Penetration Testing Costs – The Determining Factors

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Penetration testing is incredibly important for the cybersecurity of your business. Like anything else, however, you have to balance the cost of a penetration test against the return on investment. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to find an accurate price range considering the number of factors that go into determining the pricing.

This article breaks down the main elements that influence penetration testing costs.

1. The scope and the efforts required

Bigger tests, simply put, require more time and therefore, cost more. This seems quite straight-forward, but there is an abundance of elements that will affect the size of a project. The efforts required by the pentester are also quite different from one type of test to another.

For a Network Penetration Test, the efforts vary considerably according to the number of IP addresses and internal servers that are being targeted. The pricing can also be affected by the amount of devices on the internal network, which requires further investigation by the specialist to document the full impact a vulnerability. With that being said, it remains one of the least expensive type of test in comparison with others due to the time spent on each validation.

For a Web Application Penetration Test, the efforts are determined by the features available on the application. For instance, a web application with authentication features, a variety of user roles and credit card payments will require more efforts than a simple application without either. Additionally, the depth of its analysis is much more important than a network test, as the specialists attempt to identify complicated logic flaws specific to the application’s behavior, increasing the time required to perform a full assessment.

For highly specialized tests, such as IoT penetration tests, further research and reverse-engineering might be required to learn about potential exploits of a given technology, which has a direct impact on pricing.

Other factors, such as the state of the targeted system, might also affect the efforts. For example, an industrial network currently in production which cannot be replicated in a testing environment will require the specialists to be extra vigilant in their approach and in some cases, will force them to use specific techniques that cannot possibly compromise the integrity of the system or cause interruptions within the production line, requiring more efforts in the long run.

2. The approach (automated vs manual testing)

The approach used in a penetration test is one of the main factor that determines the time spent on the assessment. Automated tests are often seen as a cheap alternative to conduct penetration tests, but they are both performed in different contexts and should not be misinterpreted as equivalents, as they yield completely different levels of analysis.

Automated Testing

Automated penetration tests, also known as vulnerability scans or vulnerability assessments, are a cheap and efficient to identify common misconfigurations, unpatched software and known vulnerabilities within your systems. Vulnerability scanners provide a list of known vulnerabilities associated with the technologies available within your ecosystem, which often creates false positive or false negatives that are assumed by IT teams to be accurate. An incorrect interpretation of these false positives could leave your IT team spending a great deal of time and resources on a vulnerability that either doesn’t exist or has little to no impact on your business’s actual security. As a result, automated scans, while cheap and efficient at identifying common mistakes, should not be your only resort to validate the security of your systems.

Manual Testing

Manual penetration testing goes beyond the identification of vulnerabilities. A manual penetration test aims to validate the existence of the vulnerabilities within your systems and exploits them to provide evidence of their potential impact on your company. It requires an in-depth knowledge of various programming languages, technologies, and environments in order to exploit the vulnerabilities using similar techniques and advanced tools used by hackers. As a result, the company will get a better idea of what the direct impact could be if a hacker exploited to that vulnerability. These tests leverage recognized methodologies, including OSSTMM or OWASP, to gain a deeper understanding of any vulnerabilities within your system and ways in which they could be exploited. Because of their nature, manual tests require a great deal more time and commitment on the part of the penetration tester than automated testing. Your stakeholders can count on the results delivered by a manual penetration test to make decisions that will secure their systems from cyberattacks, guaranteeing a direct return on their investment.

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3. The goals that you’re looking to accomplish

Penetration testing costs also vary considerably according to the specific goals a company intends to meet.

For instance, the PCI-DSS requirements, which mandate an annual penetration test, require evidence that any exploitable vulnerabilities within card processing systems have been properly mitigated. In most case, a second testing phase is required to prove that the vulnerabilities identified during the initial test have been successfully fixed, which increases the costs directly.

Alternatively, many companies now perform tests as part of their development cycle before they release a new feature for an application. In this context, the testing scope is focused on the new features that are being added rather than the entire application, reducing the efforts and thereby decreasing penetration testing costs drastically.

