Red Team Testing vs. Penetration Testing

As the cost of cyber attacks continues to grow — in 2023, the worldwide cost of cyber attacks reached $8 trillion and, by 2025, the total cost is estimated to hit $10.5 trillion — now is the time to prioritize cybersecurity testing for your organization.

Whether you’ve run one pentest before or have run numerous and are now looking to advance your cybersecurity posture, we’ve got you covered. In this blog post, we’ll discuss the differences between traditional penetration and Red Team testing to see which one is the right fit for your company.


The Core Differences Between Pentesting vs. Red Teaming

1. Goals

Penetration tests have a very different intention than Red Team teaming. 

The goal of a pentest is to find as many security gaps as possible, exploit them, and access each vulnerability’s risk level. 

Red Team testing, in contrast, isn’t about compiling a list of all your company’s weaknesses. A Red Team operation’s goal is to find one way in, exploit it, and then escalate laterally through your system to access the most sensitive data.

2. Attack Vectors

When discussing Red Team vs. pentest differences, it’s imperative to understand the types, tactics, and methodologies each engagement uses.

Since there are six different types of penetration tests, a company will only choose one or two areas of focus per engagement to ensure in-depth results.

For instance, a business may choose to run a social engineering pentest and an external pentest simultaneously. The area of focus is specific, and the pentesters have a narrow scope, allowing them to focus on particular attack vectors.

Red Team engagements are more like a free-for-all. Red Teams usually have complete freedom over the methods and pathways they use to breach your systems. They use whatever means they can to get in: from wireless exploits and application vulnerabilities to physically breaking into your office and stealing confidential data. The only exceptions are the attack vectors you may choose to deny in your agreement.

With this in mind, Red Teams spend extra time in the pre-attack phase of penetration testing and discussing the rules of engagement with your organization, which are the parameters you set for the Red Team operation.

3. Resources

Because Red Team teaming allows simulated attackers more freedom and the scope is broader, these security tests involve more resources.

Red Team operations typically bring in more pentesters and split them into separate teams to carry out different tactics from various angles of your cybersecurity posture. One team may focus on internal network attacks while another on exploiting application vulnerabilities, allowing each team to work independently and simultaneously on their own focused attacks.

4. Time

Since penetration tests are more focused on specific types of engagements with defined scopes, the average pentest lasts 3-6 weeks — depending on the size and complexity of the organization.

Red Teaming goes much more in-depth, with the typical Red Team engagement extending from 3 weeks to several months — depending on the company’s budget.

5. Detection

Remember, the goal of a penetration test is to identify as many weaknesses as possible in a tight timespan. With this in mind, sometimes pentests can be more apparent to your staff than Red Team operations.

For example, during a phishing campaign for a social engineering pentest, an employee may realize they received a suspicious email and flag it.

Red Teamers want a stealthier way in and to remain undetected in the target’s system for as long as possible, gleaning more and more information as they move throughout the company’s network. Because they’re after more sensitive data and have a longer time to acquire it, they work silently in the shadows to avoid being caught.

6. Previous Testing Experience

Companies that have only ever conducted a vulnerability assessment undergo a few focused penetration tests before considering a Red Team operation. These tests are smaller in scope and scale yet will still reveal weaknesses to help harden their cyber security posture.

After they’ve done that, they may want to consider taking it a step further. Red Team testing is for businesses with very advanced cyber security postures who are confident in the defenses they’ve built and want to put their hard work to the test.

7. Cost

Finally, there is a difference in the cost between a Red Team assessment and a traditional penetration test.

Because Red Teaming is more extensive in terms of people, resources, scope, and more, it is often more expensive than traditional pentests.

While the exact cost of penetration tests and Red Team operations vary based on parameters and the vendor you choose, we recommend setting aside at least $30,000 for a penetration test and at least $40,000 for Red Team testing.


What’s Better for You: A Traditional Pentest or a Red Team Operation?

With the 2031 global market of penetration testing set to exceed $5 billion, there has never been a better time to invest in the right pentesting solution.

If you’re weighing the pros and cons of Red Teaming vs. pentesting, here’s what our team of cybersecurity professionals suggest: for organizations who’ve only run one or two pentests in the past, plan a different type of pentest before considering a Red Team engagement. 

If you have completed penetration testing regularly and want the most advanced testing done, then you may be ready for Red Team operations. Explore our Red Team services to get started today.


Topics: penetration testing, Red Team

Latest Posts

Kevin offers three excellent presentations, two are based on his best-selling books. His presentations are akin to technology magic shows that educate and inform while keeping people on the edge of their seats. He offers expert commentary on issues related to information security and increases “security awareness.”

Red Team Testing vs. Penetration Testing

As the cost of cyber attacks continues to grow — in 2023, the worldwide cost of cyber attacks reached $8 trillion and, by 2025, the total cost is esti..

Read more ›

What Is Credential Harvesting and How Do Threat Actors Pull It Off?

Credential harvesting, otherwise known as credential compromising or credential theft, can be a highly devastating cyber threat. It also happens to be..

Read more ›

How Threat Actors Bypass 2FA and What Preventative Steps You Can Take

Two-factor authentication (2FA, or MFA) is a security layer designed to verify the identity of those logging in to accounts. By sending codes to the p..

Read more ›