What is Network Penetration Testing?

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By Bill Minahan   |   June 29, 2020   |   7 Comments

Network Penetration Testing

What is network penetration testing?

Network penetration testing is a security service that identifies security vulnerabilities in networks, systems, hosts, and devices by purposefully using malicious techniques to test the network’s security responses.

The objective of network penetration testing is to identify security exploits that put your business at risk of a data breach before hackers can discover and exploit them.

In simple terms, it is a service that businesses pay for in order to discover their weakest points. In doing so they allow ethical hackers to attempt to break into their network by using any means necessary.

Specifically, by using methods a real hacker would use. Other than a cyber security audit, which should be performed before a network penetration test, network penetration testing provides one of the highest levels of security assurance a business can have.

Businesses should perform a network penetration test after a vulnerability assessment or cyber security audit.

Assessments identify surface level vulnerabilities, while network penetration tests take a deep dive into your network to discover exploits that are harder to find.

It proves to clients, customers, management team, and staff that your security controls and procedures are effective at defending your network.

What are the benefits of network penetration testing?

Network penetration testing offers several benefits to your business. Specifically, the following are ways pen testing helps you understand and improve your overall security:

  • Understanding your network benchmarks
  • Testing your security controls
  • Evaluating your security posture
  • Identifying security flaws
  • Assessing risk
  • Addressing and fixing identified network security flaws
  • Preventing network and data breaches
  • Ensuring network and system security

Pen-testing enables your business to test security controls, mitigate vulnerabilities, and prevent data breaches.

If you are interested in performing network penetration testing, then contact us to speak to one of our experts.

How does network penetration testing work?

Network penetration testing works by simulating a real-time attack to reveal entry points and opportunities hackers could use in order to gain unauthorized access to your network.

Ethical hackers use several different methods to compromise your network depending on the scope and goals laid out in the planning stage.

As a result, network penetration testing can be extremely customizable. However, network penetration testing methodology usually follows the same basic structure for most organizations.

Specifically, network penetration testing methodology usually works as follows:

Planning and reconnaissance

The first stage of network penetration testing involves communication between ethical hackers and business leaders to define the scope and goals of the test.

There are several different methods of penetration testing and therefore the service can yield extremely different results. As a result, it is important to set expectations and goals.

Once expectations are set, ethical hackers gather intelligence by surveying the systems, network, mail server, and other components of a businesses’ network.

The level of surveying and planning an ethical hacker should do before the test depends heavily on the type of pen test being performed.

For example, some employers aim to have pen tests reveal exploits from the position of a hacker, a user, or an IT admin with high-level access privileges. As a result, the intelligence-gathering aspect of network penetration testing can vary greatly.


The next step in network penetration testing after an initial survey of the network is to understand how the business will respond to various intrusions.

In most cases, this is typically done by using static or dynamic analysis of the target application. For context, an application is any program or piece of software designed to fulfill a particular purpose for the user.

Static analysis inspects an application’s code in order to predict the way it behaves while running. You can think of it as a screenshot.

In contrast, dynamic analysis inspects an application’s code in a running state. As a result, it provides a real-time view of an application’s performance.

The scanning step sets the scene for ethical hackers.

Gaining access

The next step is gaining access.

In this step, ethical hackers use web application attacks, such as cross-site scripting, SQL injection and backdoors, as well as other tactics in order to uncover a target’s vulnerabilities.

Once vulnerabilities are identified, testers attempt to exploit them by escalating privileges, stealing data, and intercepting traffic, in order to evaluate the extent of the damage they can cause.

If the vulnerability is a small scratch on the surface of your security, in this step ethical hackers use various tools to dig in to see how far down they can travel until they reach a major artery and are capable of inflicting serious damage to your business.

This, of course, is one of the most important and insightful steps of the process as it provides a real-time picture of the risks that certain vulnerabilities present.

Maintaining access

After the network penetration tester has successfully gained access, the next step is to attempt to maintain access.

In this step ethical hackers attempt to achieve a persistent presence in the exploited system that provides enough time for a hacker to get in-depth access to your business.

Specifically, the objective is to simulate advanced persistent threats (APTs). APTs are known for remaining in systems for months in order to spy long enough to identify and steal their most sensitive data.

