Security Audit

What is Network Penetration Testing & How to Perform It?

Updated on: September 18, 2021

What is Network Penetration Testing & How to Perform It?

In a technology-optimized world where every individual, group, and organization is cementing its online presence in an attempt to reap the numerous benefits, recent years have emphasized the equal importance of being protected in the cyber world. Frequent attacks and mismanagement of stolen data have become the norm, pushing people, and by extension companies who use their data, to take strict efforts in data management and network security.

Today, we see a large number of data breaches and network outages occurring on daily basis – mostly due to vulnerabilities in software products or cyberattacks targeting IT networks. And there is no denying that in the past few years we have seen an increasing trend of network compromise and data thefts.

According to the United Nations, during this COVID-19 period, cybercrime went up 600%. Also, a recent IBM report states that the global average cost of a data breach reached $3.86 million/breach.

To understand more on how to secure networks and prevent data breaches, we’ve put some insights into the importance of network penetration testing through this article.

What is Network Penetration Testing?

As the global online presence increases in intensity and quality, the number of associated cyber threats also increases in tandem. We are required to constantly supervise network security, web applications, devices, and servers, etc, and find better ways to do the same, adapting to more and more dangerous online security issues. 

This is where network penetration testing steps in to help you find out such cybersecurity issues before they negatively impact your system, through the process of ‘ethical hacking’ and simulated threats. 

In this context, network penetration testing (or, pen-test for short) is a tool of great importance, useful in detecting security misconfigurations and possible exposure of vulnerabilities and threats that can harm any organization’s = networks, websites servers, and other applications when exploited by the hackers. 

Network Penetration Testing

For easier reference, imagine it to be a mock drill against known cyber threats. So, as to identify any security issues as they occur or after, to be worked on later for better strengthening. It is important to realize that an alternate scenario leaves systems unprotected and data ripe for picking by unlawful hands, making network penetration testing a necessity.

Sometimes, companies who have put their systems through vulnerability scanning doubt the relevance of pen tests since both processes have the same goal. However, pentests often (and must) happen after vulnerability assessments. While the latter uses automated website scanners to conduct security checks, the former puts forward stimulated cyber attacks. If both point out the issues in the firewall and other security measures, network pen tests bring in more concerted efforts to recognize the problem and solve it. Using high-quality versions of both allows one to cyclically go through a website vulnerability scanner, attain risk reports and the varying levels of danger, then using this information to conduct a pen test before preparing the final assessment and applying fixes.

Why do you need Network Penetration Testing?

1. Protect your data

Single-handedly the most important reason, every organization must guard itself against data breaches. Network pen tests often function like ethical hacks and simulate cyber attacks as best as possible. A small weakness has the potential to let out sensitive information, affecting your customers’ trust and the more serious violation of various rules and regulations. Here, a helpful way to determine the level of possible intrusion is to identify the different levels of risk that you are exposed to.

2. Ensuring overall security

Be it the structure of your business as a whole, sensitive data, or newly released applications, ensure that no overlooked flaw can compromise your integrity through network penetration tests. Security assessments and website security scans should be a part and parcel of any new initiatives, especially if there is the management of important data. Some examples of such flaws include SQL injections, weakly configured firewalls, outdated software, and traditional virus or malware. 

3. Compliance requirements

Certain regulations insist on penetration testing services, no matter the industry. For example, data security for the payment card industry ensures such tests for the protection of customers’ sensitive information (PCI DSS). 

4. Continued maintenance

Network pen tests require multiple runs through a continuous time period to ensure long-term security. Professionals hired for this purpose will also look over the security controls used for the business network such as firewall, layered security, encryption processes, etc. Proper penetration tests, keeping in mind the needs of the system, client, and overall security. 

Make your network the safest place on the Internet

with our detailed and specially curated network security checklist.
Download checklist
free of cost.

Steps in Network Penetration Testing process

Step 1: Reconnaissance

Today’s network security experts are taking on the disguise of well-trained hackers analyzing the system to find out any potential weaknesses or loopholes to manipulate – the reconnaissance strategy.

  1. The Technical aspect Here, the experts lookout for weaknesses in network ports, peripherals, and any other associated software that could allow hackers to break into the system. This is where a vulnerability assessment becomes highly useful, providing an outlook into other issues of the same nature within the system. 
  1. The Social aspect – Social engineering loopholes are the typical phishing scams, stealing of login credentials, etc. These kinds of tests could be used to increase employees’ awareness to avoid these scams (employees’ adherence to such policies is very important) and gain secure information about the general security status of the entire system. 

Related Guide – How to conduct Website Penetration testing

Step 2: Discovery

In discovery phase, penetration testers use the information gained from the reconnaissance strategy to run live tests with pre-coded or customized code scripts for identifying possible issues.

Usually, one script discovers one issue at a time, so multiple scripts may be required for the completion of the entire process. Technical and human sides of errors are given as an equal importance – i.e., technical looks at SQL injections or weak peripheral security, and social looks into divulging of sensitive information.

