Penetration Testing vs Vulnerability Scanning

Penetration Testing vs Vulnerability Scanning

In today’s world, network security is becoming increasingly important. Cyber attacks occur much more often than before. Therefore, methods are urgently needed to identify security weaknesses in time. Penetration Testing and Vulnerability Scanning are the most critical processes aimed at avoiding cyber risk and are of great benefit. They are generally related and mandatory under information security regulations, including PCI DSS. 

A vulnerability scan is a highly accurate automated test that can detect vulnerabilities in applications and systems of organizations in time. Penetration test allows for identifying vulnerabilities. Security professionals use a wide range of techniques to exploit weaknesses in an organization’s cyber defenses actively.

They have automated tools so developers can eventually harden the system and make it invulnerable to hackers. However, they have significant differences. It is necessary to carefully evaluate the characteristics of each of the processes. We will compare penetration testing and vulnerability assessment to help you understand how to fit these processes into your organization’s security practices. So, penetration testing vs vulnerability scanning.

What is penetration testing?

A penetration test is intended to thwart hackers from exploiting weaknesses. It is a set of highly accurate methods, a controlled form of breaking into a business system. Ethical hackers attempt to break into a business system to uncover potential weaknesses and new vulnerabilities in computers and devices. Analysts often use methods such as:

  • SQL injection;
  • password cracking;
  • buffer overflow.

Unlike vulnerability scanning, testing is much more detailed. Security professionals discover vulnerabilities that are not known to business processes. The penetration test is identical to a hacker’s attempt to break into a system. It’s just a controlled hack by ethical hackers who want to help make the system more robust. Ethical hackers aim to eliminate vulnerabilities, make the business system more substantial, and protect it from hacking. So, we have prepared a list of pentesting companies.

Unlike vulnerability scanning, pen testing is designed not only to identify weaknesses but also for their practical use. For example, with the help of a penetration test, an organization can determine how effective its security measures are and what areas should be improved.

Penetration test and the PCI DSS

Penetration testing must be done at least once a year after all significant network changes. It is indicated in the requirements of PCI DSS 11.3.1 and 11.3.2. In addition, penetration tests require substantial technical knowledge from security professionals. So the qualification of a penetration tester must be high.

The test should also ensure that business operations will be impacted minimally. After all, it should be borne in mind that a penetration test is a live experiment, and the search for vulnerabilities by a hacker can affect performance. Therefore, scheduling testing outside business hours is best to minimize possible system failures in web applications or networks.

What is a vulnerability scan?

If an organization processes cardholder data, you must comply with PCI DSS standards and conduct vulnerability scans after significant network changes and, in general, every quarter. A professional independent of the object being scanned should perform vulnerability scanning. The technician should set up the instruments and perform the scan. The quarterly internal scan differs from the quarterly external scan and should be done separately. If the scan failed, you could rescan within a month.

Vulnerability scanner and the PCI DSS

Many organizations do regular scans to keep abreast of possible emerging vulnerabilities. To pass an external PCI DSS scan, all critical items must be corrected or disputed by the organization as a last resort.

Two techniques: vulnerability assessment vs penetration testing 

Some people confuse vulnerability assessment with a penetration testing approach. However, these processes are closely interrelated and, simultaneously, different and not mutually exclusive. So, what is the difference between pen tests and vulnerability scans? Both processes help identify known vulnerabilities and avoid cyber risk. However, pen tests and vulnerability testing have significant differences.


Penetration testing is always manually initiated and takes a few days to weeks to complete. Vulnerability scans can be run automatically or manually within minutes or hours.


Penetration tests are expensive and are typically done once a year. After all, testing for penetration is more difficult work to be done. On the other hand, vulnerability scans are relatively inexpensive and can be done quite frequently. 

Test run frequency

Vulnerability scanning should be performed after booting any hardware. The penetration test should not be done too often. But ideally, do this in accordance with regulatory guidelines, approximately monthly.


Vulnerability scanning can be conducted by analysts trained in primary network and security concepts and how to use the tool. At the same time, only highly qualified professional security analysts can perform penetration testing.

Sphere of attention

The penetration test covers only critical assets and is generally very targeted. And the scope of a vulnerability scan typically covers all assets in an organization. Vulnerability assessment considers more shallow security than deep coding structure.

System crashes

Penetration testing and vulnerability scanning can cause crashes and other problems in corporate networks. So checks should be done outside business hours. 

Final report

After the penetration testing, you will receive complete information about bypassing the system that hackers can use. In addition, you will learn how to prevent different cyber attacks by analyzing vulnerabilities and taking security measures.

After a vulnerability scan, you will receive a report about the presence of vulnerabilities, but you will not receive recommendations on how to deal with these weaknesses.

Test Methods

Penetration Testing Methods:

  • Gray box testing is a combination of gray box and white box testing, which aims to find defects due to misuse of applications or incorrect structure.
  • White box testing is an approach that allows you to check the internal workings of a software system – its infrastructure, code, and integration with external systems.
  • Black box testing helps to evaluate the system only from the outside, while the tester does not know what is happening inside. It refers to a system whose behavior is only observed from inputs and outputs.

Vulnerability Scanning Methods:

  • Unauthenticated testing
  • Authenticated testing


Data security aimed to prevent cyber attacks is very important. Therefore, timely detection of potential vulnerabilities to avoid cybersecurity risks should be a priority of organizational security professionals. Vulnerability scanning is the starting point in an information security program. The resulting report will give an idea of the risk exposure. Penetration testing is a qualitative and detailed periodic addition that can reveal the presence of weaknesses using the same methods used by cybercriminals.


What is the main difference between penetration testing and vulnerability scanning?

Vulnerability scanning aims to find known vulnerabilities in systems and potential vulnerabilities. Penetration tests are designed to exploit weaknesses in the architecture of an IT network and determine the extent to which a cybercriminal can gain unauthorized access to assets.

What are vulnerability and penetration testing?

Vulnerability scans are automated tests that aim to detect vulnerabilities in an organization’s applications and systems.
A penetration test is a controlled form of breaking into a business system designed to stop hackers from exploiting weaknesses.

What is the difference between vulnerability assessment and penetration testing that must be performed first?

Vulnerability scanners first warn about pre-existing flaws in their code and where they are located. And penetration tests try to exploit a system’s vulnerabilities to determine if unauthorized access or other malicious actions by hackers are possible and to determine which vulnerabilities pose a threat to the application. The penetration test simulates an actual cyber-attack and tests existing defenses. Thus, it goes beyond identifying vulnerabilities.

What is the difference between security testing and penetration testing?

The penetration testing process takes a deep vertical dive into the results, while the vulnerability scan process shows a horizontal map of the network and application security posture. In other words, vulnerability assessments show how significant the vulnerability is, and penetration tests show how severe the given vulnerability is.