Like gaining access, maintaining access also provides extremely valuable insights that examine how a system reports, or fails to report, a persistent threat under their very nose.


Next, pen-testers define, document, and compile a report to present.

In most cases, the report communicates what vulnerabilities were identified and exploited, what sensitive data was accessed, and how long the ethical hacker was able to remain undetected in the system.

Businesses can patch their vulnerabilities and protect against future attacks based on the report’s findings.

As a result, the deliverables are actionable insights that your security team can use to strengthen your overall security.

Types of network penetration testing

There are a few different types of network penetration testing that can impact the structure and deliverables of the penetration testing methodology described above.

Specifically, there are three main categories of network penetration testing:

Black box testing

Black box testing identifies vulnerabilities in the outward-facing network. In most cases, black box testing is performed from the position of an average hacker who has minimal knowledge of internal systems.

It examines the functionality of an application without peering into its internal structures or workings.

You can use black box testing virtually on every level of software testing: unit, integration, system, and acceptance.

Gray box testing

Gray box testing is a network penetration test performed from the position of a current or former user that has access to the system.

In most cases, this user will have partial knowledge of the internal workings of the application.

This type of test aims to provide a focused evaluation of the network’s security that provides insights into both external and internal vulnerabilities.

White box testing

White box testing is performed from the position of an IT user or an IT administrator that has access to the source code.

In this simulation, the pen tester has full knowledge of the structure and environment being tested.

White box testing aims to provide an in-depth security audit of a business’s systems. It aims to provide as much detail as possible into vulnerabilities.

White box testing has access to areas that a black box test cannot, such as source code and application design.

Penetration testing deliverables

Penetration testing deliverables include a series of reports that document what vulnerabilities were exploited, what data was accessed, and how long a pen tester was able to maintain access.

Your penetration testing deliverables will vary depending on which area your business chooses to target during your network penetration test.

For instance, common areas businesses choose to target during pen-testing are:

  • Network services
  • Client-side
  • Web application
  • Social engineering
  • Wireless
  • Physical penetration testing

As you can see, the deliverables for these targets can and will vary greatly.

However, for all of them, penetration testing delivers actionable insights. These can be recommendations for improvement in areas such as software code flaws, compliance failures, employee awareness, etc.

Is penetration testing worth it?

In the spirit of full disclosure…

For many businesses, penetration testing can be a waste of resources if done prematurely. Often, it is an expensive way to reveal vulnerabilities that could have otherwise been identified with an assessment or audit for a fraction of the cost.

This says more about businesses performing pen-tests too soon than it does about the necessity and value of pen-testing itself.

If your business has not already configured basic security controls, then your business is most likely not ready yet.

It would be like hiring a professional, expensive, experienced race-car driver to test-drive the car you built without first ensuring you have all the right parts in place to make it run.

Can the race-car driver tell you what parts are missing? Yes, of course.

Are you paying an unnecessary amount for something you should have already had figured out before they got there? Also yes.

Penetration testing is only worth it if your company is confident in your current security defenses. The more confident you are in your security, the more value a penetration test delivers.

If you are unsure whether your business is ready or not, a cyber security assessment covers the basics and is a good place to start. aNetwork’s offers a free cyber security assessment tool.

If your business IS confident and has done all the pre-requisites, then a penetration test is extremely worth it. It can provide highly actionable insights to your security team.

If you do not know if you are ready for a penetration test, then feel free to contact us and we can provide you with a benchmark.


A network penetration test is a deep dive into your security. It is the single most effective way to view your security through a hacker’s eyes.

Once your security has reached a certain stage, pen testing is an essential part of a businesses’ security plan.

Network penetration testing provides visibility, confidence, and increased security to your network.

To learn more about pen testing, please contact us below.

Contact us

Otherwise, you can call us directly at 855-459-6600.

Furthermore, if you are looking for more information, then please check out our resource center.

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September 29, 2020 | 1:18 am

Out of all the articles I've read, this def gives the best description of what network penetration testing is. And how network penetration works. Thank you for the time you took to write this and for making it free! You gained a subscriber.