Penetration Testing vs Red Teaming

Given the rise of Cybercrime and advancement of tools and techniques in cybersecurity, Organizations must work to continuously test and improve their security programs. There are different security assessments that an organization can employ for this. However, with the limitations on budget and resources, it is essential to understand and choose the one that best suites the organization’s needs.

In the forefront of security testing methods are Penetration Testing and Red Teaming. Both these methods simulate an attack from an adversary, using real world strategies and techniques to discover vulnerabilities in the organization. However, there are key differences between each method and it best to understand their differences and know when one is most appropriate to use over the other:


Penetration tests have different goals than Red Team engagements.

The goal of a Pentest is to find as many vulnerabilities as possible and exploit them through any means possible. Its goal is to find as many ways to compromise the target and assess the risk to the business.

However, Red teams do not try to compile a long list of all your company’s vulnerabilities. A Red Team’s goal is to find a way, even just one way, into your organization and (depending on agreement) access whatever critical data or asset there is to access without getting caught.

A Penetration test helps the organization discover holes in their systems that an attacker can use. A Red Team exercise helps the organization find gaps in their process, people and technology and test how effectively they can respond to a successful attack.


Penetration tests have limited scope while a Red Team, essentially, doesn’t have these limitations.

Penetration tests are usually limited to a specific application, server, environment or to a specific network or range, etc. Limitations may also include testing hours or testing durations.

However, for a Red Team engagement, other than some minor business critical systems (or people), there are generally no limitations to the application or network you can leverage. You are open to compromise a UAT or production server. And you can send your attacks during and off work hours.

Attack Vectors

There are different types of Penetration tests such as Internal, External Network, Application, Wireless, Social Engineering, etc. In each of these, the testers are limited to attacks for that specific context or type of test. For instance, for an application pentest, a test is usually only limited to using web related attack vectors.

However, for a Red Team exercise, its Free-For-All, anything goes. Red Teams usually have complete freedom to use whatever attack or technique they can use to get in. Red Teamers can send in USB sticks, send phishing emails, or physically break into your office to get the necessary access.

The only exception for Red Teams would be attack vectors that you have agreed to deny or exclude from the engagement. Red teams may be designed based on a scenario and thus Tactics, Tools and Techniques may be agreed upon to be limited for that scenario.


There is a major difference in the duration of a Penetration test vs a Red Team exercise.

Penetration tests are usually done between 1-3 weeks depending on the scope and type of test.

However, a Red team can run between 4-8 weeks, sometimes even longer depending on the size of the company and the scenario agreed upon.


And lastly is the significant Cost difference between a Pentest and Red Team.

Because Red Teams requires more time, more effort and expertise, it is understandably more expensive than a regular penetration test.

Overall, Penetration testing and Red Teaming are essential parts of an organization’s security program. Both of them have different goals and bring different value to an organization. However, one is never better than the other; both of them are equally important to improve an organization’s security. They just need to be aligned with the organizations needs and current level of maturity.