Continuous Penetration Testing vs. Vulnerability Management: Which Strategy Best Protects Your Business?

Jack Ekelof
VP Sales & Marketing

As business infrastructure modernizes for 2025 and beyond, security teams are changing how they defend their attack surface. With the rise of cloud-based software, SaaS (software-as-a-service) applications, and remote work, businesses are rethinking their strategies for vulnerability management, and how they approach continuous pentesting.

These modern technologies have expanded many organizations' attack surfaces, making IT security processes more complex and challenging to manage amidst increasing cyber threats. The recent CISA alert on Volt Typhoon on highlight the efforts that nation states or cyber gangs are targeting critical infrastructure as energy, transportation systems, and waste water systems. The victims even include small businesses without the resources to respond correctly.

To reinforce their cybersecurity frameworks, businesses must rely on effective IT asset management strategies such as Continuous Penetration Testing (Pentesting), Attack Surface Management tools, and traditional vulnerability management to stay ahead of efforts similar to Volt Typhoon.

Every asset, whether cloud-based or not, can be a potential entry point for cyber attacks. Understanding the differences between Continuous Pentesting and vulnerability management is crucial for their effective implementation within your organization.

This article explores the distinction between continuous pentesting and vulnerability management.

Difference Between Continuous Pentesting and Vulnerability Management

Let's dive into the crucial differences between continuous pentesting and vulnerability management. Continuous pentesting extends well beyond capturing immediate vulnerabilities, incorporating manual escalations and the unique insights provided by human testers. In comparison, vulnerability management has a narrower focus, centering around immediate impacts based on the vulnerable scores of individual CVEs.

Vulnerability management can be considered a specific component of Continuous Pentesting. It zeroes in on particular weaknesses within the broader attack surface, utilizing code-based scans and precise remediation methods. Its primary goal is to identify, classify, prioritize, and remediate vulnerabilities that could potentially be exploited within a network or system.

Continuous Pentesting, on the other hand, leverages the results from automated scanning tools, combined with human expertise, to provide a comprehensive view of an organization's external assets and related cybersecurity threats. This approach considers how attackers perceive interconnected devices, networks, and applications, addressing various potential entry points across an organization's entire infrastructure, including applications, IoT devices, and data.

While each method is effective in its respective arena, Continuous Pentesting should complement, not replace, vulnerability management. When used together, these strategies fortify an organization's cyber defenses comprehensively, delivering detailed insights into the overall security posture of its IT infrastructure.

What is Continuous Penetration Testing in Cybersecurity?

Continuous Penetration Testing is a proactive cybersecurity strategy where penetration testers continuously assess an organization's digital landscape. This dedicated team of security professionals consistently probes for vulnerabilities and keeps a vigilant eye on new services as they emerge. This approach significantly reduces the time gap between traditional annual penetration tests, bringing it down from 11 months to an evergreen continuous model.

Continuous Penetration Testing offers enhanced visibility into your organization's attack surface, helping to understand the interconnections of your cyber assets and their potential impact during a breach. This human-led effort prioritizes detected threats, bolsters your security posture, minimizes the attack surface, and addresses risks associated with specific assets. Ultimately, these activities work together to safeguard against cyber attacks and unauthorized data access.

In Continuous Penetration Testing, security teams can map out attack paths and patterns to address or mitigate cyber risks within your risk management framework.

Effective Continuous Penetration Testing programs enable organizations to perform vital cybersecurity tasks, including:

  • Identifying and evaluating security risks within known and unknown assets;
  • Continuously mapping and monitoring all assets;
  • Automating the discovery, human review, and remediation of assets;
  • Spotting leaked credentials, outdated software, misconfigurations, and other common vulnerabilities;
  • Detecting shadow IT and unidentified assets.
  • Manual Penetration Testing

What is an Attack Surface?

In the world of cybersecurity, the “attack surface” represents all the potential entry points a cyber attacker might exploit. Think of it as the collection of all vulnerabilities through which your network, system, or application could be breached.

