A Comprehensive Guide to the Best Penetration Testing Methodologies

What is penetration testing methodology? Why should I care about it? Can’t just any methodology be used? Well, for the best result, it is important to use the right vulnerability testing and penetration testing methodology. Through this blog, we will give you a detailed overview of:

  • What is penetration testing methodology
  • What are the different types of pen testing methodology?
  • How to choose the best methodology and more?

What Is Meant by Penetration Testing Methodology?

Penetration testing is a security exercise done to test the extent of threat a computer system, network or web app can withstand. There are a multitude of tools, techniques and methods of doing it. Penetration testing methodology refers to the defined framework in which penetration testing is done.

What Is a Penetration Testing Framework?

Depending on the type of IT resources you have, you can specify or define how penetration testing has to be done in your particular use case. Pen testing framework refers to this precise establishing of the limit or scope.

What Makes Penetration Testing Methodologies Important?

When it comes to performing a pen test, there is no single style, approach or method that works across all business scenarios. The pen tester should have a clear idea as to what standards must be followed, what their limits and legal compliance requirements are, and many more such prerequisites. Therefore, choosing the right pen testing methodology is important. 

 

Once there is a pen test methodology which both the testers and the hosting organization or company agree upon, there is no room for confusion and concerns among both.

pen testing

Top 5 Pen Testing Methodologies and Standards

  1. OWASP:

Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP) is a popular pen testing methodology. As the name indicates, this methodology is designed for testing web applications.  Hence if you require wider penetration testing, this won’t be the one for you. For the intended target area, this methodology integrates the latest trends and algorithms to offer precision.

  1. ISSAF:

 Information System Security Assessment Framework (ISSAF) was once been a very popular pen testing framework which is no longer updated. Nevertheless, it is still used by a good number of authorized pen testers and trusted by companies due to the comprehensive coverage it offers and compatibility with many latest tools for integration.

  1. OSSTMM:

OSSTMM stands for Open-Source Security Testing Methodology Manual. As a widely recognized and free pen testing standard, it is very popular today. The key advantage of this methodology is that it has been designed in tight compliance with scientific standards and is known to offer accurate results.

  1. PTES:

PTES is the abbreviation for Penetration Testing Execution Standard. An experienced team of penetration testers consisting of information security professionals manage and update this standard procedure. So, while using this, you will have the benefit of getting a more comprehensive and latest defence against the threats.

  1. NIST:

NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) is a pen testing methodology which is known for the high accuracy of results it offers. Ideal for small and medium enterprises, this methodology works best when executed by experienced pen testers who are familiar with the diversity of IT resources, standards and frameworks used in varied settings.

Comparative Review of Penetration Testing Methodologies

You can see lots of similarities and at the same differences in each of the above-discussed penetration testing methodologies. Chances are high that you get stumbled when it comes to making a choice. To help you make an informed decision, here is a comparison.

  1. Focus area:

With OSSTMM, you can see a more comprehensive approach. There is clear emphasis on the human element and operational security. OWASP on the other hand focuses only on web applications. For a testing methodology that gives the best technical coverage, NITS is the best choice. Differing from all others, PTES promises to cover the end-to-end process of penetration testing.

  1. Test Metrics:

When it comes to test metrics, OSSTMNM has a clear upper hand. All other standards provide only a pass or fail measurement. 

  1. Use case scenario:

 PTES was designed by professional penetration testers for themselves. NIST and OSSTMM are for more generic purposes.

  1. Guidelines:

OWASP and PTES follow a set of well-structured and organized guidelines. There are more relaxed guidelines for OSSTMM and NIST.

  1. Reporting style:

With NIST, you can get in-depth and detailed reporting. You can even get a clear explanation as to the legal aspects. Other frameworks, on the other hand, issue a more generic style of reporting.

How To Go About Selecting the Right Penetration Testing Methodology?

Given the range of methodologies available today for performing penetration testing, every organization must follow specific criteria for selecting the most appropriate one. Below are some strategies for making this choice.

  • Identify what type of system you want to subject for pen testing. For instance, network, operational security, software, web app or cloud. 
  • Understand how much budget and time you can allocate for pen testing and choose a standard that aligns with both. 
  • Verify whether the intended methodology can accommodate the size and complexity of testing to be carried out at your facility. 
  • Go with a methodology that your available team of pen testers are well-versed in. 
  • Choose a methodology that best suits your specific industry. For instance, OWASP is best suited for software and web development industries. 
  • Do not go with a methodology if it can’t comply with the legal requirements applicable in your country. 
  • Identify a pen testing methodology that can provide you with a detailed report consisting of test findings, metrics and remedies. 

