Vulnerability Scans vs. Penetration Tests: Differences, Benefits, Limitations, and BARR’s Distinctive Approach

Data from vulnerability scanning.

Vulnerability scans and penetration tests—they sound similar, right? Some use them interchangeably, but the truth is these terms are quite different when it comes to how they are carried out, what purposes they serve, costs, and beyond. Before partnering with a company, like BARR, to complete one of these tests, let’s explore each. 

What is a Vulnerability Scan?

A vulnerability scan—also referred to as a vulnerability assessment—is a high-level, automated examination of your company’s data security vulnerabilities. The assessment combs through your networks, systems, and computers, then generates a report listing all the potential weaknesses found. 

Benefits of a Vulnerability Scan

Vulnerability scans can be a useful tool in any data security leader’s pocket because they:

  • Provide a great way to keep a pulse on your security posture at a high level;
  • Offer a glimpse at what vulnerabilities could potentially be exploited by a cyber criminal;
  • Have the ability to search tens of thousands of potential weaknesses;
  • Are cost effective; and,
  • Can be completed quickly, in a few hours or even minutes in some cases.

Limitations of a Vulnerability Scan

While vulnerability scans are a vital component of any data security management plan, they do have a few downsides because they:

  • Are a passive tactic, producing a report that is really just a list of unorganized, unverified vulnerabilities;
  • Force you to check each vulnerability manually;
  • Generate false positives (i.e., items labeled as threats that are not real threats to data security); and, 
  • Leave it to you as a security professional to sift through vulnerabilities and prioritize them based on risk levels (although some vulnerability scans may assign risk groups or scores to assist with this).

What is a Penetration Test?

A penetration test also scans your company’s infrastructure for vulnerabilities, but the big difference is the human factor. Here, a penetration tester—also known as an “ethical hacker”—comes in to safely test, identify, and exploit vulnerabilities found within your networks, systems, and computers. It’s essentially a simulated, non-damaging cyberattack. 

But there’s much more to the penetration testing process than the testing itself. There is also a planning phase prior-to, along with a full risk analysis and reporting process following the test. 

Benefits of a Penetration Test

Penetration tests have a number of benefits because they:

  • Offer a magnified look at your IT infrastructure by providing details around the vulnerabilities, along with how to remediate them;
  • Often satisfy compliance requirements for a number of security frameworks such as SOC 2 Type 2, HIPAA, and PCI DSS;
  • Are done manually, which means the tester and their results will be clear, concise, and offer perspective on prioritization; 
  • Provide more accurate, thorough results than a vulnerability scan; and,
  • Rule out false positives. 

Limitations of a Penetration Test

Penetration tests have a number of benefits because they:

  • Can be costly, but the price is dependent upon the size and scope of your IT infrastructure; and,
  • They take more time than a vulnerability scan, typically a few weeks due to their thoroughness.

Vulnerability Assessments and Penetration Testing for SOC Exams

Many companies wonder if they need to have a vulnerability scan and/or penetration testing done prior to the SOC auditing process. Neither are technically required. What is required is for companies to assess and manage security risks that originate from any source—internal and external—in some way. Exactly how you do that, and whether you implement vulnerability scans, penetration testing, or both, is up to you. 

The BARR Approach

We can all agree managing the security of your organization’s IT infrastructure is an essential part of doing business in today’s global workplace. Our team has extensive experience in penetration testing for cloud-based environments, and we understand each organization’s unique infrastructure. 

BARR tailors its approach to each individual client based on Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP) best practices, including the Application Security Verification Standard. Our procedures are designed with the cyber criminal in mind. We think and behave like them so we can help you keep them out.

BARR’s recommended approach is simple:

  • Perform your own regular, frequent vulnerability scans.
  • Contract with a third party, like BARR, to conduct an external penetration test annually.

Yes, your hired third-party will conduct a vulnerability scan as part of the annual penetration testing process, but we still recommend you perform your own outside of that on a regular basis. 

These separate methods work well together to ensure optimal security measures are in place on a continuous basis. They provide distinct feedback about your vulnerabilities using different lenses, so the combo is the best option to effectively manage risk. It is not sufficient to fully rely on annual external penetration tests alone, without your own more frequent vulnerability scans and vice versa. Both are critical exercises that provide different information and action items for your organization to protect its critical assets.

Benefits of Partnering With BARR Advisory

When you work with BARR, you can expect our team to:

  • Put together a package that includes both automated and manual techniques to provide you with the most accurate results;
  • Go beyond identifying vulnerabilities by giving you a comprehensive report detailing how to combat those vulnerabilities and strengthen your data security; and,
  • Offer competitive, fixed rates to accommodate companies of all sizes, from growing enterprises to seasoned cloud service providers.

Contact us to find out how we would approach vulnerability assessments and penetration testing for your company’s unique IT infrastructure.