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Tyler Thepsiri

By: Tyler Thepsiri on September 30, 2023

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How To Assess Cyber Risk: IT Vulnerability Scan Vs. Penetration Test

Cybersecurity | IT Support

New cyber threats emerge every day. Organizations of all sizes in every industry have been targeted.

The common thinking is that it’s no longer a matter of if your business will fall victim, but rather a question of when and how damaging the attack will be. So how can business leaders assess the risks facing their organizations and take action to prevent these attacks?

In addition to proactive maintenance, installing updates, and practicing routine monitoring of your infrastructure, there are two specific tools that are helpful in identifying risks and determining the impact those risks could have on your business.

The two tools I’m referring to are vulnerability scans and penetration tests. Customers often have questions about what each of these tools does, how they work, and the information they provide. I’ll answer all of these questions in this article.

After reading this article, you’ll understand the similarities and differences and the advantages and disadvantages of each so that you can decide whether these tools would be a good option for your business.

At Kelser, we’ve been working with businesses like yours for more than 40 years. We understand that not everyone is an IT expert. We write these articles to provide business leaders with the information needed to make solid technology decisions.

And don’t worry, this isn’t a veiled sales pitch. While Kelser offers a comprehensive managed IT solution for many organizations, we understand that it isn’t the right solution for everyone. Our philosophy is that whether you work with us or not, you have technology questions, and we want to provide answers.

What Are The Goals of IT Vulnerability Scans and Penetration Tests?

Each of these tools is designed to expose potential gaps in an organization’s infrastructure that could lead to a cyber breach. What makes the tools different is the way each approaches the task and the information they provide.

What Is A Vulnerability Scan?

A vulnerability scan (or “vulscan”) is used to identify potential weaknesses in your IT network. These tests identify devices, servers, and applications that are running on your network and automatically generate reports that compare the information gathered to a database of known vulnerabilities.

Vulnerability scans also identify open ports that may be putting your network at risk.

Vulnerability scans can be performed using commercially available software or by hiring a professional IT team to handle it.

Related article: What Is An IT Vulnerability Scan? What Are The Benefits? Do I Need One?

What Are The Advantages Of Vulnerability Scans?

Vulnerability scans offer several advantages: 

1. Information

Information is power. A vulnerability scan gives your organization power because it identifies areas of risk.

Once you know what a malicious actor could potentially access, it makes it easier for your organization to prioritize cybersecurity enhancement efforts that address the vulnerabilities, enhancing your infrastructure security.

2. Cost

Because vulnerability scans are conducted using a piece of software that automatically scans your network, they are less expensive than penetration tests.

While the cost of a vulnerability scan varies depending on the size and complexity of your network infrastructure, it generally costs an organization with a small environment around $2,000 to scan, generate the report, and distill the results.  

3. Test length

Vulnerability tests typically take about 2-3 hours to run. After the report is generated, it will take additional time to distill the information from the report into actionable tasks.

What Are The Disadvantages?

While a vulnerability scan provides valuable information about the vulnerabilities that exist, you aren’t left with an action plan.

1. Interpretation Required

You will likely need the help of an external IT expert to interpret the results of the vulnerability scan. 

2. Prioritizing Next Steps

You’ll need help to identify which vulnerabilities pose the most risk, so you can prioritize which vulnerabilities to address first. Again, you may need the help of an external IT expert to develop an action plan and prioritize action items.

What Is A Penetration Test?

Penetration tests are basically simulated, authorized hacks of your organization’s technology infrastructure (within identified limits).

You hire an IT professional to identify vulnerabilities and to explore what the consequences would be if those vulnerabilities were exploited by someone with malicious intent from inside or outside of your organization. 

Related article: What Is IT Penetration Testing? What Are The Benefits? Do I Need It?

What Are The Advantages?

Penetration tests provide: 

1. Comprehensive Information

A penetration test provides a detailed listing of the vulnerabilities and the potential risk each one poses to your infrastructure security.

2. Prioritized Action Items

The comprehensive results of a penetration test provide a roadmap that helps easily prioritize the action items needed to reduce your risk.

What Are The Disadvantages?

While penetration tests provide comprehensive information, there are some disadvantages.

1. Cost

Due to their comprehensive nature, penetration tests can be expensive.

A quick internet search indicates that the average cost of a penetration test can range from $4,000 for a small organization (simple test) to hundreds of thousands of dollars (or sometimes more) for a large, complicated environment with complex systems.

2. Inconvenience

Because IT penetration tests are basically simulated cyber attacks on your systems (within stated limits), there is the potential for a penetration test to be much more of a disturbance for your organization.

Before you start, make sure everyone has a clear understanding of the process and the rules of engagement.

3. Test Length

An IT penetration test can last anywhere from several days to several weeks, depending on the size and complexity of the infrastructure and including the time needed to prepare a report. 

How Are Vulnerability Scans And Penetration Tests Similar?

As we mentioned earlier, both vulnerability scans and penetration tests aim to identify areas of potential risk within a technology infrastructure.

Both should be stepping stones to a safer network, but neither one can improve the security of your network unless you develop a comprehensive remediation plan to plug the holes in your infrastructure.

How Are Vulnerability Scans And Penetration Tests Different?

While vulnerability scans provide information only about existing vulnerabilities, a penetration test takes this information a step further.

Penetration tests show where the vulnerabilities lie and also the potential impact that exploiting those vulnerabilities would have on your organization.

What’s The Bottom Line?

After reading this article, you have a firm understanding of the similarities and differences between vulnerability scans and penetration costs.

You know what a vulnerability scan is, the advantages it offers (information, cost, and test length) as well as its disadvantages (interpretation of results, prioritization of next steps).

You also are well educated about penetration tests and understand that they provide you with a complete picture of the vulnerabilities and the potential impact on your organization. The comprehensive report generated as a result of a penetration test will make it easier to prioritize your list of action items.

Having noted the advantages of penetration testing, there are also disadvantages (cost, inconvenience, and test length).

At this point you may be wondering if your organization could benefit from one or both of these testing tools.

Based on our experience, organizations would ideally perform both kinds of testing and then develop a remediation strategy to eliminate any holes in the IT infrastructure. But we understand that resources and time are limited.

At a minimum, most organizations should perform a vulnerability scan on a monthly or quarterly basis. For high-risk organizations and those with unlimited resources, daily scanning is the safest option. Honestly, the more frequently you scan for vulnerabilities, the better off your security will be.

If vulnerability scans show few or no significant risks, don’t just assume that your infrastructure is safe. Conduct a penetration test occasionally just to ensure that a deeper dive doesn’t uncover any hidden vulnerabilities.  

Whether you have an internal IT team or need to rely on external resources, scanning for vulnerabilities and conducting penetration tests should be a part of every organization’s cybersecurity efforts. These two tools provide valuable information that you can use to guide your cybersecurity action plan and keep your organization safe.

Wondering what else you can do? Learn about the most often overlooked (and most cost-effective) cybersecurity tool.

Or click the button below for a checklist you can use to assess your organization's cyber readiness.

Get Your Cybersecurity Checklist

Thinking of exploring external options for IT support? Make sure you check out several providers to get one that is the right fit for you. Find out the 10 best questions to ask any external IT provider.

Or, if you just want to talk to a human about your business, your current IT situation, and your technology pain points, click on the button below and one of our IT solutions specialists will schedule a 15-minute call.

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About Tyler Thepsiri

With more than 10 years in the IT industry, Tyler is able to adapt quickly to almost any technological issue. He understands how systems should work, and specializes in security and compliance.

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