing and vulnerability scans, but these 8 aspects will help further elucidate how different these procedures are from one another.


Penetration testing is aimed at exploiting vulnerabilities to simulate how an attacker might breach the system, while vulnerability scanning focuses on identifying and reporting known vulnerabilities. This distinction emphasizes the exploratory nature of penetration testing versus the more analytical and observational approach of vulnerability scanning.


Penetration testing delves deep into systems, examining complex vulnerabilities and business logic flaws. Vulnerability scanning offers a more surface-level examination, detecting known vulnerabilities without investigating complex scenarios. This difference in depth highlights the comprehensive approach of penetration testing compared to the more focused analysis of vulnerability scanning.


Penetration testing is typically performed less often due to its complexity and cost, while vulnerability scanning can be conducted more regularly. The automation and reduced resource requirements of vulnerability scanning allow for more frequent assessments compared to the detailed and labour-intensive nature of penetration testing.


Penetration testing is tailored to the specific system and takes into account individual risks and business context. Vulnerability scanning, on the other hand, is more general and based on known vulnerability databases. The personalized scope of penetration testing contrasts with the broader approach of vulnerability scanning.


Penetration testing generally comes at a higher expense due to specialized skills and manual efforts, whereas vulnerability scanning is usually less costly. The labor-driven nature of penetration testing compared to the automation in vulnerability scanning accounts for this difference in cost.


Penetration testing provides detailed insights, including potential impacts and ways to exploit the system, while vulnerability scanning generates reports identifying vulnerabilities with recommendations for patches or fixes. This difference emphasizes the actionable, contextual insights from penetration testing versus the more standardized reporting of vulnerability scanning.

Compliance Requirements

Penetration testing is often required by regulations for in-depth security validation, especially in sensitive industries, while vulnerability scanning may satisfy regular security assessment needs. The comprehensive nature of penetration testing is a distinguishing factor from the less extensive compliance capabilities of vulnerability scanning.

Risk Analysis

Penetration testing offers contextual risk analysis, showing how vulnerabilities might be exploited in real-world scenarios, while vulnerability scanning gives a generalized risk analysis. Vulnerability scanning is more theoretical

Which Is Better For Your Business, Penetration Testing Or Vulnerability Scanning?

The truth is, you don’t need to choose between these two options. Penetration testing and vulnerability scanning can be deployed in tandem as part of a wider cyber security strategy.

The Role Of Penetration Testing

Penetration testing plays a critical role in a comprehensive cybersecurity strategy by simulating cyber-attack scenarios to evaluate security controls across various systems, including web applications, networks, and cloud environments. As a manual and hands-on test, it’s a valuable method for uncovering complex vulnerabilities that automated tools might overlook.

The significant drawback of penetration testing is its infrequency. Running it once a year may leave organizations exposed to newly discovered vulnerabilities or misconfigurations between tests.

The Role Of Vulnerability Scanning

Vulnerability scanning serves as an essential tool for regular and automated security assessments. By performing thousands of security checks across your systems, it produces a list of vulnerabilities along with remediation advice, providing around-the-clock coverage.

Unlike manual penetration testing, which might be carried out once a year, vulnerability scanning can be run continuously. It’s an efficient solution for businesses without a full-time cybersecurity team, offering a proactive approach to identifying and fixing security flaws. Once flaws are identified, you can pursue further remediation.

That said, the real power of vulnerability scanning comes when used in conjunction with penetration testing. While penetration tests provide an in-depth annual review, vulnerability scanning ensures that emerging threats and vulnerabilities are promptly addressed between these manual assessments. This dual approach creates a comprehensive security strategy that offers protection all year round, aligning with the increasing awareness of the need for constant security vigilance.

Get Cybersecurity Advice From EliteSec

Understanding the unique security needs of your system can be complex, but you don’t have to navigate it alone. If you need help choosing between vulnerability scanning and penetration testing, or you need further cybersecurity advice, we are here to provide expert guidance. Enngage us for a 30-minute consultation, free of charge, to pinpoint any issues within your system. Leveraging our rich body of knowledge and experience, we have the assets needed to protect your company.

We’re happy to offer you a free 30-minute consultation where we’ll run through these pressing issues over video chat. Check out our availability to book an appointment.

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