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Penetration Testing 101: A Complete Guide

Learn more about what penetration testing (pen testing) is, what different types of pen testing are available, and the benefits of penetration testing for your business.

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What Is Penetration Testing (Pen Testing)?

Penetration testing – (also known as pen testing and ethical hacking) – is described as a simulated cyberattack against your networks, web applications and systems. Penetration Testing will identify any weaknesses or potential security vulnerabilities in your security systems. 

The National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) defines penetration testing as:

  “A method for gaining assurance in the security of an IT system by attempting to breach some or all of that system’s security, using the same penetration testing tools and techniques as an adversary might.”   

Penetration testing with DigitalXRaid

Pen testing is the best method to identify any vulnerabilities or risks to the business and take action before a breach occurs.  

If you’ve ever wondered how you can take a proactive approach to keeping your organisation’s IT infrastructure protected, keep reading to learn more about penetration testing. 

Penetration testing services help businesses to identify, diagnose, and patch or remedy network, system and web app vulnerabilities or mobile app vulnerabilities before they can be exploited by malicious hackers.  

A penetration test should be thought of in the same way as a financial audit for your business. But instead of looking at invoices and accounts, penetration testing (or pen testing) is a security exercise where a cyber security expert attempts to find and exploit vulnerabilities. 

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Get in touch today to speak to an expert and secure your business, or call us on 0800 090 3734

What Is the difference between pen testing and a vulnerability assessment?

Penetration testing is entirely different from a vulnerability assessment or vulnerability scan. The two often are confused, not helped by providers dressing up a simple vulnerability scan with a full penetration testing service.  

Pen testing takes the approach of an authorised, simulated attack on a company’s computer systems, applications or network. A vulnerability scan simply uses IP addresses to search for any known vulnerabilities. This can even be executed by just using a piece of software.  

Penetration testing will provide a much more comprehensive view of current security risks. Think of penetration testing as picking up from where the vulnerability assessment ends, to attempt to gain access and infiltrate like a hacker would.  

What is the purpose of penetration testing and why is security penetration testing important?

Penetration Testing is used to examine any company’s digital infrastructure. This can include internal and external networks, IT systems and web applications. Penetration testing should be used to verify what you already know or believe about the weaknesses in your systems.  

The purpose of pen testing these assets is to identify any potential threats, including: 

  • Where a hacker might try to target you  
  • How a hacker would gain access to your systems  
  • How strong your cybersecurity posture currently is 
  • What defences are in place and how effective they are  
  • The potential impact on your business of a serious cyber breach 

The insights provided by penetration testing can be used to fine-tune security policies as well as address vulnerabilities with patching and other remediation. 

Penetration testing looks for a range of issues and vulnerabilities in your systems and networks

Insecure setup or configuration of networks 
Penetration testing security experts will try to breach your systems by looking for weak passwords and exploiting any vulnerabilities to open ports, unpatched applications and incorrectly set user privileges.  

Incorrect encryption and authentication  
Pen testers will assess whether data is encrypted to a sufficient level, for example in line with article 32 of the UK’s GDPR (General Data Protection Regulations) policy, which outlines appropriate technical measures to secure data.  

Code and command injection 
Penetration testing experts check that any web forms are built to protect against SQL injection attacks and find how they behave when someone tries to breach them.  

Session management  
Penetration testers will use tools and methodology to assess if your cookies and sessions tokens are susceptible to exploitation for malicious use.  


of network perimeters are breached during penetration testing


The penetration of a network can cost a business £2m


of penetration testing found evidence of previous breaches

Our pen testers will assess whether data is encrypted to a sufficient level
DigitalXraid will reveal your security weaknesses and how vulnerable your company is to cyberattack

What are the benefits of penetration testing?

Penetration testing (also known as pen testing) will reveal your security weaknesses and how vulnerable your company is to cyberattack, as well as identifying potential threats to your cyber security and overall business. These findings can be used to improve your internal security management processes. 

