It's been said that to defeat cyber attackers, you must think like them. For most organizations, this seldom is the case; efforts to bolster cybersecurity measures rarely go beyond implementing stronger controls, training employees to be vigilant, and—on occasion—hiring outside firms to assist in security testing efforts. However, for firms intent on staying one step ahead of nefarious actors, penetrating their own network defenses on a regular basis is crucial to maintaining continuously effective security. To this end, Metasploit and Nmap are two popular tools that enable firms to diagnose critical security gaps before they lead to data breaches.
The goal of ethical hacking is to find system and infrastructure vulnerabilities before they are discovered and exploited by cyber attackers. This involves a myriad of security subdisciplines, from social engineering to malware handling and penetration testing (pen testing). Metasploit and Nmap are two tools that fall into the latter category.
Learn the differences between cybersecurity and ethical hacking.
The Metasploit pentesting framework is part of the overarching Metasploit Project, an open source cybersecurity project that aims to provide a public information resource for discovering security vulnerabilities and exploits. Developed in 2003 by security expert H.D. Moore, the tool has since evolved from a Perl-based portable network tool to a Ruby-based platform for developing/testing and utilizing exploit code. Security vendor Rapid7 acquired Metasploit in 2007 and continues to manage and maintain the solution to this day.
With a community of 200,000 users and contributors, Metasploit is widely regarded as the leading pen testing tool on the market. The solution features a database of over 1,300 exploits and 2,000 modules for evading anti-virus solutions and hijacking systems. Though Rapid7 offers paid-for versions of Metasploit in its Pro and Express offerings (with enterprise features such as advanced penetration tests and reporting), its Community and Framework editions are open source and free to download. The Metasploit Framework's source code is openly accessible from GitHub.
Nmap (short for Network Mapper) is a free, open source tool for network exploration (e.g., port scanning) and security auditing. Written by security expert Gordon Lyon in 1997, the solution has remained openly available under the GNU General Public License. *nix, Windows, and Mac OS X versions exist, as well as command-line and GUI versions of the tool.
Security professionals and administrators typically use the tool to scan networks using raw IP packets. This allows users to discover a myriad of details regarding an infrastructure's composition: what hosts are available, application names/versions, operating systems, existing firewalls, and more. Though the core utility is a command-line executable, various GUI implementations are freely available—including the official multi-platform Zenmap.
Side-by-Side Scoring: Metasploit vs. Nmap
1. Capability Set
Both Metasploit and Nmap are highly competent pen testing tools capable of carrying out a broad range of tasks. That said, Nmap is more of a network discovery/mapping and inventory tool, while Metasploit is useful for mounting nefarious payloads to launch attacks against hosts.
2. Ease of Use
Both offerings have their roots in the command line; that being the case, they aren't exactly designed for the technically faint of heart. Metasploit—as a quasi-commercial offering of Rapid7—has been augmented by the vendor with a relatively easy-to-use GUI, while Nmap's various GUIs are usable, but rudimentary at best.
3. Community Support
Both tools command a strong following of community supporters. As mentioned previously, Metasploit was acquired by Rapid7 in 2007 but continues to be publicly maintained. Nmap and its GUI application Zenmap are also under perpetual development by its user community.
4. Release Rate
At the time of this writing, Nmap is currently on version 7.30—its full, illustrious release history is available on the project's website. The current stable release of Metasploit is 4.12, with weekly release notes available from parent company Rapid7.
5. Pricing and Support
A monitoring system won't troubleshoot a configuration error. A configuration test script will.
Both offerings are available as free, open source downloads. Nmap and its GUI application Zenmap are available for download off the nmap.org website, as well as other resources such as the install guide, reference manual, and half of the "Nmap Network Scanning - The Official Nmap Project Guide to Network Discovery and Security Scanning" ebook.
The Metasploit Framework and Community editions are available for download off the Rapid7 website; core source code for the offering is housed on GitHub. Additionally, a plethora of community support resources are freely accessible off the corporate website. Advanced enterprise features and corporate support are also available—at a cost.
6. API and Extensibility
The Metasploit Remote API allows for programmatic execution and triggers for driving both the Metasploit Framework and Metasploit Pro offerings. Similarly, the Nmap Scripting Engine API provides information regarding target hosts such as port states, version detection results, and more. Both offerings are fully extensible, as their code bases are open source.
7. 3rd Party Integrations
Metasploit features an array of plugins that allow it to be integrated with popular solutions such as Nexpose, Nessus, and OpenVAS. Nmap more often finds itself integrated with other products, as its parent organization generates revenue through licensing the technology for embedding within other commercial offerings.
8. Companies that Use It
From IBM to Google, Nmap is in use by individuals and organizations across the globe. Metasploit is also widely used by companies worldwide—Rodale, TriNet, Porter Airlines, and BlackLine, to name a few.
9. Learning Curve
Both solutions require an intermediate degree of technical proficiency to operate; hardly surprising, as pen testing is not an activity for computing novices. However, corporate sponsorship has its perks: an enterprise-friendly GUI certainly makes Metasploit easier to get up to speed with.
10. Security rating
Both Metasploit.com (722/950) and Nmap.org (741/950) fare well when it comes to website perimeter security.
Scoreboard and Summary
When it comes to pen testing, both of these competent tools have a long-standing track record of providing organizations with the critical insights for closing infrastructure and network security gaps. In fact, the two are often used in conjunction with each other—Nmap to discover open ports and services, Metasploit to exploit those findings with malicious payloads/code. As part of an organization's continuous security measures, both of these pen testing tools are indispensable.