Security Audit

Vulnerability Assessment vs. Penetration Testing: A 5 Step Comparative Study

Updated on: May 18, 2022

Vulnerability Assessment vs. Penetration Testing: A 5 Step Comparative Study

The fault doesn’t lie with the business owners when they confuse vulnerability assessment and penetration testing and buy one while requiring the other. We have clubbed the two terms in the widely used acronym VAPT, how is one supposed to know that they are not one and the same?

When we say vulnerability assessment vs penetration testing, rest assured, it is just to draw your attention. They are not enemies like that. In fact, both vulnerability assessment and penetration testing have a similar end goal – the evaluation of the security strength of your systems. There are a bunch of notable differences between them, and our job here is to locate those differences and highlight them.

There is another narrative that portrays VA and PT as two very similar processes with mild exceptions. Well, you could go with that, but then again there is a significant gap between the two in terms of methodologies and pricing. So, let us find the fine line between VA and PT, and embolden it so that it’s easier to see. Let’s start by assuming you know nothing about either VA or PT (although I’m sure you do).

What is Vulnerability Assessment?

A term could not be any more self-explanatory than this. Vulnerability Assessment is the process of detecting and assessing the vulnerabilities in your website, application, network, or devices. It is usually done with the help of an automated vulnerability scanner that scans your systems for common vulnerabilities and exposures by referencing a vulnerability database.

Who needs a vulnerability assessment?

Well, pretty much anybody who is trying to run an internet-facing business needs frequent vulnerability assessments. Whether you run a multi-million dollar SaaS business, or a small e-commerce startup trying to utilize the goodness of data, you need regular vulnerability scanning. It is an absolute necessity if you are trying to operate under certain security regulations like PCI-DSS, HIPAA, or SOC2.

Why do you need a vulnerability assessment?

Let us say, you have a dynamic website that helps you sell flowers. You have worked tirelessly on building a presence on the first page of the search engine results, you are maintaining a stellar application that lets the users pick and choose from a variety of flowers, the app provides them with suggestions for flower bouquets, even sends reminders about a loved one’s birthday based on the data it has stored. In one word, it’s a fantastic web app, and you’re making quite a fortune.

Now, a hacker finds a security vulnerability in your web app with the help of a vulnerability scanning bot and decides to infect your site. Every time a customer clicks on your website’s URL from the SERP they are taken to a very questionable site with unspeakable content. You lose more than just money.

If only you had conducted the vulnerability assessment and located the security loophole before the hacker did and fixed the issue, you could have saved yourself a lot of pain.

So, you need a vulnerability assessment to

  • Detect common vulnerabilities in your system
  • Bolster your network assets against cyber attacks
  • Attain compliance with security regulations relevant to your industry
  • Protect your data and build trust among customers

Read also: Vulnerability Assessment: A Detailed Overview

What is Penetration Testing?

The term penetration testing is not quite as self-explanatory as vulnerability assessment. It refers to the process of simulating an attack against a system to find weaknesses in its security and fix them. It is usually performed by security experts who apply a number of hacker-like tactics to find ways into your system and explore those ways to figure out how much damage could be done through those.

There are two connections between vulnerability assessment and penetration testing:

  1. They’re both performed in order to find security vulnerabilities.
  2. Vulnerability scanning is an important part of penetration testing.

One small security loophole vs your entire web application. The risk is high!

Get your web app audited & strengthen your defenses!
See Pricing
Starting from $99/month

Who needs penetration testing?

Penetration testing is suited for companies that have complex applications and deal with a lot of lucrative data. It is for businesses that already have strong security features and need to find and remove any loopholes that might still exist. Since penetration testing involves security experts manually digging through your system to find exploitable weaknesses, it is a significantly more expensive procedure than vulnerability scanning. So, it is for companies that have a sizable security budget.

Why is penetration testing needed?

Let’s get borrow the flower-selling website once more. You have started getting regular automated vulnerability scans, patched up everything, ditched the vulnerable plugins, and you are no longer worried about an SQL injection, an XSS vulnerability, or some clickjacking hack. But this time a hacker decides to pull a price manipulation hack and starts buying your bouquets at half their actual price. You do not even notice until you decide to manually check the balance sheet for a change. Your vulnerability scanner must have missed something.

Read also: A Comprehensive Guide to Penetration Testing Compliance

Vulnerability scanning is a fast, automated procedure that misses some spots. While it gives you a quick report of your security stature, it cannot detect business logic errors, price manipulation hacks, or privilege escalation vulnerabilities. You need manual penetration testing to shed light on these areas.

Penetration testing helps you understand the risk posed by a certain vulnerability accurately. Since the manual pentesters confirm each vulnerability, you get detailed steps to reproduce them without having to worry about false positives.

Moreover, certain security regulations like level 4 of PCI-DSS require a manual pentest for compliance.

vulnerability assessment vs penetration testing
Image: Benefits of Penetration Testing

With penetration testing, you can get

  1. A clearer understanding of your web security posture including business logic errors
  2. Step-by-step directions to remediate vulnerabilities
  3. Zero false positives
  4. Remediation support from security experts
  5. Pentest certificate

Vulnerability Assessment VS Penetration Testing: The Showdown

We have discussed vulnerability assessment and pentesting separately so far. It’s finally time to talk about them with respect to each other. The goal here is to point out and highlight the discernible features in both and put an end to the vulnerability assessment vs penetration testing debate.

Let’s pick 5 categories and see how the participants fare in each one of them.

1. Speed of Execution

Speed is one of the key benefits of vulnerability scanning. A vulnerability scan takes a few minutes to a few hours to complete.

