Skip to Main Content Skip to bottom Skip to Chat, Email, Text

What is penetration testing for cybersecurity?

At a glance

  • Penetration testing, also known as pen testing, ethical hacking or white-hat hacking, is a simulated cyberattack that identifies weaknesses within a system or device. 

  • Types of penetration testing include black, white and gray box. Each simulates a different kind of attack.
  • Common penetration testing techniques include social engineering, network scanning and web application.
  • Explore information technology degree programs and certificates at University of Phoenix to learn how you can gain skills to prevent cyber threats!

What is penetration testing?

Sometimes known as ethical or white-hat hacking, penetration testing is a simulated cyberattack designed to identify vulnerabilities in networks, servers or devices that a company can then remediate. Companies authorize these deliberate attacks in an effort to address cybersecurity threats before hackers discover and exploit them.

Pen testing, as it’s commonly called, plays a critical role in the cybersecurity field. It can help organizations accomplish several information security goals, from risk assessment to incident response.

As cybersecurity attacks pose an increasing threat to organizations, penetration testing (and the professionals who know how to perform it) becomes increasingly important. Here’s what you need to know.

Learn how to stop cyber threats with a cybersecurity degree. 

Types of penetration testing

Pen testers use a variety of strategies to target a company’s networks. For example, cloud networks require different strategies than in-person servers.

Here are some of the types of pen testing:

  • Black box testing: The tester has a general familiarity with how a network functions but no understanding of how a specific internal network operates. They understand how a network is supposed to operate, but they are not told how it works.
  • White box testing: The tester has credentials and a full understanding of how a network operates. This threat simulates an attack from an insider who might already know internal security protocols.
  • Gray box testing: The tester has partial knowledge of how a network operates. This testing method combines elements of both white and black box testing, simulating an attack from someone with limited knowledge.

The penetration testing process

Pen testers follow several steps when trying to breach a company’s network.

The process typically includes the following stages:

  1. Information collection: Penetration testers gather intel on company networks, systems and devices.
  2. Scanning: Testers perform “discovery activities” that identify ports, subdomains and other network features available for attempted hacking.
  3. Vulnerability assessment: Testers perform initial vulnerability assessments to help identify any network weaknesses.
  4. Exploitation: Testers use various techniques to exploit the vulnerabilities they find. They work individually or in teams to breach company servers, networks and devices and access the data inside.
  5. Reporting and review: Testers provide comprehensive reports after testing concludes.

Penetration testers can’t protect a company’s networks; they only identify vulnerabilities to a company’s information security. After a penetration test on their network, companies must use the results in productive ways.

Common penetration testing techniques

Penetration testers choose their techniques based on a company’s network or system features. Here are some common penetration testing techniques:

There are many more ethical hacking techniques that penetration testers might use when attempting to access company networks. Depending on the situation, they might also use strategies in cryptography, wireless network testing or password cracking.

read similar articles

What is ethical hacking?

Penetration testing tools

Pen testers rely on several tools and web applications when attempting to crack a company’s systems. These tools help them identify cybersecurity weaknesses, exploit those weaknesses and generate post-attack reports for employers.

One popular tool, Metasploit, specifically helps testers examine networks for weaknesses. The tool is open source, meaning testers can customize the code to fit the network or operating system they’re working on. It provides more than 1,600 exploits across more than 25 platforms, such as Android, PHP and Python.

Many testers also have Nmap — an abbreviation for Network Mapper — in their toolkit. Nmap helps them map a company’s entire system, identifying ports and vulnerabilities an attacker can exploit. The free tool also has an open-source code base and supports Windows, Mac and Linux systems, as well as lesser-known systems.

Pen testers use a variety of other tools and web applications for specific-use cases as well. For example, Kali Linux remains the world’s most popular penetration testing tool for offensive attacks. Wireshark provides insight into network traffic patterns. Hashcat helps penetration testers simulate brute force and password crack hacks.

The role of penetration testers

Penetration testers fulfill a critical role for organizations, either as full-time employees or contracted consultants. Here are some of the ways pen testers protect assets:

  • Conducting regular vulnerability assessments that identify new and evolving exploits
  • Providing reports that explain exactly how companies can fix weaknesses within their systems
  • Testing the security of company firewalls, passwords, hardware, software programs, intrusion detection systems and access permissions
  • Uncovering any online files or documentation that could make it easier for cybercriminals to hack company systems
  • Working with internal IT and security teams to address vulnerabilities before hackers find them

Testers also spend time educating themselves on the latest hacking techniques. They consult industry resources, participate in exercises and attend security events that explain the latest trends in vulnerability learning and research.

read similar articles

40 terms every IT professional needs to know

Legal and ethical considerations

Penetration testing raises important legal and ethical considerations, particularly when testers actually breach company networks. To remain fully compliant, they must first obtain permission to identify and intrude upon a company’s systems. They also need to follow responsible disclosure practices after ethical hacking sessions end.

