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The Difference Between a Vulnerability Assessment and a Penetration Test

The Difference Between a Vulnerability Assessment and a Penetration Test

Penetration tests and vulnerability assessments are both excellent tools for the improvement of IT security in general. Both of them are intended to find any and all security flaws that might exist in your system. While they have a similar purpose, these are two very different methods. It is important to understand those differences, so let’s talk about the things that separate a vulnerability assessment and a penetration test.

What Is A Vulnerability Assessment?

When you pay for a vulnerability assessment, you are essentially paying someone to find the flaws in your system. If you find them before any cybercriminals do, you can fix those issues proactively. However, in this case, you are not actually paying anyone to fix those problems. Again, the purpose of a vulnerability assessment is to find your security problems. Correction is another matter entirely.

These assessments are done through a mixture of automated tools and manual checks, as technicians check for commonly known vulnerabilities in your hardware and software. Also, make sure that you get detailed results when opting for this method. You don’t just want a list of vulnerabilities, you also want an idea of each threat’s severity and scope.

What Is Penetration Testing?

Penetration testing is a specific method that is used to test the security of an IT environment. Unlike a vulnerability check, where the inspectors are given full access to the system, a penetration tester attempts to force their way inside. Why would you want someone to do this? To see if it’s possible, of course. That is the primary idea behind penetration testing: Pay someone to hack the system just to see how easily it can be done.

Like a vulnerability assessment, a penetration test does not involve the correction of problems. The whole purpose is to identify your weak points, although these methods use two different routes to get that information. Of the two, penetration testing is probably the more thorough step. Vulnerability scanning tools aren’t always reliable, but an expert hand at work will be a little more consistent.

Difference 1: The Type Of People Involved

A vulnerability assessment and a penetration test require two different types of people. While both of them need to be well-versed in IT matters, the penetration tester has to be familiar with what might be called the “dark side” of IT knowledge. Of course, you need to make sure you are dealing with a company that isn’t hiring hackers in order to ensure that you get trustworthy penetration testers.

While penetration testing is a specialized IT skill, vulnerability assessments are not so specialized. Any competent IT professional should be able to do one, as long as they have the right scanning tools for the job. A person doesn’t need years of specific education to do that, but it does take specific education to become a penetration tester.

Difference 2: Scope and Efficiency

When you’re just being checked for vulnerabilities, the technician doesn’t need to do the same kind of “deep dive” into your system that a penetration tester would do. Since they already have access, they will probably be finished much quicker than a penetration tester. Running a few scans and checking the system based on their results is a lot easier than trying to hack a corporate network from zero.

Difference 3: Frequency

Another important difference lies in the frequency with which these tests need to be done. A vulnerability scan should be completed once a week if possible, and the relatively low cost of such scans will make it easy to do so. You never know when someone will discover a new exploit, making previous scan results invalid.

On the other hand, penetration testing is significantly more expensive. As we said, it involved a much more concentrated effort and more specialized labor, so the higher cost shouldn’t be surprising. You can get away with limiting your penetration tests to one per year, although that is a bare minimum. Any more than once per month would likely be overkill.

The Danger Of Data Leaks

It is highly important to choose a reputable and trustworthy company for all penetration tests and vulnerability scans. Regardless of which one you are using, they will have a certain amount of privileged access. While that shouldn’t be a problem in the short term, it is possible for data to be accidentally leaked in this way.

When your third-party investigator connects to their own proprietary network, some of that data flow might include sensitive information. This is why you must investigate any contractor that offers these services and make sure they have not previously been involved in such a breach.


Now you can see why so many people have a hard time telling the difference between these two services. Both of them are used to scout the weak points of a particular system, but they do so in radically different ways. We would recommend using both of these approaches, as they each have their specific benefits. We hope that we have answered your questions fully, but if you need to know more, you can call PCH Technologies at (856) 754-7500.