What Is a Pentest Framework? Top 7 Frameworks Explained

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What Is a Pentest Framework? Top 7 Frameworks Explained

A pentest framework, or penetration testing framework, is a standardized set of guidelines and suggested tools for structuring and conducting effective pentests across different networks and security environments.
While it’s certainly possible to construct your own pentest framework that meets the specific security and compliance requirements of your organization, a number of existing methodologies and frameworks can be built upon to make the job easier for you. In fact, it’s generally more effective to use one of these comprehensive and peer-reviewed solutions in order to keep your pentests on track.
Read on to learn more about how pentest frameworks are used, how they’re set up, and some of the top pentest frameworks that are available today.
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Also read: What Is Penetration Testing? Complete Guide & Steps
In simple terms, a pentest framework works by guiding pentesters to the right tools and methodologies to use for a penetration test, depending on the pentest type and the scope of the test they’re planning to run. Once a pentester gets started with the penetration testing and ethical hacking process, they should reference the pentest framework for the tactical categories they should assess during their tests.
Once the pentest is complete, the pentester should continue using the framework to help them further evaluate and report on their findings, especially as they relate to those primary tactical categories. It’s also important to return the environment to its pre-pentest settings.
Pentest frameworks work in slightly different ways, depending on which pentest framework you use, but most follow similar steps that help organizations efficiently and comprehensively move through their pentesting programs.
These are some of the most common steps a pentest framework follows:
Also read: How to Implement a Penetration Testing Program in 10 Steps
The typical pentest framework clearly outlines tactic categories that pentesters should use to evaluate cybersecurity performance on multiple fronts during their penetration testing efforts. Every framework uses its own terminology and approach to tactic categories, but these are some of the most frequently found categories in a pentest framework:
Generally speaking, penetration test frameworks are used to make pentesting efforts more comprehensive and effective. However, pentests are used for a variety of reasons, and pentest frameworks have a few different use cases as well. Here are some of the most common ways penetration test frameworks are used:
Below, you will find some of the most commonly used pentest frameworks and methodologies. It’s important to note that many of the frameworks you see listed here — such as the Open Source Security Testing Methodology Manual (OSSTMM) — started out as simple pentesting frameworks but have since evolved into methodologies upon which other pentesting frameworks have been developed.
Cobalt Strike is a red team command and operations framework that is one of the most popular frameworks for pentesting. The tool includes adversary simulations, incident response guidance, social engineering capabilities, and more. Users have the option to alter Cobalt Strike to their specific needs with the Community Kit repository, and they can further extend its capabilities by using it in combination with Core Impact, the pentesting software offered by Fortra.
Also read: How Cobalt Strike Became a Favorite Tool of Hackers
Metasploit is a collaboratively-designed penetration testing framework that comes from Rapid7 and the open-source community. Some of its most important features include 1,500 exploits, network discovery, MetaModules for tasks like network segmentation testing, automated tests, baseline audits and reports, and manual exploitation and credential brute forcing options. Users can choose between the free, open-source version of Metasploit or Metasploit Pro for additional features.
Also read: Getting Started With the Metasploit Framework: A Pentesting Tutorial
NIST’s Cybersecurity Framework (CSF) is a slightly broader framework option that focuses on standards, best practices, and guidelines for all kinds of cybersecurity risks. The five functions that this framework focuses on are: Identify, Protect, Detect, Respond, and Recover. Because this is a broader framework and comes from the U.S. Department of Commerce, this standardized framework can be used as guidelines for a variety of cybersecurity tests and compliance audits.
The OSSTMM framework from the Institute for Security and Open Methodologies (ISECOME) has moved past basic framework features into a full methodology for security testing and analysis. Among other topics covered in its detailed guide, the Open Source Security Testing Methodology Manual gives users information about how to define and scope a security test, rules of engagement, error handling, and disclosure of results.
The Penetration Testing Execution Standard, or PTES, is another pentesting framework that has evolved into a full methodology. Its main sections cover penetration test communication and rationale, intelligence gathering, threat modeling, vulnerability research, exploitation and post-exploitation, and reporting. The guidelines in the official PTES do not discuss how to conduct a pentest; the team has developed a technical guidelines document to instruct and support in this area. A second, updated version of PTES is currently in the works.
OWASP’s Continuous Penetration Testing Framework is an in-the-works framework that focuses on standards, guidelines, and tools for information security and application security penetration tests. OWASP offers a transparent roadmap to users who are interested in learning more about the release timeline and features of this framework.
TrustedSec’s PenTesters Framework (PTF) is based heavily on the Penetration Testing Execution Standard. It is designed to make installation and packaging more streamlined and is considered highly customizable and configurable. Users can either download PTF with a Linux command or directly through Git.
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Your penetration testing efforts won’t be as successful if you don’t rely on a pentest framework to structure your processes, the tools you use, and the tactical areas you target. It’s important for pentesting procedures to be both repeatable and scalable, especially as your organization and its attack surface grow. Pentest frameworks take the guesswork out of pentesting, allowing you to focus on improving other areas of vulnerability management while still conducting successful tests and research.
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