What is Penetration Testing? A Step-by-Step Guide

What is Penetration Testing?

Last Updated on 7 June 2023 by Alastair Digby

Penetration Testing (or Pentesting) is a security practice widely used by organizations as part of their vulnerability management program. Pentesting provides assurance that an organization’s applications, networks, and infrastructure are secure against cyber attacks. In this type of analysis, penetration testers simulate a real-world attack using an array of tools and techniques to uncover vulnerabilities that could be exploited by an attacker.

The dramatic rise in security incidents proves that cybercriminals are very much in a lucrative line of work and show no sign of stopping as attacks become increasingly sophisticated and destructive. Just as you’d secure your home from intruders, you need to secure your digital infrastructure from malicious actors. 

Why is Penetration Testing important?

For most of us, technology is an indispensable part of our daily lives – both in business and personally. As we hurtle towards a progressively digital future, we become even more vulnerable to cyberattacks with heavier use of emerging IoT devices and cloud services. 

With more services digitalized daily, organizations hold more data than ever before. This introduces further weaknesses for security breaches to occur. Thus, unsurprisingly, Penetration testing is an integral part of any comprehensive security program. 

How does a Penetration Test work?

In penetration testing, ethical hackers use the same security tools and techniques a real-life threat actor would use to mimic an attacker. This is a systematic process, of finding and exploiting vulnerabilities in your web applications and infrastructure. For example:

  • Web or mobile applications
  • Mobile devices
  • Cloud services
  • Operating systems
  • Internal and external infrastructure
  • Connected devices

Vulnerabilities can be introduced from a range of sources, from misconfigurations to software bugs, their presence is inevitable. 

The main goal of penetration testing is to identify your real-world vulnerabilities. It provides both technical information on specific weaknesses and remediation steps, helping you mitigate weaknesses before they are exploited by an attacker. The following are common steps of a Pentest:

  1. Discovery of a vulnerability
  2. Planning the method of attack (threat modelling)
  3. Potential exploitation of the vulnerability (if safe to do so)
  4. Reporting on vulnerability (in real-time with Informer)
  5. Advise clients on how best to act on the finding and reduce their risk of exploitation. 

Which vulnerabilities do Penetration Tests look for?

The main vulnerabilities that ethical hackers will test for are listed in the OWASP Top 10:

  1. Injection
  2. Broken Authentication
  3. Sensitive Data Exposure
  4. XML External Entities (XXE)
  5. Broken Access Control
  6. Security Misconfigurations
  7. Cross-Site Scripting (XSS)
  8. Insecure Deserialization
  9. Using Components with Known Vulnerabilities
  10. Insufficient Logging and Monitoring

Remember though, penetration testing should be thought of as a method for gaining assurance in your organization’s vulnerability management strategies, rather than a primary process to find vulnerabilities.

What are the different types of Penetration Tests?

There is a variety of penetration testing to choose from, and they are not all created equal. Many organizations require tailored tests for their own requirements. For example, from meeting compliance standards to the deployment of new resources, or even to bespoke routine tests. You can pick the one best suited to your needs.

However, Pentesting is more than just a checkbox practice – they are a critical and ongoing tool needed to improve your security posture. 

What is the difference between Penetration Testing and Vulnerability Assessments?

Penetration Testing Vulnerability versus Assessments: the distinct features are the time they take, their scope, and their cost.

Vulnerability assessments use an automated approach, offering a systematic review of potential risks by using a number of scanning tools to assess your IT infrastructure for any known flaws from a large data pool. It then provides a catalogue of vulnerabilities prioritized for remediation, usually with advice on how to fix specific ones. 

On the other hand, Pentests have a specific, rooted goal in mind – whether it’s to hack into a specific system, breach a database, or simply probe as an attack to find hackable infrastructure. The core value is utilizing the manual expertise and experience of a skilled and qualified Pentester. 

What is the difference between QA and penetration testing?

Quality Assurance (QA) and penetration testing are both important parts of software development, but they have distinct differences in terms of their goals and methods.

QA is a process that involves testing the software to ensure that it meets the specified requirements and functions as expected. This can involve testing for bugs, glitches, and user interface issues, as well as checking that the software is compatible with different platforms and devices. The goal of QA is to identify and fix any problems before the software is released to the public, ensuring that it is reliable and functions as intended.

Penetration testing, on the other hand, is a security testing technique that involves simulating an attack on a system or application to identify vulnerabilities and weaknesses. Penetration testing can involve using various techniques such as social engineering, network scanning, and vulnerability scanning to identify potential security threats. The goal of penetration testing is to identify weaknesses in the system that could be exploited by attackers and to provide recommendations for improving the security of the system.

While both QA and penetration testing involve testing the software for issues, their approaches and goals are different. QA is primarily focused on ensuring that the software is reliable and meets the intended requirements, while penetration testing is focused on identifying potential security vulnerabilities and weaknesses. Both processes are important for ensuring that software is secure and functions as intended, but they serve different purposes and should be viewed as complementary rather than interchangeable.

How often should you conduct a Penetration Test?

A risk-based approach to cyber security is essential, so routine Penetration Testing is critical for effectively protecting your digital perimeter.

Many organizations wait too long to schedule a pentest or don’t respond properly when vulnerabilities are discovered. Depending on the size of the organization, a Penetration Test should be done at least once a year to verify its ability to secure its systems, networks, your clients’ data from threats. 

What type of penetration test do I need?

There are many different types of penetration tests, and the type that’s right for you will depend on a variety of factors, including the size and complexity of your organization, the systems and networks you need to test, and your overall security goals. As part of a modern security program your pen testing schedule should be clearly planned and delivered based on your business critical assets being tested regularly.

A common approach is to map your attack surface to identify which assets pose the greatest risk if breached. From there you can focus on a phased approach spanning the various types of pen testing that make up your digital perimeter. Crucially ensuring vulnerabilities are remediated in a timely manner is key to get the most benefit from your pen test.

Get the most from a Penetration Test with Informer

Nearly 80% of senior security and IT leaders lack confidence in their cyber security posture, and growing dependence on emerging tech inevitably invites more opportunities for vulnerabilities to be both created and exploited. So, it’s time to get ahead of attackers.

As a dynamic platform with a client-first approach, Informer is designed to acclimate to an ever-changing digital world by reforming traditional security testing. Our manual Penetration Testing as a Services (PTaaS) options are integrated into our Attack Surface Management platform, allowing for seamless use of its tools and access to your results in real-time. Want to learn more? Get in touch today.

Frequently Asked Questions

How does penetration testing differ from vulnerability scanning?

While vulnerability scanning focuses on identifying known vulnerabilities in systems or networks, penetration testing goes a step further by attempting to exploit those vulnerabilities to determine their potential impact. Penetration testing involves manual testing, critical thinking, and active exploitation techniques, whereas vulnerability scanning is generally automated and focuses on identifying known security issues.

Who should perform penetration testing?

Penetration testing should ideally be conducted by skilled and certified cybersecurity professionals with expertise in ethical hacking and penetration testing methodologies. They have the knowledge, experience, and tools to perform comprehensive and effective assessments.

How often should organizations conduct penetration testing?

The frequency of penetration testing depends on various factors, such as the organization’s industry, regulatory requirements, the complexity of the infrastructure, and the threat landscape. Generally, organizations should conduct penetration testing on a regular basis, at least annually or whenever significant changes occur in the systems or applications.