Manual Vs Automated Penetration Testing: Finding the Right Balance for Your Business

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manual penetration testing vs automated penetration testing

It’s a new world that we live in after the COVID pandemic reared its ugly head and destroyed the way of life as we know it. It’s not only our lifestyles that are different now—we try to eat healthier now, are more fitness-centric, and invest more in taking care of our health—it’s also the way we work. 

There was a time when a productive employee showed up to the office at 9 on the dot and stayed at their desk glued to their laptop till 6. Being forced to observe safety precautions such as social distancing has come with a set of benefits for the average workforce. Now we are proficient in working remotely or in a hybrid fashion, putting together the resourcefulness of global talents into a single pool of brilliant ideas and innovations. 

As we step into a digital era, however, it becomes crucial that we are protected in cyberspace too, because just like the coronavirus that floats around our atmosphere, malignant viruses are floating around in the world wide web too. Except it doesn’t destroy human immune systems; it destroys your network systems if allowed to fester, and can consequently lead to the death of your business’s reputation and profitability.

So, how do we tackle these cyber viruses that are just as harmful to our IT infrastructure as the COVID virus is to our bodies? Just like we take health precautions and monitor ourselves for contamination, we need to test our IT systems regularly for any underlying vulnerabilities that can lead to a system breach using penetration testing, or pen testing, which can be of two types: Manual Penetration Testing (MPT) and Automation Penetration Testing (APT). 

Choosing between automated and manual pen testing can be tricky if you are not aware of the benefits, efficiency, accuracy, and cons of each. Both MPT and APT come with their own set of advantages, so you cannot limit yourself to just one if you wish to ensure the thorough protection of your enterprise IT environment. Let’s dive in!

Automated Vs Manual Penetration Testing- Pros and Cons

Pen testing automation will simplify your life and take the human error factor out of the equation, but relying solely on automated penetration testing can lead to major oversights when it comes to discovering the vulnerabilities of your network systems. 

So when comparing manual vs automated penetration testing you can have an example, if you place all your eggs in the automated penetration testing basket, you may end up overlooking vulnerabilities that can only be found by employing a certain pattern of logic for which you will require a human penetration tester. While manual penetration is more effective in finding complex vulnerabilities, it also has its shortcomings, like the extensive amount of time it takes (which means your system is more vulnerable to attacks for a long period of testing) and the chances of system outages due to human error. 

Here are the most common automated and manual testing advantages and disadvantages that you will need to consider while defining your enterprise’s security strategy:

Advantages & Disadvantages Of Manual Penetration Testing

Advantages of Manual Penetration TestingDisadvantages of Manual Penetration Testing
Manual penetration tests provide a thorough snapshot of all the major security vulnerabilities in your network and the accuracy of manual security testing is much higher than that of automated pen testingManual penetration testing is a cost-extensive process, which means that comprehensive testing of your entire application portfolio can set you back a pretty penny. 
Since manual penetration is widely accepted as an essential compliance check, it ensures that your enterprise is up-to-date with the latest compliance policiesThere is no doubt about manual strategies and their efficiency in penetration testing, but manual pen test results will vary from tester to tester, thus making it hard to set a definitive expected standard. 
With manual penetration testing, you can run an in-depth analysis of the IT system in question.Manual penetration testing can cause bottlenecks in the productivity of your enterprise, such as system outages and hinder development while the testing and result analysis are ongoing.
Manual penetration testing allows you the freedom to employ multiple high-end tools for detailed pen testing.They are more time-consuming and can inadvertently leave security gaps that are vulnerable to cyberattacks while the testing process is going on.