Penetration testing is a significantly longer procedure. The pentest process is divided into stages like planning, recon, scan, exploit, post-exploit, reporting, and remediation. It can take up to a couple of weeks to complete a penetration test, and you will need more time to run rescans after you have fixed the issues.

2. Depth of testing

Although a good vulnerability scanner can conduct 3000+ tests and scan for thousands of common vulnerabilities covering CVEs listed by security communities like OWASP and SANS. It has limitations. An automated vulnerability scanner cannot identify business logic errors among other difficult, environment-specific vulnerabilities. And of course, there is the issue of false positives (flagging vulnerabilities that do not actually exist).

Penetration testing is specifically geared to find difficult vulnerabilities. Not only does it involve powerful reconnaissance tools, scanners, and exploit tools, but also the experience of security experts. The instincts of a skilled pentester make a formidable tool when it comes to discovering loopholes in an apparently airtight security posture.

3. Risk analysis

Risk analysis of vulnerabilities is way more important than it is given credit for. It allows you to concentrate on areas that need the most of your attention in terms of remediation and resource allocation. A vulnerability assessment report informs you about the CVSS scores for each vulnerability to mark its severity.

Penetration testing has a clear upper hand in this category. The pentesters attempt to exploit the vulnerabilities present in your system. They can figure out how much access to sensitive assets a certain vulnerability may concede, how far and how fast the hacker can escalate the privileges, and exactly how much loss a certain exploit can incur.

With a penetration test, you get a clear ROI of the test and the remediation, thanks to the detailed nature of the pentest.

4. Remediation support

A vulnerability assessment report comes with suggestions for fixing the issues found. But it does not get too far from there. Your developers are left to do most of the research and execution.

A pentest report contains detailed step-by-step guides to reproduce and fix vulnerabilities. You can even get a video POC if you are partnering with the right pentest provider. Your dev team can collaborate with manual pentesters to overcome any roadblock they might have hit in the remediation process.

5. Pricing

Vulnerability scans are way cheaper than a manual pentest and for good reason. On one hand, you have an automated tool that you can use whenever you like and get a high-level report, on the other one you have security experts checking your codebase for security misconfiguration and whatnot. I’d say it’s an unfair category in terms of judging vulnerability assessment vs penetration testing, but important nonetheless.

A quality vulnerability assessment can cost you anywhere between $100 and $200 per month whereas the cost of web app pentesting is in the vicinity of $400 per month. The cost of cloud pentesting and mobile app pentesting is usually strung even higher.

Can you have both vulnerability assessment and penetration testing?

Of course, you can. The real question is, do you need it?

Vulnerability scanning is for a high-level security evaluation. It is fast, cheap, but misses some details. penetration testing, as you know by now, is a deeper, knowledge-intensive process that does not come that cheap.

As your business grows in revenue, and your web application becomes more and more complex with an increasing number of functionalities, it is a good idea to add pentesting to the security regime. At the end of the day, it all comes down to a cost-benefit analysis.

It is always a good idea to partner with a VAPT company that can offer both automated vulnerability assessment and manual penetration testing so that the option to escalate to a more comprehensive model of security testing stays open.

Astra’s Pentest is the Perfect Example

Whether you are looking for a comprehensive penetration testing solution or just a vulnerability scanner, you must check Astra’s Pentest out. The engineers and security experts at Astra are hell-bent on making robust web security simple for the users. In the process, they’ve created a near-perfect security testing solution that takes user experience very seriously.

vulnerability assessment vs penetration testing
Image: Astra’s Pentest Suite

One small security loophole vs your entire web application. The risk is high!

Get your web app audited & strengthen your defenses!
See Pricing
Starting from $99/month

With Astra’s Pentest you get –

  • 3000+ tests covering all major compliance requirements
  • Continuous testing through CI/CD integration
  • Scan behind the logged-in pages
  • Risk scores and accurate prediction of potential losses incurred by a vulnerability.
  • Zero false positives are ensured by security experts who confirm the authenticity of each vulnerability
  • Identification of business logic errors
  • A detailed guide to remediate the issues with video POCs
  • In-call support from security experts

The interactive pentest dashboard allows you to collaborate seamlessly with security experts to circumvent any roadblock your developers might face in terms of reproduction and remediation of vulnerabilities.

To Conclude

This is not the first article on the vulnerability assessment vs penetration testing debate, and this surely won’t be the last. However, you can consider this one as a definitive take. We hope you have got a pretty solid conception of the boundary that separates VA from PT while also understanding how they can function together to offer a holistic security evaluation of your systems.

Want to know more or have a quick question? Talk with our engineers!

We are always online! 😊

FAQs

Is vulnerability assessment a part of penetration testing?

Although vulnerability assessment can exist as a separate procedure, it is used as a part of the pentest process.

What is the timeline for penetration testing?

It takes 4-10 days to complete a penetration test, the rescans can take half as much time.

What is the cost of pentesting?

The cost of pentesting is usually between $99 and $399 for web apps. For mobile apps, and cloud platforms the cost can vary quite a bit depending on the scope of the pentest.

Do we get free rescans after the vulnerabilities are fixed?

Yes, you get up to 3 free rescans after the vulnerabilities are fixed available within 30 days of the initial test completion.

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Saumick Basu

Saumick is a Technical Writer at Astra Security. He loves to write about technology and has deep interest in its evolution. Having written about spearheading disruptive technology like AI, and Machine Learning, and code reviews for a while, Information Security is his newfound love. He's ready to bring you along as he dives deeper.
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