Network penetration testing is the most effective way to uncover weaknesses and vulnerabilities in your organization’s network security and incident response protocols. During the test, network penetration testers will simulate an actual cyberattack, the results of which will guide you in shoring up any weaknesses before a real-life attacker exploits them. Businesses should conduct routine network pen tests to stay ahead of emerging threats. After testing, you will receive a run-down of your system’s vulnerabilities and actionable recommendations on improving network security to protect your business for the long term.

What is a Network Penetration Test?

Network pen testing typically takes place in phases:

  1. Planning phase: Your pen testing team will meet with key stakeholders from your organization to determine the scope and objectives of testing. This includes determining testing methods and success metrics.
  2. Scanning phase: Pen testers will use scanning tools to understand how your network responds to attempted intrusions and how effective your current incident response capabilities are.
  3. Access phase: This is where the real fun begins! Pen testers will run a variety of simulated attacks to identify and exploit network vulnerabilities. If the team discovers a vulnerability, they’ll try to maintain access for as long as possible. If an intruder can maintain access for an extended period, that means they have more opportunities to collect sensitive data or sabotage the system.
  4. Analysis phase: This is what you’ve been waiting for – a detailed report from the pen testing team. The report will include a breakdown of the intrusion, a description of vulnerabilities, and strategic recommendations for how to improve network security.

Types of Network Penetration Tests

Your network pen testing team understands your network, IT infrastructure, and security goals are unique. They’ll work with you to choose the best type of penetration testing for your needs and objectives.

Black box testing

A black box penetration test is the closest you can get to a real-world attack minus the actual cyber attackers. Your pen testing team will approach the test with little to no prior knowledge of your network and attempt to enter it organically, just like a real hacker would. This type of test is quick to run but can sometimes miss certain vulnerabilities since the team has no prior information to work with. Black box testing is popular with businesses that handle extremely sensitive data like financial information or medical records.

White box testing

White box testing is on the opposite end of the spectrum from black box testing. White box pen testers have full access to information regarding your network: source code, credentials, network maps, and more. Your pen testing team will pour over this vast amount of information and pinpoint specific areas of weakness. This type of test is ideal for targeting a particular system with various attack vectors.

Gray box testing

As the name implies, gray box testing lands somewhere between white box testing and black box testing. Unlike black-box tests, gray-box pen testing provides the tester with limited information about the network. This may include things like login credentials, an internal account, or architecture documentation. The idea is to simulate what would happen during an insider attack or an attack where the hacker has access to an employee’s username and password. Gray box tests are targeted and efficient because your pen testing team will spend less time in the information-gathering phase and more time testing the system.

External and internal testing

Regarding cyber attacks, the threat can come from one of two locations: outside attackers or internal attackers. To combat outside threats, the experts recommend external network penetration testing—this style of testing hones in on gaps in your network’s public-facing security controls. Tests typically simulate real-life scenarios where malicious hackers try to sniff out vulnerabilities in your network security.

Insider threats are just as dangerous as unknown attackers. These actors can be malicious, like a disgruntled former employee, or simply the result of carelessness or human error. Pen testing companies use internal network penetration testing to determine what someone within your internal network could access or exploit.

Benefits of Network Penetration Testing

Identification of vulnerabilities and weaknesses in security controls

Routine network penetration tests can yield many advantages for your business. The biggest benefit is having a more robust network security program. As technology evolves, so do hackers' methods to gain entry to your network. Technology that was safe a year or two ago may now be susceptible to malicious intrusion. When conducted on an annual basis, pen tests will test your network infrastructure against the latest threats and vulnerabilities. This provides your information security team with a head start in terms of patching up potential vulnerabilities before a malicious actor exploits them.

Improved incident response capabilities

Network pen testing can also improve your organization’s incident response capabilities. Pen tests simulate an actual attack and are designed to mimic the tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) of real-life hackers. This is a valuable education and training opportunity for your incident response team. Plus, it can shed light on potential gaps in your current incident response program and training regimen.

Reduction of the risk of successful attacks

Although there’s no way to dissuade a cyber attacker from attempting to breach your network, you can stop them in their tracks with robust security protocols. Security measures require constant updates to keep up with evolving attack methods, but it can be difficult to determine which methods and technologies cyber attackers are using and how your incident response team will stand up to them. With pen testing, you’ll see how the latest hacking techniques are used and get actionable insights and feedback regarding your network security protocols.

Compliance with industry regulations and standards

Pen testing will keep your information security protocols compliant with regulations and legal requirements. Some industries, like medical device manufacturing and the payment card industry, even require penetration testing by law.

Cost savings from proactive testing and remediation

Cyber attacks can be incredibly costly in terms of both financial losses and reputational damage. Cybercrime Magazine reports that, on average, a single data breach can cost upwards of $3.62 million. Attacks can also indirectly impact your company’s bottom line by causing previously loyal customers to take their business elsewhere. Reputational damage is a primary reason why over half of the small businesses that fall victim to a cyber attack go out of business within six months. Network penetration testing is an investment in the long-term stability of your organization.

Challenges of Conducting Network Penetration Testing

Network penetration testing is not without challenges. Here’s what you should know before conducting a pen test:

  • Potential for disrupting normal business operations: Since pen tests simulate real-life cyber attacks, they do have the potential to disrupt daily business operations. You may experience system outages, account lockouts, and spikes in bandwidth. Despite the risks, pen testing will always be significantly less disruptive than a real attack, which can wreak havoc on your system and require days or even weeks of remediation.
  • Difficulty in accurately replicating real-world attacks: The world has a way of throwing curve balls, and that’s true for both pen testing and real-life cyber attacks. Pen testing is limited in terms of scope, budget, and timeframe. In other words, pen testers can’t simulate every attack method under the sun. However, they will help you choose the types of attacks that are most likely to occur for your business, so you can still expect a high degree of effectiveness.
  • Cost and time constraints: The length of time it takes to conduct a pen test depends on a few key variables – the size and complexity of your network, the scope of the test, and which attack scenarios you select. Tests that require significant prior research, like white box testing, will take longer than “blind” methods like black box testing.

Implementing Recommendations from Network Penetration Testing

Once testing is over, your pen test team will share their findings with your information security team. These findings provide a scaffold for your future network security initiatives, from further investigation and assessment to remediation of critical vulnerabilities. Findings are usually sorted via severity rating to help you triage high-urgency issues. It’s imperative to start taking action right away – malicious actors could strike anywhere, anytime!

Strengthen Your Organization’s Security with Network Penetration Testing

A network penetration test provides a window into your organization’s network security. It’s the best way to see your security through a hacker’s point of view. In addition to shedding light on the state of your cyber security, pen tests also provide actionable feedback on how to mitigate vulnerabilities, improve incident response, and strengthen your security controls.