How Penetration Testing Works

penetration testing

How Penetration Testing Works

If you’re in the market for cyber security solutions, you’ve likely heard of the phrase “penetration testing” once or twice before. But what is it, and how does it work?

As an IT consulting and strategy company, we want you to reach new heights with a partner that’s committed to your business success. To that end, we recommend testing your cyber security framework and diving into your network with this practice.

Here’s what penetration testing is and how it works:

What is Penetration Testing?

A penetration test, otherwise known as a pen test, is a simulated cyber attack against your computer network to identify any exploitable vulnerabilities. In the context of web application security, it is commonly used to augment a web application firewall (WAF).

Pen testing usually involves attempting to breach any number of application systems, (e.g., application protocol interfaces (APIs), frontend/backend servers) to find vulnerabilities like unsanitized inputs that are susceptible to code injection attacks.

The end goal?

The insights gained from the test can be used to fine-tune your WAF security policies and patch detected vulnerabilities.

What Are the Steps of a Pen Test?

The pen test process can typically be broken down into five separate steps: planning and reconnaissance, scanning, gaining access, maintaining access, and analysis and WAF configuration.


Let’s explore each of these in detail below:

1. Planning and Reconnaissance

The first part of the first step, planning, involves defining the scope and goals of a test, including the systems to be addressed and the testing methods. 

The second part, reconnaissance, involves gathering intelligence (e.g., network and domain names, mail server) to better understand how a target works and its potential vulnerabilities.

2. Scanning

In step two, the goal is to understand how the target application will respond to various intrusion attempts. 

This is typically done using one of two methods:

  1. Static analysis, or inspecting an application’s code to estimate the way it behaves while running. These tools can scan the entirety of the code in a single pass.

Dynamic analysis, or inspecting an application’s code in a normal running state. This is a more practical way of scanning, as it gives a real-time view of an application’s performance.

3. Gaining Access

Step three commonly uses web application attacks, like cross-site scripting, SQL injection, and backdoors, to uncover your company’s vulnerabilities. Pen testers then try to exploit these vulnerabilities, most commonly by escalating privileges, stealing data, intercepting traffic, etc., to understand the potential damage they can cause.

4. Maintaining Access

Pen testers in step four want to see if the vulnerability can be used to achieve a persistent presence in the exploited system, or how long it can take for a bad actor to gain in-depth access. The end goal is to imitate advanced persistent threats, which often lay hidden in a system for months to steal an organization’s most sensitive data.

5. Analysis

After pen testing is completed, the results are then compiled into a report detailing:

  • What the specific vulnerabilities were and how they were exploited
  • The sensitive data that was accessed
  • How long the pen tester was able to remain in the system undetected

Security personnel then analyzes the report to help configure an enterprise’s WAF settings and other application security solutions to patch vulnerabilities and protect against future attacks.

What Are Some Common Pen Testing Methods?

External Testing

External penetration tests take aim at the assets of a company that are visible on the internet, e.g., the web application itself, the company website, and email and domain name servers (DNS), with the end goal of gaining access and extracting valuable data.

Internal Testing

During an internal test, an authorized tester with access to an application behind its firewall simulates a malicious insider attack scenario. While this isn’t necessarily simulating a rogue employee, a common starting scenario for many companies under fire can be an employee whose credentials were stolen due to a phishing attack.

Blind Testing

When performing a blind test, the tester is only given the name of the enterprise that’s being targeted. This gives your internal security personnel a real-time look into how a real-life application assault would take place.

Double-Blind Testing

In this method, security personnel have zero prior knowledge of the simulated attack. Much like in the real world, they won’t have any time to bolster their defenses before an attempted breach.

Targeted Testing

Both the tester and security personnel work together in a targeted test and keep each other appraised of their movements. This is an important training exercise that provides your security team with real-time feedback from a hacker’s point of view.

Next Steps

If you’re looking to bolster your network defenses with a penetration test or have any questions about the advantages of outsourcing IT, look no further. Talk with an expert or contact us to secure your business today.

Share this post
You may also like
Recent posts

Ask us. We are here to help!