Penetration Testing vs. Vulnerability Assessment

Penetration Testing vs. Vulnerability Assessments

You’ll often see the same company offering penetration testing and vulnerability assessments, but they are two distinct services. Relying on one and assuming it brings the benefits of the other could be a big mistake. Here’s why you should consider using both services.


A vulnerability assessment checks your security set-up against a checklist of objective criteria, usually through an automated scan. Penetration testing involves somebody actively trying to breach your security as if they were a malicious attacker.

As a rough analogy, a vulnerability assessment is a little like an insurance company checking your offices or factory have various security measures such as locks and alarms in place. Penetration testing is more like hiring somebody to try to break into your offices undetected. (Fortunately, in the digital world this can be done in virtual, simulated fashion with no risk of damage!)


A vulnerability assessment will follow largely the same process in every case, though it can be customized to your specific set-up. It’s a series of scans that check for known security risks. These could include unsecured connections and ports, unpatched software, firewall settings, and database misconfigurations.

Penetration testing isn’t an automated process. Instead, a security expert will try to breach a system, using the same planning, research, and attack techniques as a real cybercriminal. They’ll adapt their simulated attack to your specific network.


A vulnerability assessment should reveal whether you are missing any known security measures. It’s particularly useful for picking up mistakes and omissions.

A penetration test serves two main goals. First, it shows how significant any vulnerabilities are in practice rather than theory. Second, it can pick up weaknesses that the vulnerability assessment didn’t look for: the dreaded unknown unknowns. In both cases, the penetration test also gives a practical insight into which vulnerabilities you need to fix as a top priority.


Because a vulnerability assessment is largely automated, businesses can run them frequently, for example after making any changes to a network or software. As a penetration test is a bigger undertaking, businesses tend to use them less frequently. It’s still a smart idea to have a penetration test at least once or twice a year and after making any major IT changes.


In theory, a business can carry out a vulnerability test itself using automated software, keeping the costs lower, and not requiring specialist knowledge. In practice, getting expert support is useful, particularly for interpreting the results.

Penetration testing is best as a third-party service for a couple of reasons. An independent expert will know the latest hacker techniques, including ones that not all vulnerability assessments will pick up. They’ll also be able to carry out their “attack” without any assumptions or misconceptions about which part of the network are and aren’t properly secured. Look for a provider who’ll give you a clearly written report.

While vulnerability assessments and penetration tests are two distinct security tools, they combine well to give a comprehensive and insightful picture of your security setup and the changes you need to make. CPI Solutions can help you find the right balance and schedule of tests so call today to start the process.

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