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What is penetration testing and why is it important?

Discover what penetration testing is & why it’s important to organizations. You’ll also learn about different types & benefits of pen testing.

pen testing

In a rapidly evolving technology landscape, the need for a robust security approach through penetration testing is key.

To protect your organization from the threat of hackers, you need to know if your system will withstand their attacks.

Penetration tests provide a real-world simulation, revealing your hidden vulnerabilities, and providing proactive measures to fortify your defenses. 

This guide will take you through everything you need to know about penetration testing, including:

  • What is penetration testing?
  • A brief history of penetration testing
  • Challenges and limitations of penetration testing
  • Why is penetration testing important?
  • Who performs a penetration test?
  • Different types of penetration tests
  • Benefits of penetration testing
  • Penetration testing phases
  • What happens after a pen test?
  • Penetration testing tools
  • Final thoughts

What is penetration testing?

Penetration testing, also known as pen testing, is a digital simulated cyber attack on a computer system or network that evaluates the security posture of the target systems or applications. The goal of a penetration test is to identify vulnerabilities that could be exploited by an attacker.

Penetration testing services are typically conducted by ethical hackers using the same tools and techniques as real-life attackers. The tests can be conducted on a variety of systems, including web applications, networks, mobile applications, cloud environments, operating systems and many more.

A brief history of penetration testing 

Cybersecurity penetration testing traces back to the 1960s when the US Air Force conducted ‘tiger team’ security tests. Security experts would conduct tests using adversarial techniques to identify computer vulnerabilities and strengthen defenses.

James P. Anderson was the first to develop the outline of what we now know as the penetration testing process. This model of testing became more popular during the 1980s and 1990s as computers increased in popularity. 

Challenges and limitations of penetration testing

While penetration testing can provide benefits, there are also challenges and limitations to be aware of:

  1. False sense of security: penetration testing provides a point-in-time snapshot of an organization’s security posture but can’t account for vulnerabilities discovered after the test or over-reliance on it.
  2. Limited scope: penetration testing is designed for specific areas and may not identify all vulnerabilities.
  3. Impact on system performance: can be resource-intensive and negatively impact system performance during the testing period.
  4. Complexity: security penetration testing requires expertise and resources, posing challenges for smaller organizations.
  5. Cost: professional penetration testing can be expensive, especially for larger organizations or those with complex computing environments.
  6. Limited human factor testing: network penetration tests do not account for human errors or behavior, such as phishing attacks or social engineering.
  7. Ethical considerations: responsible and ethical conduct is crucial in simulating cyber attacks during penetration testing.

Why is penetration testing important?

Penetration tests are a crucial part of any security program as they help identify a wide range of vulnerabilities, including:

  • Unpatched software
  • Misconfigured security controls
  • Weak passwords
  • Social engineering vulnerabilities

Regular penetration testing is vital to comply with security regulations, enhance security posture, and minimize the risk of cyber attacks.

Who performs a penetration test?

Penetration tests may be performed by an internal security team or outsourced to a third-party vendor. If you are interested in conducting a penetration test, there are a few things you should keep in mind:

  • Choose a reputable security firm
  • Define the scope of the test
  • Get management/stakeholder approval
  • Communicate with the security firm throughout the test
  • Remediate any vulnerabilities that are found

Different types of penetration tests

Penetration tests are tailored to meet the specific needs of an organization. Here are some of the most common penetration testing examples:

  • Network penetration testing: identifies vulnerabilities in an internal network or public facing perimeter.
  • Web application penetration testing: identifies vulnerabilities in web applications, such as SQL injection or cross-site scripting (XSS).
  • Wireless network penetration testing: identifies vulnerabilities in wireless networks, such as weak pre-shared keys or evil twin attacks.
  • Social engineering penetration testing: identifies vulnerabilities in human behavior, such as phishing attacks.
  • Physical penetration testing: identifies vulnerabilities in physical security, such as unauthorized access to a building or server room.
  • Red team penetration testing: full-scale simulation of a real-world attack scenario, where a team of experts attempts to breach an organization’s defenses.
  • External and internal penetration testing: simulates attacks from an external or internal perspective.

