What is Penetration Testing in Cyber Security? How to Learn Penetration Testing

One of the most significant concerns organizations today face is cybersecurity. According to CheckPoint Research report, global cyberattacks increased by 38 percent in 2022, compared to 2021. Are there defenses strong enough to withstand a cyberattack? Every organization needs to ensure that the answer to this question is yes.  

The most popular method used to determine the vulnerabilities in the IT infrastructure is penetration testing. It is a stellar way of identifying the vulnerabilities in a system and patching them before the cyberattackers can exploit them. 

In this blog, we have discussed the details of pen testing. What is penetration testing? What are its benefits? What are the methods and tools of pen testing? Which certifications can help you make a career as a pen tester? You will find the answer to all these questions and more in this blog. 

What is penetration testing in cyber security?

Also known as pen testing or ethical hacking, penetration testing helps in identifying, testing, and highlighting vulnerabilities in the IT infrastructure. In essence, it is an authorized attack on the system to evaluate its security. Ethical hackers, also called pen testers, conduct pen testing. They use the same tools and techniques to test the system as used by cybercriminals. Pen testing is a proactive cybersecurity measure as it involves improving the security system based on the results of the testing. 

Importance of pen testing

Now that you know the answer to what pen testing is, let us move on to its importance. Here are some reasons why pen testing is incredibly important for organizations.

Reveals vulnerabilities

Penetration testing reveals the vulnerabilities in your cyber security that may not be apparent at first. It tests the entire system and generates a report about all the weaknesses. It also contains areas of improvement in the software and hardware. This helps in improving the overall security of the business.

Tests the cyber defense

Organizations hold sensitive data that can prove to be catastrophic if stolen. Their cyber defense, thus, should be quick enough to detect intrusions and respond. Pen testers use the same methods employed by real cyber attackers to test cyber security. This helps in giving feedback as to what can be improved. 

Shows real risks

Pen testers aim to identify and exploit vulnerabilities in your system. This is what a black hat hacker does while hacking a system. This helps you see the real risks in your security.

Ensures business continuity

Even the slightest downtime can lead to massive losses in an organization. Pen testing is a precautionary measure that prevents this situation from happening. It also helps in ensuring business continuity.


Many industries, like banking and healthcare, have included penetration testing in their compliance efforts. Many organizations, like PCI DSS (Payment Card Industry, Data Security Standard), have made it compulsory for organizations to perform pen-testing at least annually. Organizations can stay on top of their compliance needs through pen testing.

Maintains trust

Data breaches and cyber-attacks are the names of organizations. They not only stand to lose revenue and resources, but also the trust of their customers. Even their most loyal customers will leave if malicious hackers steal their data. Regular testing helps forge a sense of faith among customers and stakeholders and shows how much the organization values them.

Access provided to pen testers

How much access is given to the pen testers for testing? The answer to this question can be given in a line. It depends on the goal of the test. Let us understand in detail.

Pen testers receive access according to the aim of the pen test. Therefore, they receive different degrees of information and access. Essentially, there are three levels of access.

● Black box: In this type, the pen testers do not receive any knowledge about the internal system of the target system. They attack as real attackers do and look for weaknesses that can be exploited.

● Gray box: In this type, the pen testers know about the target system’s internal data structures, algorithms, network maps, and some more low-level credentials. This helps in identifying potential issues in codes or functioning.

● White box: Pen testers are provided with all the information about the target system or network. They check the code and internal structure of the system in this case. 

Phases of pen testing

Pen testing happens in five separate phases. Let us discuss each of them.

Reconnaissance and planning

The first step is to gather all the information about the target system or network. Pen testers use public and private sources, such as incognito searches, nonintrusive networks, and vulnerability scanning, to get this information. This helps them plan the attack according to open vulnerabilities and attack surfaces.


The next step is to scan the target system for weaknesses based on the information obtained in the first phase. The scanning tools include port scanners, network mappers, and security vulnerability scanners. After identifying the vulnerabilities, pen testers determine the ones they will use.

Obtaining entry

In this phase, pen testers exploit vulnerabilities identified in the previous phase and enter the system. The attacks they use include SQL injections and backdoors, cross-site scripting, and DOS attack.

Maintaining access

The next stage is to maintain access to the target for as long as possible. This is done to infiltrate as much data as possible. It is similar to an advanced persistent threat that stays in the system to cause damage for a long time.


After the test is done, pen testers analyze the results they received from the testing. They make a report that includes all the necessary details of the testing like vulnerabilities exploited, type of data accessed, and the amount of time testers were connected to the target.

Cleanup and remediation

After the testing is completed, the pen testers remove all the tools they used to penetrate the system. This is done to prevent cyber attackers from using the same processes and tools to harm the system. The organization also discusses the issues identified due to the test.

Types of pen testing

Several different types of pen testing helps in identifying vulnerabilities in different areas of IT infrastructure. These include mobile apps, cloud, containers, web apps, and APIs testing. Let us discuss some of them.

● Web app: Pen testers test the web applications to check the overall security of the web app and the potential vulnerabilities that can be used by hackers to exploit the app. This includes identifying weaknesses, such as coding errors, injection vulnerabilities, etc. 

