November 15, 2023 By Josh Nadeau 5 min read

In today’s quickly evolving cybersecurity landscape, organizations constantly seek the most effective ways to secure their digital assets. Penetration testing (pentesting) has emerged as a leading solution for identifying potential system vulnerabilities while closing security gaps that can lead to an attack.

At the same time, a newer entrant into the security arena is Pentesting as a Service (PTaaS). Although PTaaS shares some similarities with pentesting, distinct differences make them two separate solutions.

This article will discuss how these methodologies function, their applicability in different contexts and how they can enhance an organization’s cyber readiness.

What is involved with penetration testing (pentesting)?

Penetration testing, popularly known as pentesting, is a proactive and authorized effort to evaluate the security of an IT infrastructure. However, the process of pentesting is not just about finding loopholes and reporting them. Pentesting services like IBM’s X-Force Red apply a comprehensive process that involves several stages:

  1. Planning and reconnaissance. This is the initial stage, where the pentesting team defines the scope and goals of the test, including the systems to be addressed and the testing methods to be used. They also gather intelligence (like domain names and mail servers) to understand how the target works and identify potential areas of vulnerability.
  2. Scanning. This step involves using automated tools to understand how the target application will respond to different intrusion attempts. This can be done through static analysis (inspecting an application’s code to estimate its behavior while running) or dynamic analysis (inspecting an application’s code in a running state).
  3. Gaining access. Here, the pentester uses web application attacks, such as cross-site scripting, SQL injection and backdoors, to uncover a target’s vulnerabilities. The aim is to exploit these vulnerabilities by escalating privileges, stealing data, intercepting traffic, etc., to understand the damage they can cause.
  4. Maintaining access. This stage aims to see if the vulnerability can be used to achieve a persistent presence in the exploited system, mimicking the activities of advanced persistent threats (APTs).
  5. Analysis and reporting. The final step involves compiling a detailed report with the vulnerabilities discovered, the data accessed and how long the pentester could remain in the system unnoticed. This report can provide valuable insights into potential damages in an actual attack and recommendations for preventing them.
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Types of penetration testing

Pentesting can cover various areas and can be deployed for different purposes. Some of the most popular types include:

Application testing

Application testing is specialized penetration testing targeting software applications like web-based, mobile and desktop applications. Its main goal is to uncover any vulnerabilities in an application’s architecture or code to protect it from cyberattacks.

Through a meticulous testing process, several vulnerabilities can start to show. These vulnerabilities may include SQL injection, Cross-Site Scripting (XSS), Cross-Site Request Forgery (CSRF) and other critical risks identified by the Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP).

Network testing

Here, the focus shifts to an organization’s network infrastructure. Network pentesting aims to identify weak spots in internal and external networks that attackers could leverage.

This type of testing can reveal vulnerabilities related to insecure protocols, misconfigured firewalls, unpatched network devices or weak network device passwords. The insights from network testing can be invaluable in fortifying the organization’s first line of digital defense.

Personnel testing

Often overlooked, personnel testing is a vital aspect of a comprehensive pentesting strategy. Also known as social engineering testing, this approach targets the human element within an organization.

It involves simulated phishing attacks, pretexting, baiting and other tactics designed to trick employees into revealing sensitive information or granting unauthorized access. The results of personnel testing can inform targeted cybersecurity training and awareness programs.

Hardware testing

Last but not least, hardware testing involves probing physical devices such as servers, workstations, network routers and switches for vulnerabilities. This could mean exploiting firmware vulnerabilities, USB ports or other physical access points. In an age where IoT devices are proliferating, hardware testing is becoming increasingly important to ensure the security of all interconnected devices.

How is Pentesting as a Service (PTaaS) different?

Pentesting as a Service (PTaaS) is an emerging cybersecurity concept quickly gaining traction. With its innovative approach and numerous advantages, PTaaS enables organizations to efficiently and effortlessly carry out penetration tests.

By harnessing the power of the cloud and offering on-demand accessibility, PTaaS streamlines the testing process, enhances scalability and provides more flexibility for organizations.

So, how is PTaaS different from traditional pentesting? Below are some key distinctions:

Continuous testing

Traditional pentesting provides a snapshot of your security posture at a specific moment. However, with the ever-evolving nature of cyber threats, this approach may not accurately assess ongoing security risks. In contrast, PTaaS offers continuous testing capabilities, allowing you to constantly monitor your systems for vulnerabilities. This ensures that your defenses are always up-to-date and effective.

Scalability and flexibility

With PTaaS, you can scale your testing efforts up or down based on your current needs. This flexibility is particularly beneficial for businesses with fluctuating demand or those undergoing rapid growth. Traditional pentesting, with its more rigid structure, may not offer the same level of scalability.

Real-time reporting and collaboration

One of the standout features of PTaaS is its real-time reporting capabilities. Through a dedicated platform, stakeholders can view test results in real-time, track progress and even collaborate directly with testers. This level of transparency and collaboration is rarely found in traditional pentesting.

Cost-effectiveness

PTaaS operates on a subscription model, which can be more cost-effective than hiring external pentesters or maintaining an in-house team. You pay for what you use, making it an affordable option for many businesses.

Integration with DevOps

PTaaS solutions can often integrate seamlessly with existing DevOps workflows. This integration allows for regular code scanning in the development phase, enabling early detection and remediation of vulnerabilities.

Are there any disadvantages of PTaaS when compared to traditional pentesting?

As with any technology or service, PTaaS has potential drawbacks. While it offers numerous advantages over traditional pentesting, there are a few considerations that organizations should bear in mind:

  1. Potential for oversights. Automated scanning tools used in PTaaS are great for identifying common vulnerabilities quickly, but they may miss complex or business logic-based vulnerabilities that a human pentester might catch. Traditional pentesting, particularly when carried out by experienced professionals, can sometimes provide a deeper, more nuanced understanding of your security posture.
  2. Less customization. While PTaaS offers scalability and flexibility, it may not meet the specific security requirements of every organization. A one-size-fits-all approach may not be effective for addressing unique security needs.
  3. Data security concerns. Given that PTaaS operates in a cloud-based environment, there could be concerns about the security of sensitive data. While most providers have stringent security measures in place, it’s important to understand how your data will be handled and protected.
  4. Limited scope. Some PTaaS solutions might only focus on certain security aspects, such as web application testing, and may not comprehensively evaluate all potential attack vectors. In contrast, traditional pentesting can cover many areas, from network and application testing to social engineering and physical security tests.

Choose the right solution for your organization

Ultimately, the decision between traditional pentesting and PTaaS will depend on the organization’s specific needs and budget. A combination of both approaches can provide the best outcome for most businesses.

While specific tasks may be best suited to a traditional pentesting approach, others can benefit from the cost-effectiveness and scalability of PTaaS. The key is identifying where you need the most help and choosing the option that best meets your security requirements.

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