It is illegal to perform a penetration test without authorization. Testers must obtain explicit written permission before performing any sort of exploit on company property, commonly known as the Rules of Engagement.

Penetration tests must also follow applicable laws, including regulations on data privacy and intellectual property rights. They should only access data on a need-to-know basis for the purpose of preventing additional cybercrimes.

Benefits of penetration testing for organizations

Penetration testing provides important benefits. Most notably, it helps a company better understand threats to its digital data. Here are some other ways that pen testing helps organizations:

  • Identifies previously hidden vulnerabilities
  • Mitigates risks to sensitive data before hackers get the chance
  • Meets compliance requirements for network security and access
  • Evaluates and enhances the effectiveness of firewalls, access permissions and other internal security procedures
  • Avoids the high costs of a potential security breach

Some organizations also consider pen testing a competitive advantage. Customers, stakeholders and employees often prefer to partner with companies that take their security seriously.

Penetration testing vs. vulnerability assessments

Penetration testing and vulnerability assessment are similar but distinct fields. Vulnerability assessment is more of an observational step, when penetration testers review and identify potential threats to company systems. Pen testing searches for exploits based on assessment findings.

Vulnerability assessments rely heavily on automated scanning tools to scope out company networks. Testers use these tools to search for vulnerabilities, system misconfigurations or other points of access. After a vulnerability assessment, actual testing can begin.

read similar articles

What is a keylogger?

Penetration testing education and training

Students can learn penetration testing in several ways. Some might prefer a bachelor’s degree in technology, one that teaches comprehensive skills in cybersecurity, software development and IT best practices.

Other students might opt for a potentially faster route to the workforce: an accelerated certificate program that teaches skills today’s employers want. These programs include a certificate in cyber and network defense, in which students learn skills in ethical hacking, security networking and data programming.

Learn about cybersecurity programs and technology degrees at University of Phoenix

If you’re interested in joining the fight against malicious hackers, consider earning a bachelor’s degree in cybersecurity. Management-level cybersecurity professionals, or those desiring to become one, may need to pursue a master’s degree to further sharpen their skills and develop their leadership potential.

University of Phoenix offers online course collections, bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees to accommodate IT professionals at different stages of their careers. Learn more about undergraduate and graduate online technology degrees from UOPX and start your IT journey today!

  • Certified Ethical Hacker Course Collection — This course collection can help you prepare to sit for the EC-Council Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) certification exam. Topics include the phases of ethical hacking, recognizing weaknesses and vulnerabilities of a system, social engineering, IoT threats, risk mitigation and more.
  • Certified Incident Handler Course Collection — This course collection can help you prepare to sit for the EC-Council Certified Incident Handler (ECIH) certification exam. This specialist certification focuses on how to effectively handle security breaches. 
  • Certified Network Defender Course Collection — This course collection can help you prepare to sit for the entry-level EC-Council Certified Network Defender (CND) certification exam. Courses focus on protecting a network from security breaches before they happen.
  • Computer Hacking Forensics Investigator Course Collection — This course collection can help you prepare to sit for the EC-Council Computer Hacking Forensics Investigator (CHFI) certification exam. Learn about the latest technologies, tools and methodologies in digital forensics, including the dark web, IoT, malware, the cloud and data forensics.
  • Advanced Cybersecurity Certificate — Within this program, you can develop the technical knowledge to step into the fast-growing field of IT security, helping keep computer systems safe from data breaches and cyberattacks. Get real-life experience through hands-on IT labs and simulations while developing a broad knowledge of cybersecurity to help prepare you for your technology career.
Michael Feder


Michael Feder is a content marketing specialist at University of Phoenix, where he researches and writes on a variety of topics, ranging from healthcare to IT. He is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars program and a New Jersey native!


want to read more like this?

What is an HSA?

Tuition and Financial Aid

June 23, 2022 • 6 minutes

9 FAFSA Changes That Could Impact Your Application

Tuition and Financial Aid

January 23, 2024 • 4 minutes

How to make a financial plan for your education

Tuition and Financial Aid

August 26, 2022 • 8 Minutes