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The Differences Between Vulnerability Scanning and Penetration Testing

Vulnerability Scanning and Penetration Testing are two different things in the world of cyber security. Both are important in their respective roles, needed in cyber risk analysis, and required by standards such as PCI, HIPAA, and ISO 27001.

Vulnerability Scanning and Penetration Testing depend primarily on three different factors:

  1. Scope
  2. Risk and criticality of assets
  3. Cost and time
Man looking at computer code

Penetration Testing Overview

Penetration testing is the process of highly skilled cybersecurity professionals assuming the role of attacker by attempting to break into an organization’s network. With penetration testing, there is always a human factor involved. The process requires the use of tools, but also requires an expert to conduct the testing. Penetration testing can operate at the application or network-level or it can be specific to a function.

Penetration tests highlight weaknesses that could be exploited by an actual hacker and provide a roadmap for remediation.


The penetration testing scope is targeted In penetration testing, you define your scope on a number of factors based on risk and the importance of an asset.

Risk & Criticality

Spending a large amount of money on low-risk assets that may take days to exploit is not practical. A good penetration tester crafts a script, changes parameters of an attack, and/or tweaks the settings of the tools being used during a test.

Cost & Time

Penetration testing requires high-skilled knowledge, making it more costly. Additionally, testers often exploit a new vulnerability or discover security flaws that are not known to normal business processes. This can often take days or weeks. Because of its cost and chance of causing outages, penetration testing is typically conducted once a year.

Woman typing at computer

Vulnerability Scanning Overview

Vulnerability scanning is the act of identifying potential vulnerabilities in network devices such as:

  • Firewalls
  • Routers
  • Switches
  • Servers
  • Applications

The process for vulnerability scanning is automated and focuses on finding potential and known vulnerabilities on the network or application level. While penetration testing exploits vulnerabilities, vulnerability scanning simply identifies the known vulnerabilities.


The scope of vulnerability scanning is business-wide and requires automated tools to manage a large number of assets. This is wider in scope than penetration testing. Product-specific knowledge is needed to effectively use vulnerability scanning.

Person reviewing report

Risk & Criticality

Vulnerability scans can be run on any number of assets to determine known vulnerabilities. These scans can be used to eliminate more serious vulnerabilities affecting your valuable resources quickly. This is done by using the vulnerability management lifecycle.

Cost & Time

The cost of vulnerability scanning is low to moderate compared to penetration testing. Most organization’s run automated vulnerability scans at least weekly.

Vulnerability scanning and penetration testing can both feed into a cyber risk analysis process and help determine the controls best suited for the specific business. The two must work together to reduce risk. However, to maximize effective use of both processes, it is important to know the difference between the two.

H2L Solutions implements, tests, administers, and sustains cybersecurity solutions. We have a staff of information security professionals skilled in the development and management of cybersecurity programs. Our professionals assist our clients with multiple layers of information assurance and cybersecurity requirements.