What’s the Difference Between Vulnerability Scanning and Penetration Testing?

In the 1990 comedy Home Alone, Kevin McCallister defends his home from burglars after his family accidentally leaves him behind on their way to a Christmas vacation. There are so many memorable moments and quotable lines in the classic movie, but almost everyone who has seen it has also come away with a creative idea or two around how to defend their home from potential threats. One overarching takeaway: It’s always better to have multiple lines of defense.

What’s the Difference Between Vulnerability Testing and Penetration Testing?

This type of defense applies in the cyberworld as well. In the physical world, a vulnerability scan is like walking up to a door and checking to see if it’s unlocked, but stopping there. Penetration testing (also known as ethical hacking) goes further, as it not only checks to see if the door is unlocked but opens it and goes inside.

If we’ve learned anything from the headlines in recent years, it’s that there are a variety of potential repercussions if Harry and Marv make it past your network’s front door. Where vulnerability scans look for known vulnerabilities within an organization’s system and report potential exposures, ethical hacking exploits weaknesses in IT architectures to determine the degree to which a bad actor can gain unauthorized access to the company's assets.

As soon as Kevin realizes he’s under attack, he puts a plan in place to defend himself and his home. Without a plan in place, the likelihood of a cyberattack can increase exponentially – as can the time it takes to recover. You also can’t protect assets you don’t know you have. The shift to “work from anywhere” brought complications in the form of shadow IT, as employees connected more devices to the network and adopted more cloud applications that the IT team or company may not have known about. If you don’t stay on top of vulnerability management – including vulnerability scanning and ethical hacking – it can be nearly impossible to protect your network because you may not know where all the vulnerabilities exist.

Vulnerability Scanning and Penetration Testing: A Cybersecurity Yin and Yang

With the recent changes to the cyber landscape, the likelihood of a vulnerability affecting your organization’s network has increased. From third-party vendor risk, evolving ransomware attacks, and zero-day vulnerabilities, it can be challenging to stay abreast of the latest threats and protect your organization from cyber risk – particularly if you don’t have a dedicated security team. It is more important than ever to have a vulnerability management program that can uncover and remediate security vulnerabilities before they have the opportunity to wreak havoc on your network. Rather than pitting these two methods of vulnerability management against each other, let’s take a closer look at the difference between vulnerability testing and penetration testing, the benefits of each, and how they can work together to protect your organization.

Vulnerability Scanning

Just as a potential burglar might look for any unlocked doors or windows, vulnerability scanning searches for any known vulnerabilities in systems or applications within an organization to produce a list of all potential exposures or assets that might be at risk. Because this approach is typically automated, its primary function is to search for known unknowns. Vulnerability scans are ongoing can provide regular insight into your network security weekly, monthly, or quarterly. Our recommendation is to run a full scan at least on a monthly basis.

Ethical Hacking

When a potential burglar circles around the house to gain entry through the garage, it's like an ethical hacker manually attempting to exploit weaknesses in your network to gain access to sensitive data and systems. Because a security professional conducts this test, it can simulate a variety of threats and demonstrate potential compromises of which your organization may not have been aware. Ethical hacking can deeply examine your network security in a very thorough way and can explore every nook and cranny of your business in the same way an actual attacker would. Due to its comprehensive nature, ethical hacking is usually done at least annually and has a higher cost.

Like yin and yang, vulnerability scanning and ethical hacking give rise to each other as they work together to encourage optimal network and application security.

Vulnerability Management Webinar

Comprehensive Vulnerability Management

By leveraging both vulnerability management approaches, your organization gets the best of both worlds. You can protect your home from those who jiggle the doorknob and try the doggie door, as well as those who pick the lock and sneak in through the basement. The most important aspect of vulnerability management is to have a continuous, all-encompassing, well-managed, and thorough process.

With vulnerability scanning and ethical hacking working hand-in-hand, your organization receives ongoing, regular scans of the external network and internal assets that can both reveal known unknowns and test defenses against a simulated attack. Once these vulnerabilities are identified, your organization can prioritize them based on criticality and impact, so you are not attempting to patch everything at once while risking additional downtime in the event of an attack.  

Kevin may have been on his own to defend himself and his house, but you don’t have to be. Comprehensive cybersecurity is possible for all organizations, whether you have a security team in-house or not. Vulnerability scanning and ethical hacking can work in tandem – along with additional assessments and testing, policies and training, and detection and response – to build a solid foundation for a comprehensive cybersecurity program that protects you from future threats.


Want to take the first step of discovering the vulnerable side of your network? Try our challenge! We're giving away three free cybersecurity tools and a chance to win one of four gourmet food packages.

Data Vulnerabilities Challenge
Your cart
    Checkout