Step 3: Exploitation

In exploitation phase, pentesters leverage the information obtained in the discovery phase such as possible vulnerabilities and entry points, etc. and then begins to test the discovered exploits in your network devices or IT systems. The goal of exploitation phase is to break into the network environment by avoiding detection and identify entry points using different set of pentesting tools available on the internet.

How does one conduct Network Penetration Testing?

Every system has unique requirements, and hence, the below-mentioned tests can be used individually, or in combination.

1. Black Box

A ‘black box’ test is conducted without any prior knowledge of how the network functions or any of its technical characteristics. Therefore, the test functions by fully exploring the given network in a comprehensive manner so as to conduct a pointed attack.

This is the most realistic version of a general cyber attack and businesses that prefer this are ones who handle the most sensitive data and/or wish to stay informed of all potential loopholes for malicious hackers. Examples of black-box testing tools include Selenium, Applitools, Microsoft Coded UI, etc. 

2. Gray box

As is evident by the color, the function of a ‘gray box’ test remains between that of black and white. This includes simulated attacks to understand issues that an average system could face in situations such as stolen login information to gain internal information such as user privileges, technical documents, etc.

Highly targeted attacks are framed to understand the direction of attack by an average hacker, making them one of the most common network penetration tests. Some of the common gray box testing tools are Postman, Burp Suite, JUnit, NUnit, etc.  

3. White box

Here, network professionals collects all possible data about the system, know where the possible flaws are and target the specified infrastructure to evoke a response. If black is realistic and gray is moderately intrusive, the ‘white box’ test is like an audit and checks the aftermath of increased security.

This is the version of a final run through and businesses usually use it to ensure that the system is impenetrable to the most hardcore hacker, making it the longest in planning but the most important. The top performers in white box testing tools include Veracode, GoogleTest, CPPUnit, RCUNIT, etc.

The most important aspect of a well-planned and successful network penetration test is to identify the client’s needs from their systems and planning accordingly while recognizing all potential threats. Once the website penetration testing report is planned and recommendations are made and all forms of assessments and potential attacks are made, a network penetration test fulfills its true purpose. 

Make your network the safest place on the Internet

with our detailed and specially curated network security checklist.
Download checklist
free of cost.

Tools to conduct Network Penetration Testing:

Here are a few security tools you can use to conduct pentesting for your network systems:

  • Nessus – vulnerability scanning tool used for vulnerability assessment (VA) process
  • Nmap – network discovery and security auditing tool
  • NetCat – port scanning and listening tool used to read and write in a network
  • Hydra – pentesting tool used for brute-forcing login and obtaining unauthorized access
  • Wireshark – packet sniffing and analysis tool used for monitoring network traffic and its behavior
  • Nikto – vulnerability scanning tool used for scanning web-servers for security weaknesses
  • Metasploit – pentesting tool used for probing vulnerabilities in networks and servers.
  • PRET – pentesting toil for checking printer security controls
  • Burpsuite – vulnerability assessment and pentesting tool used for discovering vulnerabilities in web apps

How is Penetration Testing different from Vulnerability Assessments?

Vulnerability assessments only include a simple scan of the system for potential security issues and other vulnerabilities that can be misused by cyber criminals, making them a necessary part of the entire process of penetration testing but not as an end in itself. This is because, as vulnerability assessments simply provide a report on what’s wrong, penetration testing goes a step further by placing your system in an environment with real-time attack and then tracking its response against the live system. 

Vulnerability assessments also generally delves into technical issues only, and not the error caused by a human managing security. Furthermore, you will be able to get insights from experienced personnel and trained professionals regarding further steps for protection and other pointers after placing your system through a penetration test. It provides you a deeper interpretation of the test results, helping you to further strengthen against all risky situations. 

Essentially, the difference lies between seeing what can happen and instigating a live version of said risk so that a real-time response could be formulated.

At Astra Security, our network penetration tests are done by certified security professionals who test your netwotk for more than 1200 tests — both automated and manual. Other characteristics of Astra Security’s network penetration testing include:

  • Collaborative dashboard and real-time vulnerability reporting
  • Detailed reports (with PDF, PoC, selenium scripts)
  • Recommendations and quick tips on patching up vulnerabilities
  • Security tests for firewalls, routers, switches, wifi, servers, biometrics, UPS, SAN, etc.
  • VAPT certificate after completion of the security audit

Here’s how the penetration testing process at Astra looks like:

Website VAPT Process

Want to know more about our network penetration testing methodology? Feel free to talk to us here.

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Jinson Varghese

Jinson Varghese Behanan is an Information Security Analyst at Astra. Passionate about Cybersecurity from a young age, Jinson completed his Bachelor's degree in Computer Security from Northumbria University. When he isn’t glued to a computer screen, he spends his time reading InfoSec materials, playing basketball, learning French and traveling. You can follow him on Medium or visit his Website for more stories about the various Security Audits he does and the crazy vulnerabilities he finds.

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