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Hardware Vulnerability Assessment vs. Penetration Testing

Key Takeaways

  • A comparison of vulnerability assessment vs. penetration testing 

  • How vulnerabilities may occur in your electronic systems

  • Understand the different types of hardware penetration testing

Vulnerability assessment vs. penetration testing graphic

Vulnerability assessment and penetration testing both play a critical role in ensuring hardware safety

All systems have their vulnerabilities – both hardware and software. As a designer, if you are not aware of these vulnerabilities, you may end up making the wrong design decisions, such as a mismatched component or incorrect implementation of an API. This may cause your design to fail prematurely or result in a time-consuming and expensive effort to debug and fix. For this reason, it is important to make informed decisions during the design process to eliminate as many vulnerabilities as possible. This can be accomplished through a variety of methods, including both vulnerability assessment and penetration testing. In general, utilizing both of these methods ensures all your bases are covered. 

Let’s compare vulnerability assessment vs. penetration testing and discuss how both can be used to catch and fix issues in your design. 

Vulnerability Assessment vs. Penetration Testing

Vulnerability assessment and penetration testing are most often used in the software IT world, but they are also applicable to hardware.

  • A vulnerability assessment is used to identify security weaknesses in a software network, system, or hardware. Once a weakness is identified, the engineer can take the appropriate steps to fix it. This method detects and categorizes vulnerabilities in a system and uses more automated general tools. It is important to note that vulnerability assessments may miss critical vulnerabilities unique to the system; however, this method takes less time and money than penetration testing. 

  • Penetration testing is an intentional, simulated attack against a system in search of vulnerabilities. This method tests the efficacy of security controls, allowing engineers to draw specific insights about the system through manual interventions. Errors and weaknesses unique to the system may be detected. This method takes more time and money than a vulnerability assessment. 

These methods differ in their breadth, depth, level of automation, and required degree of skill. Vulnerability assessments are wider, often attempting to find as many weaknesses as possible. Penetration tests simulate a specific attack on a system to examine the environment, exploit specific flaws, and test defenses. 

Breaking Down the Difference Between Vulnerability Assessment vs. Penetration Testing


Imagine a vulnerability assessment as a thief testing the basic security of all the houses in the neighborhood and a penetration test as a skilled burglar implementing a full-scale break-in into a single house.

Although more common for software, vulnerability assessments may use a set of preconfigured automated tools, the same across many platforms. A penetration test requires more manual configurations, allowing it to go further into the system to uncover specific weaknesses.

Security breach graphic

Vulnerability Assessment

As a designer, it is important to be aware of the vulnerabilities in your hardware system that may arise and alter your design accordingly.

  • Differing components have different temperature limits, meaning that two different manufacturers may have different temperature limits for the same component. For this reason, depending on your intended application, consider choosing between component vendors to pick the part that results in the least functional variation to the circuit for the given operating environment. 

  • Some sensitive components can be damaged by electrostatic discharge. Although this can be controlled to an extent by parts selection, ensuring components are spaced properly and handled correctly is essential.

  • An additional vulnerability to how components are handled is moisture sensitivity level (MSL). Components that are mishandled at any point of the production process can be exposed to high moisture levels, resulting in potential expansion during the assembly process.

  • A PCB assembler may mishandle components, resulting in the wrong components being shipped or loaded onto a board. To mitigate these risks, working with a high-quality PCB manufacturer with strong QA abilities is useful. 

  • There is a risk of non-compliant components being used when regular components become unavailable. For this reason, working with solid industry contacts with reputable component vendors helps eliminate the risk of counterfeit components being used.

  • Finally, whe using incorrect PCB component footprints, PCB pad terminals and component footprints may be mismatched. This may result in components not soldering correctly to the board, resulting in broken solder joints over time. Ensuring that the PCB library parts you use for your design are correct for the associated components is critical. 

A vulnerability assessment aims to test a board's resilience to these aforementioned factors. Running the board through an automated process where it is exposed to fluctuating temperatures and changing humidities within the desired operating range allows engineers to gain insight into its abilities. Choosing parts that best fit the operating environment in addition to proper handling can help mitigate many of the vulnerability issues a board may have.  Without proper vulnerability assessment, your board may experience circuit failures, manufacturability problems, and a shortened manufacturing lifecycle. 

Hardware Penetration Testing

There are three approaches to penetration testing on hardware systems.

  1. The first approach involves an external penetration test or “black box” penetration test. Once permission is granted, the “hacker” starts from outside the system and simulates an attack from an unknown threat vector. This may involve using vulnerabilities in specific ICs or microcontrollers used to acquire sensitive information that may inhibit the functioning of the hardware device. 
  2. The second approach is an internal penetration test. The hacker starts from inside the system with privileged knowledge. The hacker has classified information and replicates an insidious attack, focusing more on how control of the system is seized rather than a specific point of entry.
  3. The final “gray hat” approach is a hybrid hardware penetration test. The hacker emulates an attack that has breached the system with an insider threat. This test aims to help engineers understand the level and extent a user could gain access to control the system and cause damage. 

If you have any concerns relating to vulnerability assessment or penetration testing, Cadence’s set of PCB design and analysis software empowers teams with a variety of options to ensure design integrity and security against evolving threats.  Leading electronics providers rely on Cadence products to optimize power, space, and energy needs for a wide variety of market applications. 

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