Penetration Testing vs Vulnerability Assessment – What’s the Difference?

Cyber-attacks are an ongoing threat to organisations and it is imperative that businesses have effective security solutions in place. The identification of vulnerabilities, risks and weaknesses within computer and network security systems is essential to help avoid attacks. Two of the major tests or assessments to do this are penetration testing and vulnerability assessments.

In order to understand the differences between penetration testing and vulnerability assessments, it’s a good idea to consider what each option provides. As with many things, they are similar in concept, but intrinsically different, too.

What is Penetration Testing?

Penetration testing, often referred to as pen-testing, is used to identify, test and prioritise vulnerabilities within computer systems and networks. This is done by carrying out activities in a similar way to a threat actor. Threat actors are sometimes referred to as hackers or cyber-criminals. Carrying out these activities can easily identify potential issues by detecting and exploiting existing weaknesses within the computer system and network being tested, thus making it easier to implement relevant security upgrades in a targeted manner.

What is a Vulnerability Assessment?

A vulnerability assessment or VA (sometimes known as a vulnerability scan) is a process which also aims to identify potential threats and the risks that they might pose to an organisation. The assessment is carried out by an automated testing tool, with high-quality scans searching for over 50,000 known vulnerabilities. It scans the system and provides a vulnerability assessment report which lists the results obtained. The results will highlight the areas which need addressing, which can be used to implement relevant and targeted security upgrades.

Penetration Testing vs. Vulnerability Assessment

When considering which type of testing is best for your organisation, you may wish to consider the key areas of scope below:


Vulnerability assessments will begin by considering all the assets within the IT environment. Identifying flaws in networks and applications, these will then be determined and ranked by the level of risk so they can be prioritised. A report is produced which highlights the improvements that could be made. Remedies can include reconfiguration of systems, patch management and improvements made to the security infrastructure.

Penetration testing will begin by deciding the level to which the company wishes the Pen-testing to go and the potential threat levels. Vulnerabilities will be assessed and consideration given to the severity of each risk. The testing simulates real attacks and exploitation of the vulnerabilities identified. A risk analysis will then consider how much access the attack has achieved. Again, a report will be provided outlining the risks, detailing their severity and will give recommendations for mitigating actions to be taken. Once the security improvements have been implemented, a repeat test is carried out to ensure the fixes have been successful.


Vulnerability assessments are carried out regularly and can be implemented by internal team members utilising an automated tool. Whilst the tool will provide result outputs, it is not unusual for organisations to outsource the evaluation and identification of threats as this is often a manual process.

Penetration testing could be carried out internally, however, in most instances, they are performed by qualified penetration testers, often known as ethical hackers.


Vulnerability assessments will usually take a few hours, but may sometimes only require a few minutes to be completed.

Penetration testing is a much longer procedure and is likely to take a couple of weeks to complete the full testing, with additional time needed to run further tests once remediation has occurred.


Vulnerability assessments tend to consider the vulnerabilities within internal systems and identify ways to strengthen internal defence mechanisms.

Penetration testing considers external factors and will identify areas of a system which could be infiltrated. The tests normally aim to determine how a system would cope if exposed to unknown threats.


Vulnerability assessments cannot identify business logic errors or all environment-specific vulnerabilities as it is an automated tool. There can also be results which are known as false positives where a vulnerability doesn’t actually exist.

Penetration testing may have some levels of automation, but it also involves the work of experienced security experts. Skilled pentesters are able to discover loopholes and vulnerabilities that might be missed by an automated tool.


Vulnerability assessments are suited to those organisations that utilise insecure networks and want to identify known threats. The assessments will usually aim to identify all possible security issues within an entire system and are run regularly with endpoint samples assessed.

Penetration tests on the other hand are particularly useful for organisations that have strong security defences but wish to consider unknown threats and how easily their system could be hacked. Pen-testing helps to ensure systems remain safe despite new threats being developed by cyber criminals. These tests are usually only performed on critical infrastructure such as servers, databases and firewalls.


Vulnerability assessments are carried out utilising automation, so are cheaper to implement regularly.

Penetration tests are expensive as they take longer to complete and you are paying for the skills of an experienced pentester to investigate all potential compromises to your IT infrastructure.

Combining Vulnerability Assessments and Penetration Testing (VAPT)

Many organisations now consider utilising VAPT as best practice for their IT infrastructure. By combining the two methods, it helps a business in the following ways:

  • Full and comprehensive understanding of the company’s IT security position
  • Both automated and human checking helps avoid anomalies and false positives
  • Faster remediation time
  • Reduced risk for all IT infrastructure within the organisation
  • Patch management processes are streamlined

Why do you need Penetration Testing and Vulnerability Assessments?

Detecting common vulnerabilities will obviously help ensure that your network assets are strengthened against cyber-attacks. Many industries or clients will expect a certain level of security, and both these types of testing will ensure that you can be compliant to such security regulations. If you wish to complete the Cyber Essentials Plus accreditation, for example, you will need your systems to be tested.

Business and personal clients are now much more aware of data security and protection, and by demonstrating that your organisation carries out regular vulnerability assessments will give them peace of mind and build trust, as well as adhering to general compliance.

With a complete view of the security risks impacting your business systems, you are in the best position to implement proactive remediation of any vulnerabilities and by carrying out penetration testing, you will also know that the remedial actions taken won’t be exploited by attackers.

As cyber threats evolve it is important to consistently review and retest your IT infrastructure to remain ahead of the cyber criminals.

How can Mintivo help?

Mintivo ensures that we fully understand your systems’ weak points so we can fix them. Don’t become a cyber statistic – contact Mintivo to talk about how we can help your business. We can perform a Cyber Security Health Check on your processes to help you understand just how secure your data really is.

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