What is penetration testing in network security?
Network penetration testing, often shortened to pen testing, is the process of finding potential security vulnerabilities in networks, systems and applications by getting network penetration testers, or ethical hackers, to see if they can break through your cyber defenses using real-world techniques.
What are the network penetration testing steps and processes? Pen tests comprise four key steps:
- Gathering information and clarifying expectations
- Reconnaissance and discovery
- Performing the penetration test
- Reporting on recommendations and remediation
In this article we’ll cover what it takes to perform a successful network penetration test and the benefits a pen test can bring to your business.
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Importance of Network Pen Testing
First, let’s take a closer look at the goals of a penetration test:
- It will help businesses to gain a better understanding of their network baseline, test their security controls, and put measures in place that will ensure network security. The network baseline can be determined by using scanning tools, which will help the business to assess the effectiveness of its security controls.
- Vulnerability assessments are a good place to start, but penetration tests aim to really put your cyber defenses to the test by trying to break in using tricks that hackers would use to exploit vulnerabilities. It’s a powerful way to find weaknesses that you can then fix.
- A solid penetration test will help a business design more effective risk analysis and mitigation plans so that it can do a better job of keeping threats at bay.
- A network penetration test can help businesses that already have a mature security posture to fill in any gaps. For example, they might have strong external defenses that have caused them to be lax on internal protection, and a pen test is a great way to expose those flaws.
Now that you know a bit more about what a penetration test is for, we can go into more detail about the steps involved in carrying one out.
4 Steps to Perform Network Security Penetration Testing Like a Pro
1. Gathering Information and Clarifying Expectations
The first step of network pen testing is to prepare a comprehensive rundown of the business’s network and systems and then understand exactly what it’s hoping to achieve.
Once you have a clear picture, you can begin exploring the main types of pen testing a network and determining which method or combination of methods will best help meet those goals:
Black box testing: This is when a pen tester is given the minimum amount of information about the company’s network and tries to break in from the outside. They use tools and methods to attempt to gain access to the internal network. Bear in mind that if they can’t get in, you will miss out on the internal testing part of pen testing.
Gray box testing: This type of test is carried out by a pen tester who has access to the internal network, so they can freely look for security vulnerabilities that a hacker would be able to exploit if they broke through the external defenses.
White box testing: A white box test is performed as if the tester were an IT employee with full access to the company’s source code and architecture documentation. It’s the most comprehensive form of penetration testing and takes the longest.
After deciding which type(s) of test to conduct, you need to determine whether they will be conducted on the live network or a simulated test environment. You also need to determine whether or not to actually exploit the weaknesses or just report on them. This will depend on risk tolerance; most businesses want to make sure their critical systems aren’t taken down!
2. Reconnaissance and Discovery
With the plans laid, it’s time to get to penetration testing the network security. The reconnaissance phase starts by using port and network scanners to get a view of the network, network devices, web applications, and security vulnerabilities.
Then you can begin the discovery phase, which involves seeing if and how the network can be breached and determining the level of damage that could be caused by your activities.
3. Performing Penetration Testing on Network Security
Once you know what you’re working with, you can move onto the testing. This is when you’ll start using all the tools and tricks at your disposal, most likely starting with the network vulnerabilities that you consider easiest to exploit and moving through them one by one.
Your methods will include the likes of social engineering, which could be in the form of manipulating someone into giving up passwords and playing with source code on the network.
It’s important to take detailed notes showing the attempts you made, why you made them, and if you were successful in breaching the network. This information will be critical to the overall success of the pen test and when it comes to putting together the final report.
- If you successfully gain access to sensitive data or critical systems, it’s safe to say that you have breached the network and action will be needed to prevent it from happening for real.
- If you are unable to break in it could mean that your network is secure or that a more rigorous type of testing is required. Failing to breach the network does not mean the pen test was unsuccessful. It can be a cause for celebration, but it’s important to remember that vulnerabilities could still exist!
4. Reporting on Recommendations and Remediation
After the network security penetration testing is complete, it’s time to start putting together a thorough report that shows what you found, what it means, and the action you recommend.
It is crucial to write the report in a way that ensures the business’s decision-makers know the risks that exist, providing evidence and being specific in your recommendations to improve security measures. These can come in the form of patches, new policies, and application or system upgrades.
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What Is Network Penetration Testing’s Biggest Benefit?
Network pen testing is a critical part of any information security strategy, and many businesses who have failed to include it in their plans have later fallen prey to increasingly smart hackers. Though there are many companies offering penetration testing for networks, you have to keep in mind that the company performing the test may:
- Become aware of your organization’s key vulnerabilities
- Have to handle sensitive data and applications
- Need to keep information about your IT and computer systems privileged
As such, it’s vital you work with a reputed partner, preferably one that can provide references.
Fusion Computing, one of Toronto’s leading managed IT providers, has a seasoned team of network penetration testers who have seen every type of network and security vulnerability. With over 20 years in the industry and zero cyber security breaches at any of our clients, we know how to test and secure systems against cyber attacks.
Contact us today to learn more about penetration testing and how our security professionals keep businesses like yours secure.