What is a Penetration Test and How Does it Work?

February 15, 2019 Eric Dosal Eric Dosal

Cybersecurity companies offer a wide range of services to their customers to prevent the majority of cyberattacks from succeeding. One of the most common services offered by managed security service providers (MSSPs) is penetration testing (also known as “pen tests”). Since their inception, penetration tests have become a core cybersecurity service, helping organizations of all sizes and industries identify potential weak points in their network security architecture so they can be fixed.

However, what is a penetration test, exactly? And, how do pen tests work?

For those who are curious about penetration testing and how modern cybersecurity companies handle this service, here is a brief explanation of the basics:

What is a Penetration Test?

The SANS Institute provides a definition for penetration testing in their Conducting a Penetration Test on an Organization whitepaper: “Penetration tests are a great way to identify vulnerabilities that [exist] in a system or network that has… existing security measures in place. A penetration test usually involves the use of attacking methods conducted by trusted individuals that are similarly used by hostile intruders or hackers.” In short, pen tests are a critical vulnerability management tool that help uncover weaknesses in a cybersecurity architecture by using simulated attacks carried out by trusted people.

Penetration tests have been a critical part of cybersecurity for decades—ever since government and business organizations first realized that the growing interconnectivity and remote communications of computers were vulnerable to being accessed illicitly. In fact, according to the Infosec Institute, “since the mid-1960s, and with increasing sophistication, white hat testers have worked to ensure that computer systems remain secure from hackers.”

How Does a Penetration Test Work?

Penetration tests can work in different ways—there is no one comprehensive testing method that everyone uses. Part of this is because cyber threats are continuously evolving—and pen tests need to simulate whatever attack methods the organization is likely to encounter.

Some of the “broad strokes” of a penetration test include:

  1. Assigning a person or team to act as “white hat” hacker(s) to conduct the test at a randomized date and time.

  2. Vulnerability management team members scanning the IP addresses of different assets on the network to identify assets using services or operating systems with known vulnerabilities.

  3. The penetration testing team conducting a series of simulated attacks against the network using different attack methods. These attacks may target known vulnerabilities from the preliminary scan.

  4. The organization attempting to contain, stop, and investigate the attack as if it were a real one (depending on how the attack is conducted, the cybersecurity team may not know it is a pen test instead of a real attack).

It is important for the pen test team to be careful when conducting the test. If the test is carried out poorly, it could cause actual damage to the target systems—resulting in congestion or outright system crashes for some network assets.

Why Run a Penetration Test?

Right after “what is a penetration test and how does it work?” the next question most people ask is “why should I run a pen test?”

There are a couple of reasons why most people perform penetration testing:

  1. To identify specific vulnerabilities in their network’s cybersecurity architecture so they can be fixed—including any flaws in the incident response plan; and

  2. To increase awareness about cybersecurity issues amongst the organization’s upper management—which can encourage increased cybersecurity budget allocation for new defenses and security education, training, and awareness initiatives.

Both objectives contribute to improving a business’ overall cybersecurity, which is always beneficial.

However, it is important to remember that penetration testing is not a “one and done” solution. Over time, there may be changes to the assets on the network, the software on those assets, or even new attack methods that emerge which target previously-unknown vulnerabilities. To maintain strong vulnerability management, organizations need to periodically run new pen tests.

The frequency of penetration tests will vary from one organization to the next, though. How frequently should your own organization run a pen test? The answer depends on how large your organization is, how frequently you add new software or hardware to your network, and the specific cybersecurity regulations that govern your industry.

Need help with your vulnerability management and penetration testing? Contact the experts at Compuquip for help and advice!


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