What is the difference between a Penetration Test and Breach and Attack Simulation?

Category: News
Published: 18th June 2024

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Organisations must continually assess and fortify their defences against potential threats. Two critical approaches to this are Penetration Testing (Pen Testing) and Breach and Attack Simulation (BAS). While both aim to bolster security, they differ significantly in their methodologies and applications. Both, Pen Testing and BAS, can be leveraged to ensure comprehensive security, so it is important to find out which one is the most suitable for your current business objectives and how they complement one another. 


Penetration Testing: The In-Depth Check-Up 

At Red Helix we champion the use of using plain English to discuss our services and products, to make them as easy to understand as possible. Therefore, we will be using an analogy to help explain the difference between pen testing and simulative breach attacks. Pen Testing aims to identify network vulnerabilities and is like having an MOT for your car. A security expert, often referred to as an ethical hacker, simulates the behaviour of a malicious attacker to uncover and exploit weaknesses in your system.  

This process can be manual or automated. A skilled tester actively seeks out vulnerabilities and attempts to exploit them to understand the potential impact on your system. This kind of testing needs to be performed every 3-6 months and is often stipulated in your insurance. However, as with an MOT as soon as you leave the garage you become vulnerable, you could puncture your tire as soon as you meet the road. The same is true of a pen test, as soon as the test is finished your network could be made vulnerable by a new update or change to your firewall, leaving the system exposed until the next scheduled test. 


Breach and Attack Simulation: The Continuous Watchdog 

Breach and Attack Simulation (BAS) involves simulating a wide range of cyberattacks to test the effectiveness of security controls on a continuous basis. This proactive approach ensures that defences, such as the work being carried out by a Security Operations Centre (SOCs) or your corporate firewall, are functioning correctly and effectively. BAS is largely automated and can be set up to deploy simulated attacks periodically or continuously. This allows for regular testing against the latest vulnerabilities and tactics, ensuring that systems remain up-to-date and secure. The primary advantage of BAS is its ongoing nature. It provides continuous assessment and validation of security controls, ensuring that defences are perpetually tested and improved. BAS can help verify if SOCs are effectively identifying and mitigating threats. It also tests compliance with frameworks like the MITRE ATT&CK® framework by simulating real-world attack techniques. By implementing BAS, you continuously check for vulnerabilities and ensure your SOC and perimeter defences are actively protecting against threats. Think of it as having a system in place that continually monitors and alerts you if the wheels of your car become loose, ensuring you’re always secure. 


Both Penetration Testing and Breach and Attack Simulation are crucial for maintaining a robust cybersecurity posture. Pen Testing provides deep, point-in-time assessments, while BAS offers continuous validation and improvement of your security defences.  


  Penetration testing  Attack simulation 
Purpose  Identifies network vulnerabilities  Simulates attacks to test security continuously  
Process  Manual or automated testing carried out by a skilled tester  Automated, continuous or periodic deployment of simulated attacks 
Frequency  Typically, every 3-6 months  Continual automation  
Cost  Higher  Lower 
Limitations  Once the test is completed, new vulnerabilities can arise  Not as detailed or deep as pen testing 


Combining both approaches can help ensure comprehensive protection against cyber threats. Investing in both Pen Testing and BAS will not only enhance your organisations cybersecurity but also provide peace of mind knowing that your defences are always one step ahead of potential attackers.