Vulnerability Assessments vs. Penetration Testing

A sound IT security strategy includes numerous components that should be given serious consideration depending on the size, location, and structure of the organization in question.

In today’s complex world of ubiquitous access to potentially sensitive information including personal identity details, financial data, and trade secrets, it makes more sense than ever to have a solid understanding of just how vulnerable your IT infrastructure might be.

After all, a single slip-up or gap in the armor can result in a data breach that can be devastating. For this reason, an ounce of prevention is certainly worth a pound of cure.

So, what can companies do to best prepare their defenses in an environment where the threats are constantly evolving? The good news is that there are companies—like us here at Mission Critical Systems—who specialize in comprehensive IT security audits that can reveal vulnerabilities and alert business owners to areas where immediate action is needed to safeguard their sensitive digital assets.

Vulnerability Assessments and Penetration Tests are two such audits. In this article, we’ll explore how these audits are performed, what business owners can expect from them, and how to go about arranging for your own IT security tests and assessments to be performed.

Vulnerability Assessments

Virtually every business on the planet has an information system. This could be as simple as a street vendor accepting credit card payments with a handheld device or as complex as a multinational company with data stores in thousands of locations.

When a vulnerability assessment is conducted, a systematic review of all IT security weaknesses is performed. A thorough vulnerability assessment will reveal three key pieces of information:

  1. Location of vulnerabilitiesvulnerability assessment mobile device
  2. Severity of vulnerabilities
  3. Remediation or mitigation recommendations

Not all vulnerability assessments are created equal. Some ‘back of the napkin’ assessments can be done after simply filling out a questionnaire about your company’s current IT security status.

More exhaustive (and therefore more insightful) vulnerability assessments fall into one of four categories:

  • Host Assessments. This assessment is relegated to servers that play a critical role within an organization.
  • Network Assessments (either wired or wireless). Vulnerability is assessed to determine who or what can access information networks, whether on-site or remotely.
  • Database Assessments. Misconfigurations, rogue databases, or insecure development environments can present significant security vulnerabilities.
  • Application Assessments. Getting under the hood and looking at application source code can reveal potentially dangerous vulnerabilities.

Generally, the Vulnerability Assessment process is an iterative one. It starts with identifying vulnerabilities, then analyzing them, then assessing their risk level, and then remediating them. After this is complete, the process starts again until the total security status is at an acceptable level.

Penetration Tests

A penetration test can be thought of as a more rigorous kind of vulnerability assessment. During a penetration test—or ‘pen test’ for short—a simulated cyber attack is waged on a company’s servers, networks, databases, or applications.

In cases where penetration tests are performed across the internet, the goal is to determine the effectiveness of the Web Application Firewall (WAF) in place.

An effective penetration test will have, at a minimum, five stages:

  1. Test planning. During the test planning phase, goals are defined and a schema is assigned to the simulated attack.
  2. Target scanning. As the attack is deployed, the test administrator documents how the target responds to intrusions.
  3. Acquiring access. If a vulnerability exists, the penetration test will be able to gain access to the target in question.
  4. Maintaining access. If access can be acquired, can be it maintained? This stage will determine the answer.
  5. Final analysis and reconfiguration. As with the vulnerability tests mentioned above, penetration tests are meant to be performed repeatedly until a sufficiently robust security level is achieved.

Penetration tests require advanced understanding, specialized tools and techniques, and the involvement of experienced IT professionals in order to effectively reveal vulnerabilities and areas where attention is needed.

And, because IT security threat sophistication is perpetually increasing with every passing day, it is advisable to have penetration tests routinely performed on your information system. For most small-to-medium-sized businesses, this can mean having tests done 2-4 times a year.

Where to Go from Here

You know how important it is to stay abreast of your company’s potential IT security weaknesses, and Mission Critical Systems is here to help.

Vulnerability Assessments and Penetration Tests are just two of the tools we can use to ensure your information system is as secure and reliable as it can be.

For peace of mind, compliance, and ongoing profitability, rely on us for total IT security solutions. Contact us today to learn more.

FREE – Risk Assessment

Identify your organization’s risks and receive guidance on how to mitigate those risks – FREE!

Learn more >

Scroll to Top