This encompasses digital (software), physical (hardware), and cloud-based assets where data is stored or processed.

Categorizing Attack Surface Assets

Your attack surface is made up of various external assets. Here are some common types:

  • Known assets like corporate websites, servers, IoT devices, on-site hardware, and all their dependencies.
  • Unknown assets, which include Shadow IT or forgotten IT infrastructure that your security team may have overlooked.
  • Cloud assets such as cloud servers, SaaS applications, and cloud-hosted databases.
  • Rogue assets created by threat actors, including malware and typosquatted domains that mimic legitimate websites to trick users into sharing sensitive information.
  • Third-party vendors, which are external services integrated into your network, bringing along the risk associated with their vendors.

These assets, accessible through the Internet, are beyond the protection of traditional firewalls and endpoint security measures.

Identifying these assets is crucial for any security strategy. To manage your attack surface effectively, you need to adopt a hacker’s mindset.

Minimizing The Attack Surface

Many organizations prioritize attack surface reduction strategies as part of their information security policies. Here are some common approaches to reduce attack surfaces:

  • Minimizing the amount of code in use;
  • Implementing access controls like RBAC and the principle of least privilege to limit entry points;
  • Reducing the number of web applications, mobile apps, or services running.

Eliminating these excess internet-facing assets is crucial for enhancing operational efficiency and maintaining clear visibility over your assets.

Nonetheless, this alone cannot entirely prevent security control failures. Cybercriminals can still exploit vulnerabilities in the remaining assets, leading to malware, ransomware attacks, and other security incidents that can result in data breaches.

Utilizing a robust Continuous Penetration Testing program to identify, classify, and consistently monitor your existing assets offers greater control and visibility over your active ecosystem.

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How Does Continuous Pentesting Work?

Continuous Pentesting revolves around four key phases, providing a robust cybersecurity framework.

1. Recon & Attack

It all starts with identifying and mapping out internet-facing digital assets. This groundwork sets the stage for the manual escalation and validation coming up in phase two.

These assets often contain sensitive data like personal info, health records, trade secrets, and intellectual property.

They can belong to the organization itself or related third parties such as business partners, cloud providers, and other service vendors.

Here's a rundown of the digital assets a continuous pentesting program needs to identify and map:

  • Web applications, services, and APIs
  • Mobile applications and their backends
  • Cloud storage and network devices
  • Domain names, SSL certificates, and IP addresses
  • IoT and connected devices
  • Public code repositories like GitHub, BitBucket, and GitLab
  • Email servers

With a clear view of the external attack surface, organizations can map out all potential vectors, such as data leaks.

Once assets are discovered, the next step is to inventory and classify them properly.

Each digital asset needs to be accurately labeled based on:

  • Type
  • Owner
  • Technical specifications and properties
  • Business importance
  • Compliance and regulatory requirements

2. Manual Penetration Test

This phase involves a manual penetration test of all external digital assets using methodologies from NIST, OWASP, MITRE ATT&CK, and standard penetration testing practices. The goal here is to test and exploit vulnerabilities in the organization’s systems and networks. This test can fulfill the typical requirements of an annual pentest on its own, with a comprehensive report is delivered within the first 90 days.

3. Continuous Pentester Surge

What sets Continuous Pentesting apart is the ongoing manual efforts once the initial baseline is established. As your attack surface expands with new devices and users, and as new vulnerabilities emerge daily, security experts will continue to validate and test these changes. They'll chain vulnerabilities together as real attackers would, providing updated results throughout the year.

4. Quarterly Reporting

An annual pentest report can become outdated quickly. That’s why quarterly reports are essential. These manual reports from expert security engineers highlight the most recent findings and confirm which vulnerabilities have been fixed, keeping customers and IT stakeholders current with the latest information.

The Benefits of Continuous Penetration Testing

Manually managing your attack surface can be a daunting task. Continuous Penetration Testing leverages a mix of software tools and human pentesting to keep a constant check on your network’s exposed infrastructure. This method tackles attack surface reduction from the perspective of a cyber attacker, offering a comprehensive approach to cybersecurity.