In other cases, companies faced with security requirements from one of their clients might need to test their entire infrastructure as a condition of their partnership, as they want to limit any potential impact that a breach on their vendor extends to their own company. This situation often calls for larger scopes or requires a second testing phase to prove that the vulnerabilities have been successfully mitigated, impacting the costs.

4. The level of expertise

Penetration testing pricing and quality will often differ according to the level of expertise of the specialists in charge of your test, as they will have a direct impact on your return on investment.

The majority of highly-skilled pentesters have successfully completed various certifications – such as GWAPT (learn more about the top penetration testing certifications) – requiring lengthy and advanced training to be certified. These certifications, usually quite expensive, offer some hands-on experience exploiting and documenting vulnerabilities within some of the most complex environments and scenarios testers are regularly faced with in the industry. Some of these certifications, such as OSCP and OSCE, require the tester to complete an intensive assessment lasting as long as 48h consecutively.

These certifications, combined with years of experience in the industry, deliver reliable results that can be used to make accurate decisions, helping your company’s stakeholders to invest their precious resources in areas where the risks are the most prominent. This has a direct impact on the pricing.

In conclusion

Before a company can provide you with an estimated cost for a penetration test, many factors (such as the scope of the project and the context in which it is being performed) will have to be determined and established in detail. To ensure a great return on the cost of your penetration test, there are many things you should expect, such as the level of expertise and the approach used in the test.

Reach out to a certified specialist to get a cost estimate for the type of penetration test adapted to your company and your specific needs.

 

A penetration test is a simulated hacking attempt that identifies opportunities for real hackers to break through your defences and perform various malicious acts. It generally leverages tools used by hackers and various professional methodologies to replicate the steps that modern hackers would take to intrude into your IT systems.


A pentest attempts to exploit your vulnerabilities to determine their potential impact, should they be used in a real hacking scenario. They provide a list of vulnerabilities with their respective level of severity, as well as technical recommendations to help your team apply corrective measures and focus on the most critical vulnerabilities.


These services allow your organization to answer the following questions, among several others:

  • Can a hacker gain access to any sensitive information?
  • Can a hacker hijack my technologies for any malicious acts?
  • Could a malware infection spread through the network?
  • Can an attacker escalate access to an administrative user?

Learn more about penetration testing →

There are many contexts in which a penetration test should be performed.

Here are some common use cases for a pentest:

  • As part of the development cycle of an application. (To test the security of a new feature/app)
  • To comply with security requirements. (3rd-parties, PCI, ISO27001, etc.)
  • To secure sensitive data from exfiltration.
  • To prevent infections by malware. (Ransomware, spyware, etc.)
  • To prevent disruptive cyberattacks. (Such as denial of service)
  • As part of a cybersecurity risk management strategy.

All businesses are advised to conduct a penetration test at least once a year, as well as after any significant upgrades or modifications to the company network. Given the rapid rate at which new exploits are discovered, we generally recommend that quarterly tests are performed.

Various steps are taken over the course of the project to prevent the potential impact of our tests on the stability of your technological environment and the continuity of your business operations.

For this reason, a communication plan will be put in place at the beginning of the project to prevent and mitigate any potential impact. A representative of your organization will be identified to act as the main point of contact to ensure rapid communication in the event of a situation directly impacting the conduct of your daily operations, or if any critical vulnerabilities are identified, for which  corrective measures need to be implemented quickly.

While we use a simple 4 levels risk rating approach (Critical, High, Moderate, Low), our risk assessment is actually based on the Common Vulnerability Scoring System (CVSS) standard. Two main criteria are considered when  assessing the risk level of each vulnerability:

  • Potential impact: The potential impact of an attack based on a vulnerability, combined with its  potential effect on the availability of the system, as well as the confidentiality and integrity of  the data.
  • Exploitability: The potential exploitability of a vulnerability; a vulnerability that is easier to  exploit increases the number of potential attackers and thus the likelihood of an attack.  Different factors are considered when evaluating the exploitability potential of a vulnerability  (e.g.: access vector, authentication, operational complexity, etc.)

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