Advantages & Disadvantages Of Automated Penetration Testing

Advantages of Automated Penetration TestingDisadvantages of Automated Penetration Testing
One of the main advantages of automated penetration testing is that it is a much more cost-effective option in comparison to manual penetration testing. Automated penetration tests have their limitations when it comes to detecting complex human-configured vulnerabilities. 
The number of resources required for automated pen testing is also significantly less and hence the chances of human error are minimized. They are not typically taken as benchmarks for compliance regulations unless done in combination with manual penetration testing methods.
Automated scans are on-demand, which means that there is minimal waste of time and resources.On-premises tools used in automated penetration testing can scan only for those specific test cases that are assigned by the security pen testers.
There are defined bars and benchmarks that are useful in understanding how your systems’ defenses have strengthened and improved over time. As they cannot conform to selective sequences of code that are not predetermined, automated pen testing is more susceptible to yielding false negatives and positives.

Choosing Between Automated and Manual Penetration Testing

So, which one should your enterprise ultimately go for—manual or automated pen testing? 

In a nutshell, automated penetration testing seems like a more convenient choice. It is fast, it is cheap, and it has minimal detrimental impacts on the productivity of your enterprise due to factors such as system outages. However, it is not enough to rely only on automated pen testing to fix your system’s vulnerabilities, as some security issues simply will not be picked up during automated scans. So, while automated penetration tests are undoubtedly much faster and cheaper, they are not as accurate or as thorough in detecting your systems’ weaknesses.

This is why it is always wise to apply a holistic strategy when it comes to testing and strengthening your IT networks’ defenses through a combination of manual and automated penetration testing methods. So, when you get down to deciding whether you want to go with automated or manual pen testing, just put the two together for the best of both worlds! 

Ideally, manual penetration testing should be given primary focus and its results should be strengthened with the help of automated penetration testing. Automated pen testing tools are not reliable for every type of penetration testing, but are rather limited to specific types with set patterns and stable system logic. 

But a red team or penetration tester who is equipped with the advantages offered by automated pen testing tools as well is truly a force for cyber criminals to reckon with. It is important to upskill your in-house pen testing team with the latest tools in the market as well as automated pen testing software such as PTaaS or Penetration Testing as a Solution. 

PTaaS such as Cobalt gives you a mixed offering of manual pen testing and automated pen testing which are tailored to suit the specific pen testing requirements of your enterprise, both in terms of assessing and mitigating system vulnerabilities and also keeping up with compliance laws. 

Automated penetration testing is more time-efficient and cost-effective and might seem like the sure way to go, but if you do not employ a combination of automated and manual penetration testing methods, you will likely miss some authorization vulnerabilities or business logic issues that can be brought to light only with the help of manual penetration testing. 

As an enterprise business, you need to assess your resources and vulnerabilities with the help of historical evidence, understand your scope of expansion, and then strategize on a holistic penetration testing method that helps you utilize the full advantages of manual vs automated penetration testing methods. 

Fortunately, you don’t have to choose between efficiency and effectiveness anymore. Reach out to us to get the best approach to penetration testing, which combines automated and manual pen testing tools and strategies. 

Q: What are the benefits of automated penetration testing?

Automated penetration testing is more time-effective and cost-effective and uses fewer resources in comparison to manual penetration testing. 

Q: When should a business opt for manual penetration testing?

If you focus solely on automated penetration testing, you might miss out on some underlying vulnerabilities that require human logic to be identified. 

Q: How do you balance automated and manual testing in a comprehensive security assessment?

An effective way of balancing automated and manual testing is to first test your IT system with manual testing, and use your results to identify and prioritize your vulnerability test cases. You can then automate test cases that are repetitive, frequent, and stable. 

Confused by Pen Testing Options? Let Us Help You Choose!
Picture of Ammar Bin Vahab

Ammar Bin Vahab

Ammar Bin Vahab is a Penetration Testing Professional with 3+ years of experience. He is also an expert cybersecurity consultant with a proven track record of success in the information technology and services industries. Competent in information gathering, vulnerability assessment, Incident Response, Investigation, and product management, He's presently ranked as a ProHacker in Hack The Box CTF platform.


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