Top Penetration Testing Tools

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The pen testing market is expected to grow at a CAGR of 13.7% between 2022 and 2027. This means there is a growing need for pen testing tools as more organizations appreciate the importance of this exercise. 

Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately depending on how you look at it, pen testing tools have flooded the market. The more tools, the more the options you have at your disposal. But this also means that it will take you some time to find a tool that is good across all fronts -from pricing to performance and every other consideration in between.

The challenge of finding the right pen testing tool becomes even more bothersome for organizations in industries where pen testing the IT infrastructure is mandatory. 

You can always overcome this challenge by starting with the best tools that represent diverse needs. From the best, you can then narrow down to that tool that will do the job for you. This is what we have done. We have used our experience over the years to prepare a list of the best pen testing tools available in the market today, to help you make that decision.

If you're considering outsourcing your pen testing, check out our rating of best penetration testing companies to find a reliable partner.

If you are completely new to pen testing, please start with this definition before going to the tools. 

For the latest on cybersecurity, please check out our industry report.

What is Pen Testing?

Penetration testing, abbreviated as pen testing, is an ethical hacking technique where authorized actors simulate cyberattacks to identify all vulnerabilities in a security system. It involves methods typically utilized by real-life attackers, such as phishing and brute force targeting, to gain access to an IT infrastructure component or sensitive data in a controlled manner.

There are multiple types of pen testing an organization may execute. These types are differentiated on aspects such as the vulnerabilities to be focused on, the section of IT to be attacked, or how secret the pen testing process is.

For instance, based on the section of IT to be attacked, an organization may either carry out a client-side or an internal pen test. 

The client-side pen test focuses on finding vulnerabilities in components used by customers, such as websites and web applications. An internal pen test, on the other hand, exploits vulnerabilities directly from within the organization. It helps to determine whether internal personnel are liable to attacks and if, when an internal attack does occur, the security system is sufficiently bolstered against it. 

Obviously, regardless of type, an organization’s pen testing operation can only be successful when the right pen test tool is adopted. 

Please don't confuse penetration testing with vulnerability scanning. We have previously discussed the differences, please update yourself.

11 Best Pen Testing Tools 

Some pen testing tools are specialized in facilitating certain attack techniques. Others come as more comprehensive solutions for ethical hacking. 

Here are the 11 best pen testing tools to consider:

1. Tenable Nessus

Suitable for: Non-Specialized Vulnerability Scans

Tenable Nessus is an AI-powered vulnerability assessment tool from Tenable that covers over 79,000 common vulnerabilities and exposures (CVEs). It also boasts over 2 million downloads worldwide. 

Top features 

  • Web application scanning, covering vulnerabilities in custom code and third-party application components
  • Customizable network pen testing
  • Threat triaging for prioritized vulnerability management
  • Cloud infrastructure vulnerability scanning in the test environment
  • Pre-built audit templates
  • Vulnerability grouping for easier vulnerability management
  • Infrastructure as Code (IaC) scanning for policy violations
  • Over 1,100 compliance templates, including coverage for HIPAA, PCI DSS, and FDCC.
  • Cross-OS compatibility with Windows, MacOS, Linux, Ubuntu, and CentOS, among others.

Pricing: Nessus is available through two pricing plans; a Nessus Professional plan and a more comprehensive Nessus Expert plan. Users may pay for Advanced Support and a Nessus Fundamentals training course. There is a Nessus Advanced training course available for only Nessus Expert subscribers, and a free trial available for all plans. 

2. Rapid7 InsightVM

Suitable for: Extended Vulnerability Management

Rapid7 InsightVM is a comprehensive cloud and on-premise cybersecurity platform. It offers managed and accelerated threat detection and response (MDR and XDR) capabilities alongside vulnerability management. It is trusted by over 11,000 companies worldwide, including Autodesk, Domino’s, and Discovery.

Top features

  • Network scanning capabilities to discover security risks at endpoints
  • Vulnerability prioritization, where taggable business contexts can be created to determine criticality 
  • Customizable live dashboards with vulnerability, remediation, and asset analytics 
  • Project Sonar for external-facing asset discovery

Pricing: Pricing for Rapid7's InsightVM is determined based on a quote, with a free trial available to users. 

3. Nikto

Suitable for: Web Server Scanning

Nikto is an open-source tool dedicated to web server vulnerability scanning. Supported by Netsparker and designed with over 1,250 servers in mind, Nikto helps with reconnaissance, file discovery, and configuration scans.

It is important to note that Nikto is not a stealth scanning tool, making it a less favorable choice for covert pen testing.  

Top features 

  • Outdated version scanning for over 1,250 servers
  • Version-specific vulnerability coverage for over 270 servers
  • Templates for customizing reports that can be saved in text, XML, HTML, NBE, and CSV formats
  • Mutation techniques to increase file scanning coverage
  • OpenSSL, Perl/NetSSL, and full HTTP proxy support
  • Continuous scanning for new web servers and software in the IT environment
  • Maximum execution time settings, with auto-pause capabilities
  • Comprehensive scan documentation

Pricing: Nikto is available on a free General Public License (GPL).