Penetration testing will enable you to safeguard your cybersecurity posture before a cybercriminal has a chance to exploit your vulnerabilities.  

There are many benefits to be gained from penetration testing. If any weaknesses that are identified during pen testing are left unpatched, bad actors are likely to exploit and compromise the business. Penetration testing reporting will provide a clear view of any weaknesses to ensure that security controls and processes are addressed. This helps to reduce information security risk and reports can be shared with senior management to improve cyber security awareness.  

CREST recommend that penetration testing is carried out annually as a minimum. With regular updates to software and changes to the applications and systems being used by the business throughout the year, it’s recommended to conduct penetration testing whenever a major upgrade or change takes place. 

More regular penetration testing, such as quarterly, will ensure the business is continuously safeguarded. You will be able to: 

  • Identify any security issues and remediate them with the right controls 
  • Benchmark your existing processes and security controls 
  • Understand where applications have developed bugs or not been patched sufficiently 
  • Support any regulatory compliance requirements such as GDPR or PCI-DSS (Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard) 
  • Provide assurance to senior management, stakeholders, partners and most importantly customers that their data is protected 
Penetration Testing Security with DigitalXRaid

What are the different approaches to penetration testing?

Penetration testing can follow different methodologies based on standards such as The OWASP (Open Web Application Security Project®) Top 10. This standard outlines the most critical security risks to web applications which a penetration tester can follow to identify any common risks and vulnerabilities that are present.  

Another example is the highly respected CREST penetration testing method. CREST set out a code of conduct around preparation and scoping best practices, penetration testing execution, post testing reporting delivery and data protection. Only CREST certified penetration testing service providers can promise to conduct pen testing services to this gold standard.  

Some businesses have opted to conduct automated penetration testing in recent years. With budget restraints posing challenges, this has been a fall back option to enable more regular penetration testing.  

Automated penetration testing can’t compare with manual penetration testing in terms of quality and the results that security experts can glean from the pen test. The limitation of the software functionality, which is still in its infancy, and the fact that the software can only test what it’s instructed to, leaves gaps in penetration testing which could equal a major risk being missed. 

What are the types of penetration testing services?

As technology advances and the ways and means that cybercriminals use to gain access to networks, systems, and applications in an organisation’s infrastructure proliferate, so do the types of penetration testing.  

These are some of the most common types of penetration testing services available to test the security risks associated to your networks, systems and web applications, diagnosing the flaws in your security before they can be exploited. 

More than 30,000 websites are attacked every day, with more than 60% of all internet-based attacks launched against web applications. Modern web application penetration testing will find any weaknesses. Penetration testers can also check the functionality of websites to pinpoint any failings.

A web application penetration testing service will supply the protection needed to safeguard sensitive data. Regular web application penetration testing will defend against every conceivable online threat.

With the increase in mobile use and mobile devices now a major part of our lives, organisations must take steps to secure their mobile applications to protect the business, its reputation and most importantly, its customers.

A mobile application penetration testing process will look for a range of exploitable vulnerabilities that cybercriminals may take advantage of.  

Whether it’s a disgruntled employee, or a negligent staff member falling prey to a phishing attack, an internal security breach could prove disastrous. With comprehensive penetration testing of internal environments, systems and procedures, businesses can ensure they have all the right countermeasures in place to prevent unauthorised access to privileged information.

Internal network penetration testing is designed to simulate cyberattacks from within the organisation, highlighting potential issues and guarding against threats from malicious insiders. 

So, what is penetration testing in network security? By mimicking real-world cyberattacks, external penetration testing identifies any gaps in external network environments to allow the necessary remediations. Using the same techniques that a hacker would, pen testers conduct external network penetration testing to understand if the data is secure.

On completion of the external penetration testing, penetration testers issue a comprehensive report. Using this information, any security flaws can be addressed, eliminating potential threats before they can cause damage. 

There are also specific penetration testing services for PCI DSS compliance, social engineering assessments and full red team exercises to test your people and processes.

These are dependent on business needs and what industry regulations apply.  

