SymQuest Blog

What is Penetration Testing? Definition, Process & Types

April 30, 2024 - Cybersecurity & Compliance

What is Penetration Testing? Definition, Process & Types
Frederick Anderson

Posted by Frederick Anderson

In an era defined by digital innovation, the importance of robust cybersecurity measures cannot be overstated. As organizations navigate an ever-evolving landscape of cyber threats, penetration testing is a crucial tool in their arsenal. What is penetration testing? Why do firms increasingly view it as a cornerstone of proactive cybersecurity hygiene? 

Let’s delve into the definition, process, and testing types, shedding light on why businesses use it to safeguard their digital assets and fortify their defenses against cybersecurity threats. 

What is Penetration Testing?

Penetration testing, or pen testing, is a proactive security assessment technique that identifies vulnerabilities in computer systems, networks, and applications before bad actors exploit them. It allows IT personnel to simulate real-world cyber attacks—social engineering like phishing, password hacking, firewall breaches, etc.— strengthening organizations' security posture and protecting sensitive data from potential breaches.

While it’s impossible to anticipate every threat and type of attack, penetration testing comes close. With it, businesses gain invaluable insights into the effectiveness of existing security controls, empowering decision-makers to prioritize remediation efforts to maximize cybersecurity resilience.

Investing in pen testing is a choice to stay one step ahead of cyber threats, mitigate potential risks, and safeguard critical assets from unauthorized access or exploitation. This proactive approach fortifies defenses and enables organizations to adhere to regulatory compliance requirements and industry standards. 

The Penetration Testing Process

The penetration testing process is a systematic, forward-thinking technique to identify and mitigate security risks, and involves several key steps:

  1. Planning and Preparation: This phase involves defining the test's scope, identifying goals, and obtaining necessary permissions from stakeholders.
  2. Information Gathering: Pen testers gather information about the target system or network to identify potential entry points and vulnerabilities.
  3. Vulnerability Analysis: In this phase, vulnerabilities are identified and prioritized based on their potential impact and likelihood of exploitation.
  4. Breaching: Pen testers attempt to breach identified vulnerabilities to gain unauthorized access to the system or sensitive data.
  5. Burrowing: Once access is gained, testers assess the extent of the compromise and identify additional security weaknesses. Essentially, testers see how long they can stay in the compromised system and how deep they can burrow into it. The goal of the pen tester is to maintain access for as long as possible by planting rootkits and installing backdoors.
  6. Analysis: A detailed assessment outlining the findings, including the vulnerabilities discovered, their level of risk, and recommendations for remediation, is prepared.
  7. Remediation: This is perhaps the most important part of the process. Based on the provided report, organizations can prioritize and address identified vulnerabilities to improve their security posture.

Types of Penetration Testing

Penetration testing is commonly divided into three categories: black box testing, white box testing, and gray box testing. Beyond the three standard types of pen testing, IT professionals will also assess a business to determine the best type of testing to perform. 

Black Box Testing

In black box testing, also known as external testing, the tester has limited or no prior knowledge of the target system or network. This approach simulates the perspective of an external attacker, allowing testers to assess security controls and vulnerabilities from an outsider's viewpoint.

White Box Testing

White box testing, or internal testing, involves full disclosure of the target system's architecture, code, and infrastructure to the tester. This approach mimics an insider threat scenario, where the tester has detailed knowledge of the system, enabling a thorough examination of security measures and potential weaknesses.

Gray Box Testing

Gray box testing combines elements of both black box and white box testing. Testers have partial knowledge of the target system, such as network diagrams or application source code, simulating a scenario where an attacker has some insider information. This approach provides a balance between realism and depth of assessment.

Determining the Best Type of Pen Test to Perform

There are many ways to approach a pen test. The right avenue for your organization depends on several factors, like your goals, risk tolerance, assets/data, and regulatory mandates. Here are a few ways a pen test can be performed. 

Targeted Testing

Targeted testing focuses on specific areas or components of the system based on known vulnerabilities or high-value assets.

External Testing

External testing evaluates the security of external-facing systems, such as web servers or remote access gateways.

Internal Testing

Internal testing assesses the security posture of internal networks, systems, and applications from within the organization's perimeter.

Blind Testing

In blind testing, testers are provided with minimal information about the target environment, simulating a scenario in which attackers have limited knowledge.

Double-Blind Testing

With double-blind testing, the organization and the testing team have limited knowledge of the test, providing a realistic simulation of an actual cyber attack.

Penetration Testing for Your Business

Penetration testing is a crucial component of any comprehensive cybersecurity strategy as it reveals any holes in your cybersecurity efforts and gives you intel to fix them. By understanding the process and various testing options, businesses can proactively protect their assets and maintain trust with their customers.

Is your business considering adding penetration testing to its cybersecurity toolbox? Consult a trusted cybersecurity expert to determine the best type of testing for your unique needs. 

Subscribe to Symquest Tech Talk

Sign up to receive the latest news about innovations in the world of document management, business IT, and printing technology.

Frederick Anderson

about the author

Frederick Anderson

Anderson is a Regional Sales Director for SymQuest, based in South Burlington, VT. Anderson manages a team of account executives dedicated to providing best-in-class IT solutions to businesses throughout Northern New England.

Find me on