4. Kali Linux

Suitable for: Portable Pen Testing 

Kali Linux is a Linux-based penetration testing tool that may also be used for security research, computer forensics scanning, and reverse engineering operations. It offers multiple application versions for use with containers, mobile devices, virtual machines, and Advanced RISC Machines (ARMs).

Also read: Containerization vs. Virtualization

Top features 

  • Kali NetHunter, a mobile application for penetration testing using mobile devices
  • Win-KeX, desktop application version  for use with Windows Subsystems for Linux (WSL 2)
  • Compatibility with ARM devices
  • Compatible with Docker, Podman, and LXD
  • Movable using USB 
  • Integration with GoBuster, Ettercap, Hydra, and tens of others
  • Kali Undiscover for covert pen testing

Pricing: Kali Linux is open-source and completely free to use.

5. Nmap

Suitable for: Network Scanning and Mapping

Nmap, abbreviated from Network Mapper, is an open-source pen-testing tool dedicated to network vulnerability scanning and auditing. It is also useful for managing network inventory and updating schedules. In addition, it offers cross-platform compatibility with Linux, Windows, and Mac OS X.

Top features 

  • Comprehensive mapping techniques covering TCP and UDP port scanning, OS detection, and version detection, among others. This comes with the capability to discover beyond IP filters, routers, and firewalls. 
  • Large-scale coverage of networks with hundreds of thousands of devices. 
  • Compatibility with Linux, Windows, OpenBSD, NetBSD, and SunOS, among others. 

Pricing: Nmap is open-source and free to use under the Nmap Public Source License terms. 

6. Cain and Abel

Suitable for: Brute-Force Pen Testing

Cain and Abel is a Windows-based password recovery tool developed by Massimiliano Montoro in 2014. It offers system administrators and penetration testers multitudes of methods to acquire passwords, ranging from eavesdropping techniques to direct brute-force attacks. It also helps to uncover weaknesses in authentication, encryption, and caching mechanisms. 

Top features 

  • Brute-force attack management, through which you may set minimum and maximum password lengths as well as the password character composition
  • Importable Dictionaries to support brute force attacks with a list of commonly used, predetermined passwords
  • Rainbow table attacks for unraveling encrypted hashes 
  • LAN host impersonation and network sniffing through Address Resolution Protocol(ARP) poisoning routing
  • HTTPS certificate forgery for message decryption.

Pricing: Cain and Abel is free to download on Windows devices. 

7. SQLMap

Suitable for: Database Pen Testing

SQLMap is a pen-testing tool dedicated to database vulnerability identification. It was founded by Daniele Bellucci in 2006 and has a major focus on revealing SQL injection flaws.  

Top features

  • Supports MySQL, Oracle, Microsoft SQL Server, IBM DB2, SQLite, Firebird, Sybase, SAP MaxDB, CockroachDB, and Apache Derby, among tens of other database management systems (DBMSs).
  • Offers six SQL injection techniques. These include the boolean-based blind injection, error-based injection, UNION query-based injection, time-based blind injection, stacked queries, and out-of-band injection.
  • Automatic hash format recognition and direct DBMS access through dictionary-based credential hacking
  • Privilege escalation through Metasploit's Meterpreter
  • Download and upload files to DBMS running on MySQL, PostgreSQL, or Microsoft SQL servers

Pricing: SQLMap is free to use and there are also demos available to users.

8. W3AF

Suitable for: Web Application Testing

W3AF is a Python-powered web application scanner that allows you to create a framework for simultaneous web application attack and auditing. It covers over 200 vulnerabilities and offers plugins to extend the framework’s vulnerability discovery. 

Top features

  • Brute-force attack capabilities with 11 different configurable criteria
  • Tens of crawl plugins for URL, form, and resource discovery
  • SQL injection capabilities
  • 10 evasion plugins to avoid IPS detection, great for covert pen testing
  • Output plugins to customize result presentation
  • Auth plugins that permit vulnerability scanning in authorization-protected web applications
  • PHP misconfiguration scanning
  • Graphical and console user interfaces with predefined templates for auditing

Pricing: W3AF isfree to use. Simply download it and start your pentesting exercise. 

9. Hashcat

Suitable for: Managing Hash Cracking

Hashcat is another advanced open-source password recovery tool on our list. With its stable version just recently released in 2022, the password recovery tool covers over 350 different hash types. 

Top features

  • Multi-Hash feature for simultaneous hash cracking
  • Password discovery from standard input (stdin) devices
  • Automatic performance tuning
  • Pause and resume capabilities
  • Benchmarking system
  • In-built thermal monitoring
  • Cross-OS support for MacOS, Linux, and Windows

Pricing: Hashcat is open-source and free to use.

10. Metasploit

Suitable for: Automated Pen Testing and Social Engineering Attacks

Metasploit is an open-source project emerging from Rapid7 that also allows security teams to carry out vulnerability scanning and assessment from one platform. It currently boats over 200,000 users and comes with privilege escalation capabilities to take pen testing further. 