Discuss your cyber security options

Get in touch today to speak to an expert and secure your business, or call us on 0800 090 3734

Learn more about these Penetration Testing Services

What is involved in the penetration testing process?

Penetration testing typically goes through 6 phases across the whole penetration testing process. If any provider offers fewer steps than this, be aware that they may be offering a far inferior pen test than is available elsewhere.  

What is included in the penetration testing report?

Any vulnerabilities identified during the penetration testing process are outlined in a report, issued to the customer once pen tests have been completed. The vulnerabilities listed in the report will be categorised into varying levels of criticality. Some providers will use a simple traffic light system; however, the UK Government has defined risk levels to be used, especially when conducting CHECK penetration testing.  

Recommended risk levels in descending order of criticality are: CRITICAL, HIGH, MEDIUM, LOW, INFORMATIONAL. 

Any new issues should be addressed promptly, especially those at the critical level of risk. Special attention should also be paid to any lower-level vulnerabilities that could add up to a major risk when coupled together.  

Penetration testing reporting is often a pain point that customers experience with cyber security services providers. Pen testing reports are often just delivered as a pdf file with no guidance or explanation. When engaging a penetration testing service provider, ensure that they provide a walkthrough of the report on completion of the pen testing process.  

Penetration testing report

What accreditations should you look for in a penetration testing provider?

CREST working with accredited partners DigitalXRaid

Penetration testing should only be conducted by highly qualified cyber security professionals. The quality of the results that can be achieved from a penetration test is largely based on the skill that the penetration testers included in the project have. 

The NCSC recommends that public sector organisations only use pen testers and cyber security service providers that are accredited as part of the CHECK scheme. 

For private sector businesses, CREST certified providers offer the highest standard of penetration testing security service available.  

CREST, or the Council of Registered Ethical Security Testers, is a not-for-profit organisation and certification body serving the technical information security marketplace. It provides assurance for those needing assistance with digital security by validating the processes, procedures and credibility of its members. 

CREST provides companies who offer the highest quality managed security services with an internationally recognised CREST penetration testing methodology and certification.

The main aim of the certifications that CREST offers is to “increase professionalism in the security testing industry”. To become members, prospective applicants must undergo a rigorous assessment. They also provide individual professional certification for pen testers, such as CREST Registered Penetration Tester (CRT). 

CREST accreditation gives organisations seeking Penetration Testing Services with confidence the work will be carried out by qualified individuals with the latest knowledge, skills and competence of vulnerabilities and techniques used by real attackers. All certifications are reviewed and approved by GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) and the NCSC (National Cyber Security Centre) for added assurance. 

DigitalXRAID is one of the first companies in the world to gain CREST certification for multiple services back in 2019. Certified services include CREST penetration testing, which is also CHECK approved, and our CREST accredited 24/7 Security Operations Centre (SOC). You can view our member profile and further CREST certifications here. 

CREST working with accredited partners DigitalXRaid

DigitalXRAID’s penetration testing services

Our penetration testing will identify any weaknesses and potential vulnerabilities in your systems, networks and applications, giving you the chance to remedy them before a hacker can exploit them.  

DigitalXRAID is one of the first penetration testing companies in the world to gain CREST certification for penetration testing, making us one of the top penetration testing providers in the world. If there’s a vulnerability, DigitalXRAID’s penetration testing experts will find it.  

For more information on our penetration testing consulting and how we can support you in staying a step ahead of cyber criminals with a range of CREST penetration testing services, get in contact.  

For an in-depth view of what the penetration testing service entails and to get tailored quote, scope your project 

Why choose DigitalXRAID for penetration testing?

DigitalXRAID has a unique insight into offensive security. With cyber security services operating on both the offensive and defensive sides, we have a more holistic view, and a much deeper understanding of what techniques are being used for both attack and defense. Therefore, our CREST pen testing team will dive deeper, uncovering vulnerabilities that others tend to miss.  

DigitalXRAID’s ethical security testers can offer penetration testing services, including:

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