It gives your organization a clearer strategic overview, effectively providing the "big picture" on potential vulnerabilities, attack paths, and cybersecurity risks.

Perhaps most crucially, continuous pentesting excels at better risk prioritization. It focuses on reducing your exposure to exploits by threat actors and identifies as well as mitigates any cybersecurity risks to your organization’s digital assets, whether known or unknown. All findings are backed by thorough human validation, ensuring you can operate with confidence.

What is Vulnerability Management?

Vulnerability management, also known as vulnerability scanning, is a crucial process used by cybersecurity professionals to identify and categorize weak spots, entry points, and potential exploits in an organization's network devices, computers, and applications.

By employing vulnerability management, a company can assess and rate specific vulnerabilities within its security setup, making it easier for team members to understand the severity of each issue.

As an ongoing cycle, vulnerability management identifies, classifies, prioritizes, and addresses vulnerabilities, concentrating primarily on the internal, software-based IT environment. It also focuses on assets that might be targeted by potential attackers.

Vulnerability management software is more subjective compared to attack surface management, as it only zeroes in on separate parts of a network as individual assets, without considering their connections to the broader IT ecosystem.

It does not account for how a vulnerable asset connects with other IT elements like people, software, or other systems. Vulnerability management focuses on the immediate impact of a vulnerability, overlooking the broader context of interconnected threats and assets.

In essence, vulnerability management falls short in facilitating cross-functional communication to stress the importance of addressing security issues, a gap that continuous penetration testing effectively bridges.

Define a Vulnerability?

In the world of information security , a "vulnerability" refers to a weakness in a system, network, or application that can be targeted and exploited by cyber threats. It's essentially a spot that opens the door for attackers to gain unauthorized access or perform malicious actions.

Common examples of vulnerabilities include:

  • Misconfigurations in systems and cloud services
  • Unencrypted data
  • Leaked usernames and passwords
  • Outdate or unpatched software and applications

How Does Vulnerability Management Work?

Vulnerability management relies on a database of known vulnerabilities and cybersecurity gaps. It involves vulnerability scanning, where the results are compared and fed into risk management or patch management lists. From there, IT experts decide how best to fix, patch, and remediate these issues.

Running vulnerability scans alongside continuous penetration testing and utilizing vulnerability management tools yields the best results.

Vulnerability scanning is excellent for identifying critical security gaps within your IT environment. This practice significantly aids in patching efforts and overall cybersecurity improvements. It’s not only straightforward and cost-effective but also can be automated and run regularly.

However, relying solely on vulnerability scanning may create a false sense of security.

While continuous penetration testing includes vulnerability management aspects, it stands out by considering all interconnected assets. On the other hand, vulnerability management focuses on specific sections of your network and individual software-based assets that might be targeted by threat actors. It doesn’t prioritize understanding system interconnectivity unless necessary actions are required.

Ignoring system interconnectivity means vulnerability management isn’t as effective in calculating immediate solutions on the spot.

How Continuous Penetration Testing and Vulnerability Management Work Together

Continuous Penetration Testing and Vulnerability Management aim to replicate the actions of potential cyber adversaries on your attack surfaces daily. By emulating both automated and human actions, they help achieve significant risk reduction in real-world scenarios.

With continuous penetration testing, you gain greater assurance in IT meetings and boardrooms. It offers a comprehensive view of your organization's Internet-facing assets, meticulously examined by a human engineer. This final layer of human validation is crucial for sustaining a robust security posture. Including meeting the requirements for cyber insurance allowing organizations to lower the cost of cyber insurance.

While vulnerability management is essential for meeting compliance requirements and identifying internal IT issues, it's equally important to address external threats that could allow unauthorized access.

When determining your organization's needs, start by assessing whether you are subject to regulatory requirements. Continuous penetration testing and vulnerability management—and sometimes even standalone penetration testing—may be legally required.

Although organizations can choose to implement either one of these security measures, the best practice is to integrate both. Layering them creates a comprehensive and resilient offensive security program.

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