● Networks: Pen testers focus on detecting vulnerabilities in different types of networks and hosts. They use a checklist with test cases for things such as SSL certificate scoping issues and encrypted transport protocols.

● Cloud: The cloud environment is different from other internal environments. Cloud security is shared between the organization and the cloud services provider. Pen testers need specialized skills to effectively check the secure deployment of the cloud, identify potential risks, and improve cloud security. 

● IoT security: IoT devices such as automobiles have unique testing requirements. Pen testers analyze each component and their interaction while testing IoT devices. They use the layered methodology to identify weaknesses and possible defects.

● Mobile devices: To test mobile devices, pen testers use automated and manual analysis. They identify weaknesses in application binaries on the mobile and its server-side functionality.

Different types of pen testing tools

Hackers employ different types of pen-testing tools to successfully infiltrate their target. Let us discuss some of them.

● Vulnerability scanners: Vulnerability scanners identify the weaknesses in your cyber security. They assess your computers, applications, and networks to check for vulnerabilities and common weaknesses.

● Sniffers: Sniffers analyze data and monitor traffic in a network.

● Port scanners: Port scanners are used to identify the open ports in a computer. It is used during the reconnaissance phase of pen testing. 

● Network protocol analyzers: As the name suggests, this tool analyzes the network protocols. It is used to gain a better understanding of switches, routers, and gateways.

● Antivirus evasion tools: These tools help bypass the antivirus application to exploit vulnerabilities.

● Social engineering: Pen testers use the social engineering method to exploit human frailty and attack the system. They may use phishing emails to deceive a victim and gain access to the system.

● Password crackers: These tools crack algorithms and make guesses to crack and reveal passwords. Some of these tools also use brute force to do this. 

Advantages and disadvantages of pen testing

As with every other technique, pen testing too has its fair share of advantages and disadvantages. Here are some of them.


● Can help in identifying vulnerabilities in the cybersecurity

● Identify high-risk weaknesses that come from several small vulnerabilities

● Locate familiar and unknown security vulnerabilities

● Can attack any system and simulate a real-world scenario

● Helps you establish trust with your stakeholders and customers

● Ensures you gain a comprehensive understanding of your cyber security


● If not done correctly, pen testing can cause significant damage.

● Requires highly trustworthy pen testers

● The test conditions must be as similar to the real world as possible. Otherwise, the results will be misleading.

● Pen testing is labor-intensive and expensive.

Certifications for penetration testers

If you are interested in becoming a penetration tester, here are the top certifications in the field that can help you begin and advance your career.

Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH)

Offered by EC Council, Certified Ethical Hacker is an intermediate-level certification. It validates your skills in identifying the weaknesses and vulnerabilities in a system. The course covers topics such as footprinting and reconnaissance, hacking web servers, web apps, wireless networks, mobile platforms, sniffing, cloud computing, and cryptography, among other domains.

You will have to complete a knowledge exam with 125 MCQs within 4 hours. After this, you have to give a practical exam with 20 scenario-based questions within 6 hours. The certification is valid for 3 years.

Offensive Security Certified Professional (OSCP)

Offered by Offensive Security, OSCP is an expert-level certification that validates your skills to secure a network. You will learn the skills to become a pen tester by using information-gathering techniques, writing basic scripts and tools, conducting remote attacks, and analyzing and modifying public exploit code. 

The course is suitable for infosec professionals wanting to enter the pen testing field, pen testers, security professionals, and network administrators. To do this certification, you must have a thorough understanding of TCP/IP networking, experience with Linux and Windows administration, and familiarity with Python scripting. 

GIAC Penetration Tester Certification (GPEN)

What is penetration testing? What are its various methods and tools? If your questions are somewhat similar to this, GPEN is the certification for you. Offered by GIAC, GPEN is a beginner-level certification that validates your ability to conduct a pen test and use the best techniques. It involves in-depth password attacks, scanning and exploitation, and comprehensive pen test planning.

The certification is suitable for pen testers, security personnel, defenders, auditors, red and blue team members, and ethical hackers. The certification is valid for 4 years. If you want to do an expert-level certification from GIAC, you can also do the GIAC Exploit Researcher and Advanced Penetration Tester certification.

CompTIA PenTest+

CompTIA is one of the most popular names in the IT industry. The CompTIA PenTest+ is an intermediate-level certification that covers all the stages of penetration testing. It validates your expertise in vulnerability assessment, analysis, scanning, and managing weaknesses.

The certification is suitable for penetration testers, security consultants, web app pen testers, cloud security specialists, and network and security specialists. CompTIA recommends you have Network+ or Security+ certification or equivalent knowledge. It also recommends you have at least three to four years of experience in information security.


With the continuous rise in cyberattacks, pen testing has become crucial for all organizations. Pen testing helps organizations make their cybersecurity better and more robust. It also helps them manage compliance. If you are interested in making a career in cybersecurity, you can enter the pen testing field. With the right knowledge, skills, and certifications, you can thrive in the field.

Armin Vans
Archer Charles has top education industry knowledge with 4 years of experience. Being a passionate blogger also does blogging on the technology niche.



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