Penetration (Pen) Testing has long been the go-to tool for organizations looking to safeguard their applications. But the ever-evolving hacking techniques are exposing this aging solution’s shortcomings. The growing consensus in security circles is that applications need to be bolstered from the core – the source code. This is exactly where Static Analysis enters the picture, helping detect application layer vulnerabilities and coding errors.
What is Pen Testing All About?
Penetration testing is a “hands on” methodology that combines manual and automatic approaches. As its name suggests, this testing technique basically involves software security experts trying to exploit the application code with dedicated hacking tools. The results are eventually sent out to the security brass of the organization, who then pass it on to the developers for remediation.
This risk-based testing method usually provides accurate results and reports, but is far from comprehensive. The professionals hired for the job have finite levels of expertise and limited time to study the project, if at all. Also, the projects have their time-limitations and deadlines since organizations are eager to release, making it hard for the pen testers to mimic the hacker’s actions and ideas.
Pen Testing’s real effectiveness depends on the tester’s ability to think “outside the box”, as the tests themselves are typically based on a pre-determined list of known exploits. More often than not, these databases are outdated and creating a customized testing plan requires too many resources. These limitations harm the effectiveness of the testing and often additional tests are needed.
Static Analysis With Static Application Security Testing (SAST)
SAST has a unique way of getting things done. It scans the very foundation of the application – the source code. Solutions like Static Code Analysis (SCA), belonging to the SAST methodology, simply start working early in the development process and help detect vulnerabilities even before the build stage is reached. This is in direct contrast with Pen Testing, which can test only fully running applications.
Organizations using SAST solutions basically create a secure Software Development Life Cycle (sSDLC), with testing fully integrated into the developer environment. Most SAST solutions can be integrated into developer IDEs, source repositories, build management servers and bug tracking tools. Security is seamlessly integrated into the development process for almost real-time scanning and analysis.
Also known as White Box Testing, SAST can help analyze both server-side and client-side vulnerabilities with high rates of success (low numbers of False Positives [FP]). Besides the usual web/mobile application code, SAST solutions can be applied to code in also in embedded systems and other locations. This results in a comprehensive security solution that simply trumps the traditional Pen Testing.
Static Analysis vs Pen Testing: 7 Reasons to Pick SAST/SCA
1 – Return of Investment (ROI)
Pen Testing is a tedious process that has to be performed in several cycles to be truly effective as a stand-alone application security solution. Another issue with this strategy, which is not cheap by any means, is that the testing can commence only after the application is up and running. This means that if vulnerabilities are found, schedule delays and release issues have to be dealt with.
Despite Pen Testing being required as a regulation in many sectors, organizations looking to implement it as their primary line-of-defense must consider the financial repercussions and technical problems (i.e – version rollbacks) that may arise. SAST offers better ROI since it kicks in at the beginning of the development stage and catches vulnerabilities early for quick mitigation.
SAST has the upper hand in this category also since it has to be purchased and implemented just once. Pen Testing has to be paid for before every testing cycle making it a costly proposition.
2 – Little To No Manpower Needed
Pen Testing is typically performed by outsourced personnel and this requires organizations to hire employees with security know-how to deal with the findings. Once the Pen Testing reports are ready, the employee starts working to find out where exactly the vulnerabilities are located in the code and then conveys the information to the relevant development teams. This can prove to be a long and tedious task.
With the implementation of SAST solutions, little to no manpower is needed. The application code is scanned automatically with each commit and vulnerabilities are detected early in the product life-cycle. This results in the creation of a secure Software Development Life Cycle (sSDLC), something that also eliminates the need to waste time and resources on dedicated employees and other cumbersome processes.
3 – Faster Remediation Times
SAST solutions are often recommended for organizations seeking quick vulnerability remediation. The main reason behind this is the ability to pin-point the location of the vulnerability and also the recommending of Best Fix Locations, which allow the elimination of multiple flaws with one fix. Pen Testing offers none of these benefits.
Pen Testing can take days and even weeks when large projects are being tested. For example, Pen Testing 20 resource-heavy Web pages typically takes about 3 weeks of work on average. And the problems don’t end there. Developers often have to re-learn the code, a process that can take even longer when new developers are hired by the organization.
With SAST testing results are available almost in real time, with findings accessible even before scanning is completed. This can be extremely crucial while testing large projects with several KLOCs.
4 – Better Accuracy
As explained earlier, Pen Testing is only as effective as the tester and the tools he has at his disposal. Often the vulnerability knowledge base he uses is outdated and incomplete, things that lead to False Negatives (FN) in large numbers, rendering the testing ineffective. The Pen Tester also has no access to the application code, hampering vulnerability visibility.
SAST is a capable security tool that scans the application code effortlessly and provides results even before the scan is completed. Some solutions even offer an open-query functionality to further customize the testing to the organizations specific needs and minimize the appearance of False Positives (FP).
5 – Educational Value for the Developers
SAST has the upper hand in this category since it enables the involvement of all developers in the remediation process. The solution is integrated into the developer environment and allows the exporting of the finding for offline scrutiny/analysis, eventually improving the developer’s expertise in secure coding practices. Pen Testing offers no such added value.
6 – Can Be Integrated Into the Development Process
SAST solutions are considered the best when it comes to integration into the development process. The light-weight and resource-friendly plug-ins sit right into the developers’ IDEs, enabling smooth and effortless vulnerability remediation. In addition to the ROI benefits this allows, the workload on the security staff and the developers is also significantly reduced.
On the other hand, Pen Testing enters the frame only when the application is up and running, a major disadvantage that can lead to delays in the product release or update.
7 – QA Functionality
While Pen Testing is just a bonafide flaw detection tool/service, SAST has the added ability to perform various QA related tasks with its in-depth analysis characteristics. Coding errors such as dead code and logic errors can be found with SAST, things that help eliminate performance bugs and stability issues. This added functionality is basically exclusive to SAST.
Static Analysis vs Pen Testing – Which One is Right For You?
Pen Testing is required as a regulation in many countries, but even this requirement doesn’t necessarily ensure the robustness of the applications as explained earlier in this article.
By implementing SAST in the development stage, the organization can simply avoid being dragged into multiple cycles of Pen Testing and risking delivery delays. The vast majority of the vulnerabilities are already eliminated by the time the build is reached, enabling a smooth release to the market. Securing the application code is the most effective way to develop robust applications.
That being said, Pen Testing is still a capable and useful tool if used in a complimentary capacity. When used in tandem, SAST and Pen Testing are a formidable duo. But when organizations have less time, money or resources, SAST is arguably the most comprehensive and bang-for-the-buck solution in the market today. Only securing the application code can significantly curb cybercrime.
Read more about White Box vs. Black Box testing solutions.