Top features

  • Automation for picking exploit methods, collecting evidence, and reporting
  • People-focused social engineering attacks, which cover exploits like website cloning and USB file masking
  • Credential domino wizard for infrastructure-wide credential testing and access exploitation
  • VPN pivoting and antivirus evasion with Metasploit Pro

Pricing: Metasploit Framework is free to use and can be acquired through an omnibus installer, Kali Linux, and Parrot Linux. However, there is a paid Metasploit Pro version that comes with advanced vulnerability detection, social engineering, and evasion capabilities.

11. Wireshark

Suitable for: Specialized Exploitation of Network Protocols

Wireshark is an open-source network protocol analyzer with stable releases on only Windows and MacOS.

Top features

  • Supports exploitation of hundreds of network protocols
  • Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) scanning
  • Support for Windows, MacOS X, Linux, and FreeBSD, among others
  • Decryption of IPsec, ISAKMP, and Kerberos, among four other protocols
  • Live data ingestion from ethernet, Bluetooth, Frame relay, and USB connections
  • Graphical User Interface (GUI) for visualizing network data, accompanied by display filters and intuitive color coding capabilities 
  • Support for extensive capture file format

Pricing: Wireshark is open-source and free to use. 

Qualities to Consider in a Pen Testing Tool

Choosing one tool from the host of pen testing tools mentioned above ordinarily depends on what the organization needs pen testing for. 

However, there are certain features that are either crucial or come as a plus regardless of pen testing needs. These include:

1. Extensive reporting

A pen test report contains details about all vulnerabilities, misconfigurations, bugs, outdated software, and any other loopholes through which an attacker may gain control of IT systems. Now, although every pen testing tool comes with some form of reporting for the undertaken tests, it is important to choose a tool with extensive reporting capabilities. 

What comprises extensive reporting?

Alongside information on the vulnerabilities discovered, an extensive report contains details about where vulnerabilities were discovered and how they may be exploited.

The reports should also include an executive summary for top-level stakeholders, immediate remediation advice, and recommendations on how to prevent exploitation in the future.

Extensive reports also contain a Common Vulnerability Scoring System (CVSS) score for prioritization. This score takes business impact and specific technical risks into account for proper contextualization.

2. Brute Force Testing capability

A 2020 report by Verizon shows that a whopping 80% of methods used by cyber attackers on web applications involved brute-force attacks. Proofpoint’s 2023 Human Factor report also shows that the number of brute force attacks has risen from an average of 40 million per month in 2022 to over 200 million per month in 2023.

The indication from these stats is that brute force attacks are effective and organizations are facing a massively increasing number of attempts. 

It then becomes important that, when choosing a pen testing tool, you should go for one that offers testing against password recovery vulnerabilities.

3. Compliance Assurance

Choose a pen testing tool that gives assurance about meeting relevant compliance requirements. The word “relevant” is important here. While a pen testing tool may come with comprehensive compliance coverage, it is only effective if it considers a regulatory standard for your specific industry. 

Some of the most popular compliance standards to look out for include HIPAA, PCI-DSS, SOC 2, ISO 27001, SOX, GDPR, and NIST. Compliance will save you painful fines.

4. Integration With CI/CD Processes

Today, organizations see value in adopting continuous improvement strategies in every operational aspect of their business. Pentesting should also be incorporated into this culture.. Choose a pen testing tool that can be integrated with Continuous Integration and Continuous Delivery (CI/CD) processes in the test environment. 

Rather than scanning for vulnerabilities in deployed software, a Continuous pen test, as it is called, may be automatically carried out on every new code written and every new backend component added to the test system. This makes it possible to discover vulnerabilities on new releases before they are delivered to customers or internal staff for use. With this, you essentially reduce the risk of exploitation in the critical production environment. 

Please check this guide for a deep dive into system integration and get the full picture.

How to Get the Best Out of the Penetration Testing Process?

Choosing a superb pen testing tool is only the first step toward security vulnerability detection and management. For eventual success, you need to go the extra step and apply proven best practices to vulnerability discovery operations.  

The most important practices include:

  • Setting clear goals and objectives from the beginning to avoid wastage
  • Hiring external professionals for independent and realistic testing. This should be external service providers that combine manual and automated techniques, and also have a track record of low false positives 
  • Implementing logging for real-time performance monitoring
  • Engaging in root cause analysis for future-proofing against vulnerabilities. 

We also recommend that you adopt top pen testing methodologies for easier and more structured vulnerability discovery operations. These methodologies include:

  • The Open Source Security Testing Methodology Manual (OSSTMM)
  • The Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP)
  • The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) framework, 
  • The Information System Security Assessment Framework (ISSAF), 
  • The Penetration Testing Execution Standard (PTES). 

Finally, as you may have noticed, most pentesting tools are open source and free to use. This is so important especially if your is a small to medium organization with no resources budget for this function. With all the tools here, you must never have an excuse not to embrace pen testing as a crucial part of your security operations. 

This guide looking into the cost of penetration testing gives an overall picture of what it really costs, all important factors taken into account.

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