by peter


Simulated Cyber Attack or Penetration Testing: is there a difference?

The terms penetration testing and simulated cyber attack are often indifferent when referring to cyber security assessment, but they’re not the same. Knowing and understanding the differences between them is essential for anyone responsible for protecting an organisation because they are used to achieving different goals in different circumstances.

The last thing you want to do is engage with an ethical hacker when what you needed was a penetration tester (or vice versa) because you’ll end up with a service that doesn’t meet your requirements. Let us look at what is involved in each process and how you can then decide on the right approach for your current needs.

Penetration Testing, what is it?

Penetration Testing, or pentesting, is an active cyber security test whereby an organisation hires a certified and highly qualified professional from a professionally regulated testing firm to assess the strength of its cyber security defences.

The penetration test will be carried out in several ways, all dependent on the scope of what is being tested. The test may be performed on-site, or it may be performed remotely. For the test, your assigned penetration tester will be provided with access to specific privileged information that they will attempt to use to find some sensitive information or complete the goal of the test.

Different penetration tests focus on specific aspects of an organisation’s logical perimeter. These include:

  • External network tests look for vulnerabilities and security issues in an organisation’s servers, hosts, devices and network services.
  • Internal network tests assess the damage an attacker could do when they gain access to an organisation’s internal systems.
  • Web application tests look for insecure development practices in designing, coding, and publishing software or a website.
  • Wireless network tests assess vulnerabilities in wireless systems, including Wi-Fi, rogue access points to a weak encryption algorithm.
  • Phishing penetration tests assess employees’ susceptibility to scam emails.

Whichever type of penetration test is being requested, they are typically carried out at regular intervals throughout the year or the lifecycle of whatever is in the scope. Penetration Tests are also performed on significant changes to systems and infrastructure, such as before a new system or important update goes live. 

Simulated Cyber Attack, what is that?

Simulated Cyber Attack is where you engage with a third party to find security vulnerabilities, weaknesses and configuration errors in systems and applications. This is done under a tight set of rules called the “Rules of Engagement”, and these rules must have the clients sign off before the testing can commence. The scope is the most significant difference between a penetration test and a simulated cyber attack. In a penetration test, the scope will be some systems or applications, and with a simulated cyber attack, the scope is the entire company.

So why would an organisation ask someone to perform a simulated cyber attack? The answer to that is quite simple: so that they can understand how their systems and applications will behave during a targeted and dedicated cyber attack and so that the firm can ensure that their detection and response mechanisms actually work.

Which one is right for you?

Penetration Testing or Simulated Cyber Attack. One of them will be the right solution for your business or organisation, and both will help in achieving essential cyber security improvements and objectives.


A simulated cyber attack gives you a thorough assessment of the security footing of your business and how well your security practices work in the realms of monitoring and response. The simulated cyber attack can additionally help with the identification of weaknesses, misconfigurations, and bad patching practices in the systems that are already live.


The simulated cyber attack approach is far more involved and wide-ranging than a single or series of penetration tests. Whereas penetration testing focuses primarily on specific scoped systems and networks, a simulated cyber attack gives the testers the freedom to use whatever attack methods they have at their disposal on all aspects of the business. These attack vectors can include exploiting systems that contain vulnerable software or system misconfigurations, sending out phishing emails to staff in an attempt to coerce them into clicking on a link, conducting brute-force password attacks in an effort to gain access to critical systems, breaching the physical perimeter and using social engineering techniques or perform just about anything else that the test team believes will provide them with entry into systems with the end goal of finding sensitive information.


By performing simulated cyber-attacks, the results are incredibly helpful in identifying how vulnerable the organisation is to cyber threats. Criminals are increasingly updating and modifying their techniques and conducting multi-layered, sophisticated attacks, so why should organisations not test in this manner. Of course, it is often simply not feasible to go to such lengths, which is why a simulated cyber attack is often seen as a once every three-year test.

In contrast to the simulated cyber attack, Penetration testing enables you to perform focused tests on specific parts of your organisation. The results are beneficial for identifying system flaws, missing patches, and poorly configured software and applications, for example. The extent of these security weaknesses and issues can often only be determined through testing. It is through the testing that the steps that need to be taken to address them can be highlighted and actioned.

The benefits of both penetration tests and simulated cyber-attacks are self-evident. Over the years, many data protection laws and frameworks – such as the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) and the PCI DSS (Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard) – mandate penetration tests be conducted regularly.