Benefits of penetration testing

There are several benefits of penetration testing, such as:

  1. Identifying vulnerabilities: helps identify security weaknesses in an organization’s systems, networks, and applications before attackers can exploit them.
  2. Mitigating risk: by identifying vulnerabilities, organizations can fix them in a structured way (e.g. low/medium/high risk) before they are exploited by attackers.
  3. Meeting regulatory requirements: many industry regulations and compliance standards require regular security reviews or penetration testing as part of their protocols.
  4. Improving security posture: helps improve security posture by providing an unbiased review and giving recommendations for improvement.
  5. Providing assurance: assures stakeholders, customers, and partners that an organization is taking cybersecurity seriously and is actively working to protect its systems and data.
  6. Cost savings: identifying and fixing vulnerabilities early is less expensive than dealing with the aftermath of a data breach or a successful cyber attack.
  7. Increase business continuity: pen tests help minimize the risk of a disruption that could impact operations.
  8. Safeguards reputation: reputations can take years to build and minutes to knock down. By reducing the likelihood of attacks, penetration testing helps safeguard your reputation.

Penetration testing phases

Most penetration testing methodologies consist of similar stages, which may vary depending on the specific goals and scope of the test.

However, the typical penetration testing steps are as follows:

  1. Planning and reconnaissance: define scope, identify targets, gather information.
  2. Scanning: use tools to scan for vulnerabilities and weaknesses.
  3. Gaining access: exploit vulnerabilities to gain system access.
  4. Maintaining access: establish backdoors, install malware, maintain access.
  5. Analysis: evaluate data, assess testing effectiveness, identify improvements.
  6. Reporting and remediation: provide detailed results, vulnerability analysis, and recommendations for improvement.

What happens after a pen test?

So, now you know all about the penetration testing meaning and process, what happens after? After conducting a vulnerability assessment and penetration testing exercise, organizations will: 

Review and analyze the results

Review and analyze the results to understand the vulnerabilities and risks identified.

Prioritize remediation efforts

Prioritize the remediation efforts needed based on test results and address the most critical vulnerabilities. 

Plan and implement fixes

Develop a plan to address identified vulnerabilities and implement the necessary fixes or patches.


Conduct a retest to verify that the identified vulnerabilities have been successfully addressed.

Report findings

Report findings to relevant stakeholders, including executives, IT teams, and other appropriate personnel. 

Improve security posture

Take additional steps to improve its security posture and remain proactive. 

Penetration testing tools

There are numerous penetration testing tools available, ranging from commercial products to open-source software. Here are some popular penetration testing tools:

  • Metasploit: widely used open-source framework for developing and executing exploit code against target systems.
  • Nmap: network mapping and port scanning tool used to identify hosts and services on a network.
  • Burp Suite: web application testing tool used to identify vulnerabilities in web applications.
  • John the Ripper: password cracking tool used to test the strength of passwords.
  • Wireshark: network protocol analysis tool used to capture and analyze network traffic.
  • Nessus: vulnerability scanning tool used to scan for known vulnerabilities in systems and applications.
  • Acunetix: web vulnerability scanner used to identify vulnerabilities in web applications.
  • Aircrack-ng: wireless network auditing tool used to test the security of wireless networks.
  • Hydra: password cracking tool used to test the security of password-protected systems.
  • Sqlmap: open-source tool for detecting and exploiting SQL injection vulnerabilities in web applications.

Final thoughts

Hackers are incredibly skilled at what they do, which is why you need a team of cybersecurity experts that are equally capable of defending your network.

By conducting regular penetration tests and staying ahead of potential attacks you can defend your data from the threat of malicious actors. 

Our penetration testing services are backed by a team of qualified cyber specialists. Starting from less than the cost of a single internal security hire, you’ll have access to decades of collective intelligence.

For a simple monthly subscription, our red team services will relentlessly launch realistic cyber attacks across the full scope of your brand, using digital, physical and social methods. Ready to feel the wrath of our Swarm? Reach out today.