Internal Vs External Penetration Testing - a Comparison

Penetration tests can be done both internally and externally. Both have their merits and demerits. Here is how they differ and how one can decide which approach will work best for them. 

 

  • In internal penetration testing, a tester is given access to the system from within an organization. Here the focus is to identify to what extent he can exploit the system. In external testing, no internal access is given. An external user tries to access a closed system and exploit it. 
  • Internal pen testing is less time-consuming. It can be completed within a few days to a week. On the other hand, external pen testing takes a longer duration – ideally 2 – 3 weeks. Factors like the size of the system and complexity of the project can affect the duration of both test types though. 
  • Common aspects covered in internal pen testing include internal networks, servers, IT infrastructure, databases, user accounts, access controls modules etc. In external testing, the tester may subject web applications, remote access security, network perimeter security and Wi-Fi for testing.
  • Some of the popular tools used for internal penetration testing are Nmap, Custom Scripts, Nessus, Wireshark and Burp Suite Pro. External pen testing is ideally done via Nessus, Metasploit, Nmap and Hydra. 
  • In external testing, the tester simulates external threats while trying to exploit weaknesses in external-facing systems like remote access solutions and firewalls. In internal testing, the tester simulates attacks such as lateral movement from within the network and tries for privilege escalation.

 

Cyberattacks can happen from within and from outside. Hence, it is not recommended to favour one testing style over the other. A combined approach integrating aspects of both internal and external testing styles is recommended. An ideal way to have this is to run external penetration services at fixed intervals, for instance, once a year and internal testing at more frequent intervals. 

What Will Be the Future Landscape of Pen Testing?

It is important to note that penetration testing methodologies and standards should keep evolving in alignment with changes like cyber-attacks and threats. There are clear differences between the type of threats we see today from the type of threats we used to face a decade ago. Here are some of the current trends that will influence the evolution of pen testing standards and methodologies in future.

penetration testing methodologies
  1. The Gradual Shift to Cloud

Companies no longer store their data in external hard drives or storage devices. The adoption of the cloud is seen almost everywhere. From software as a product, most software applications have become software as a service. This trend will have a major impact on vulnerability assessment and penetration testing standards and methods in the future.

  1. Adoption Of Infrastructure as Code (IaC)

Infrastructure as a Code enables IT professionals to manage their computer components quite easily through codes rather than time-consuming manual configuration. This will have a major influence on the pen testing methods too, making it faster and more effective.

  1. Automation In Pen Testing

With the coming of artificial intelligence and AI-supported automation, there will be significant improvements in security penetration testing and vulnerability scanning. It will make handling most of the basic penetration tasks much faster and automated. However, this does not pose any challenge to human experts in pen testing. The role of creative and expert pen testers will remain intact.

  1. Devsecops In Pen Testing

It’s not how often you conduct penetration testing that matters, but the methodology you deploy. While understanding various methodologies of penetration testing in cyber security is crucial, one must remain flexible in adopting the most effective approach. If a single methodology proves ineffective, a combined approach may be necessary. Furthermore, the swift changes in IT should influence your strategy for selecting the right penetration testing method.

We hope this blog provided clarity on everything you need to know about penetration testing. Feel free to reach out with any further questions or doubts you have.

Conclusion

It’s not how often you conduct penetration testing that matters, but the methodology you deploy. While understanding various methodologies of penetration testing in cyber security is crucial, one must remain flexible in adopting the most effective approach. If a single methodology proves ineffective, a combined approach may be necessary. Furthermore, the swift changes in IT should influence your strategy for selecting the right penetration testing method.

We hope this blog provided clarity on everything you need to know about penetration testing. Feel free to reach out with any further questions or doubts you have.

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Jim Jacob

Jim Jacob is the founder of Cyberguard. He is an IT professional who has 21 years of professional experience in the tech field. Cybergurad is the product of his vision to share the knowledge gained from his career through the power of words. He is an expert at explaining complex tech concepts in simple language and has written numerous articles on IT and Cybersecurity.

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