Vulnerability Scanning vs. Penetration Testing

What’s the difference?

In today’s ever-evolving landscape of cybersecurity threats, more organizations are taking measures to secure their cybersecurity posture than ever before. Vulnerability scanning and penetration testing are two very popular services that organizations acquire to keep their assets and data as secure as possible.

While both approaches provide valuable insight into the health of an organization’s security posture, vulnerability scanning and penetration testing differ in scope, methodology and depth.

Vulnerability Scanning

Vulnerability scanning is an automated process that identifies known security weaknesses within an organization’s network, systems or applications. A vulnerability scan can provide a greatly insightful analysis of the weaknesses an organization may have in their security health.

While a vulnerability scan can produce a comprehensive list of potential vulnerabilities, the scan alone will never exploit said vulnerabilities, nor will it test the potential impact on the organization. For these reasons, vulnerability scans come with a much lighter price tag than penetration tests.

Penetration Testing

Penetration tests are a thorough and manual analysis of an organization’s security posture. Performed by professional penetration testers, penetration tests are designed to simulate real-world attacks against an organization’s network, systems and applications.

Unlike vulnerability scans, penetration tests incorporate both automated and manual techniques to actively exploit discovered vulnerabilities. By doing so, penetration testers gain access to systems, escalate privileges, and exfiltrate sensitive data. Penetration tests provide a more in-depth evaluation of an organization’s security defenses, helping identify vulnerabilities that may go undetected in vulnerability scans and providing valuable insights for remediation. Because of the level of expertise required to perform a penetration test, penetration tests provide more and cost more.

In Context

To demonstrate the crucial differences between vulnerability scanning and penetration testing, let’s take the infamous MS07-010 “EternalBlue” vulnerability as a case in point. EternalBlue is an exploit that was discovered in 2017 and allows an attacker to gain remote code execution in vulnerable Microsoft systems with SMB protocol enabled.

A vulnerability scan output will catch this vulnerability and provide a strategy for mitigation.

However, a penetration test will not only catch this vulnerability but actively exploit this weakness to gain access to the vulnerable system. Doing so will open many more doors for the penetration tester and can potentially lead to the entire network being compromised. This is called lateral movement. The penetration tester can move laterally across the network once one host is compromised.

In other words, if a hacker gets hold of one workstation, the hacker can then potentially gain control over every single other workstation in the company network through lateral movement methods. This would include accounts as well – even the Domain Administrator account. 

Discover which is best for your business

Now that you know the difference between penetration testing and vulnerability scanning, which one is right for your needs?

Contact Rhodian Group for a free Cybersecurity consultation where you can learn more about the right approached based on your specific environment, requirements, and level of risk.


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Our experience with hundreds of businesses across diverse industries provides us with the expertise to understand your unique challenges.