Vulnerability Assessment and Penetration Testing Comparison


  • Jignesh C Doshi
  • Bhushan Trivedi


Business using internet has grown drastically in past decade. Attacks on web application have increased. Web application security is a big challenge for any organizations as result of increasing attacks. There exists different approaches to mitigate various security risks are defensive coding, hardening (Firewall), Monitoring and auditing. This solutions found more towards prevention of attacks or of monitoring types of. Vulnerability assessment and Penetration testing are two approaches widely used by organizations to assess web application security. Both solutions are different and complimentary to each other. In this paper comparison of these two approaches are provided. Authors found that penetration testing is better compare to vulnerability assessment as it exploits vulnerability, while vulnerability assessment is superior in terms of coverage over penetration testing.

General Terms

Vulnerability Measurement, Penetration Testing


Attack, Vulnerability, Security Risk, VAPT,


Web application usage has increased as more and more services are available on web. Business using Web applications is also increasing day by day. On other side, web application based attacks have increased. Web application have become main target of attackers. Major impact of attacks is data loss or financial loss or reputation loss.

Various types of countermeasures exists to protect system against attacks like defensive coding, firewall, Intrusion detection system etc. [15]. The solution exists in two categories: proactive and reactive. To secure web applications, thorough study of vulnerabilities is required. Study will help in taking effective actions. Vulnerability measurement and Penetration testing are widely used approaches by organizations for web application security assessment.

In this paper, authors have compared vulnerability assessment and penetration testing.

The rest of the paper is organized as follows. Vulnerability assessment is discussed in section 2, Penetration testing is discussed in Section 3. Section 4 describes comparison between vulnerability assessment and penetration testing. Conclusion is described in section 5.

2. Current Web Application Security Trends

The number of internet users and websites are increasing rapidly in recent years [9]. Approximately 66% of web applications have problem as per Gartner. According to sophisticated vulnerability assessment tools 60% vulnerabilities can be found in most of web applications [12].

Security measures most commonly applied for web application security are firewalls, Intrusion Detection System (IDS), Anti-virus System and defensive coding [14][15]. This solution either requires developer skills or efforts in common [15]. These solutions provide a way to assess system, while organizations need a way to assess security countermeasure assessment. It is also necessary to assess web application periodically against security risks in order to take effective actions.

3. Vulnerability Assessment

Vulnerability is a weakness or flaw in a system. Reasons for vulnerability existence are weak password, coding, input validation, misconfiguration etc. Attacker tries to discover vulnerability and then exploit it.

Vulnerability assessment is a proactive and systematic strategy to discover vulnerability. It is used to discover unknown problems in the system. It is also required by industry standard like DSS PCI from compliance point of view.

Vulnerability assessment is achieved using scanners. It is a hybrid solution, which combines automated testing with expert analysis.

Figure 1: Vulnerability Assessment Process

Vulnerability assessment is a one step process ( Refer to figure 1). We will learn more details about vulnerability assessment in section 5.

4. Penetration Testing

A penetration testing evaluates the security of a computer system or network by simulating an attack. It is a proactive and systematic approach for security assessment.

Figure 1: Penetration Testing Process

Penetration testing is a two steps process (refer to figure 2). We will learn more details about penetration in next section.

5. Comparison

5.1 Generic




Penetration Testing


Discover vulnerabilities

Discover and exploit vulnerabilities

Alerts pre-existing flaws found in code

Shows how damaging flaws pose a threat to application

Do not differentiate between flaws that can cause damage or not

Gives detail picture of flaws found in application with risk associated with it


Discovery & Scanning



One step :

Find vulnerability

Two step process: Find and exploit vulnerability


Breadth over depth

Depth over breadth


Hybrid solution

One solution for multiple vulnerabilities testing

Coverage of completeness



Defend ability




Detective control, used to detect when equipment is compromised.

Preventative control used to reduce exposures


Low to moderate


Performed by

In house staff

Attacker, Pen tester


5.2 Resource Requirements


Vulnerability Measurement

Penetration Testing

Internal Resource Requirement



External Resource Requirement



Tester Knowledge




5.3 Testing


Vulnerability Measurement

Penetration Testing

Testing of other security Investments

Not possible

Determine whether other security investments are functioning properly or not

Security Risk Assessment

Not possible

Provide security risk assessment as mimics attacks just like attacker


Does not simulate attacks

Simulates real world attacks

How often to run

Continuously, especially after new equipment is loaded


5.4 Results


Vulnerability Assessment

Penetration Testing


Comprehensive baseline of what vulnerabilities exist and changes from the last report

Short and to the point, identifies what data was actually compromised


Lists known software vulnerabilities that may be exploited

Discovers unknown and exploitable exposures to normal business processes


Provides partial evaluation of vulnerabilities

Provides complete evaluation of vulnerabilities


5.5 Limitations

Major limitations of Vulnerability Assessments are:

ï‚· Cannot identify potential access path

ï‚· Provides false positive

ï‚· Requires high technical skills for tester

ï‚· Hybrid solution

ï‚· Cannot exploit flaws

Major limitations of Penetration testing are:

ï‚· Identifies potential access paths

ï‚· Identifies only those which poses threats

ï‚· May not identify obvious vulnerability

ï‚· Cannot provide information about new vulnerabilities

ï‚· Cannot identify server side vulnerabilities

6. Conclusion

With the exception of coverage, penetration testing is superior to vulnerability management.

Key benefits of penetration testing over vulnerability assessment are:

  • Technical capability required in penetration testing is low compare to vulnerability assessment
  • Can be used runtime
  • With penetration testing we can detect, confirm and exploit vulnerability.
  • With penetration testing can determine the resulting impact on the organisation.

For effective security, it is important to understand vulnerability in details.

Both are complimentary strategies to each other and proactive. We suggest to use both together.


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