Identity and Access Management (IAM)

Learn how IAM effectively implements a security layer between users and on-premises or cloud-based servers, applications, and data.

What is Identity and Access Management (IAM)?

Identity and Access Management (IAM) provides companies with tools used for controlling user access to their technical infrastructure. IAM effectively implements a security layer between users and on-premises or cloud-based servers, applications, and data. Each user receives an individual set of permissions based on their specific role. Storing one digital identity per user remains an important goal of IAM management.

Depending on the nature of the company’s business, IAM platform provides either customer identity management (CIAM), employee identity management, or both. In some scenarios, identity management systems also provide a digital identity to applications, cloud-based services, or microservices. The ultimate goal of IAM solutions is providing access to digital assets to certain identities, under specific contexts.

Why is IAM Important?

Obviously, preventing unauthorized access to a company’s technical infrastructure, including applications and data, remains critical. This is especially the case in a modern technology world, where cyberattacks and data privacy breaches are in the news on a regular basis.

The growth of e-commerce has served to exacerbate the problem of cybercrime, and ransomware continues to impact private and public organizations worldwide.

In basic terms, any company that undergoes a customer data breach suffers a significant hit to their reputation. In a competitive business world, this means that consumers will simply take their business somewhere else.

However, organizations in some business sectors, like banking, finance, and insurance, must also deal with regulatory and compliance issues when their technical infrastructure gets hacked. In this environment, robust cloud security  is essential. So, what is IAM?

How Does IAM Work? 

Simply put, IAM is designed to let the right people in (your employees) and keep the wrong people out (threat actors). Every service and asset in the cloud has its own identity that comes with multiple layers of permission, and IAM protects identity boundaries with automated monitoring and remediation built around:  

  • Access management 
  • Role management
  • Identity authentication 
  • Compliance auditing

Least privileged access (LPA) is a key component of the IAM cloud lifecycle approach. It sets the minimum amount of access that a person or machine will need in order to do the job. Solutions leveraging LPA will typically employ automation to tighten or loosen permissions based on the user's role. 

Components of IAM

Any robust IAM platform provides a suite of technologies and tools aimed at governing access to a company's technical assets. This basic functionality includes: 

  • Password management
  • Security policy enforcement
  • Access monitoring, reporting, and alerting
  • Identity management and repositories 
  • Provisioning services

These functionalities may seem like “the basics,” but governing how they are implemented and maintained can very quickly become complicated. A solution that includes the above ensures proper access through identity-based policies, resource-based policies, permission boundaries, service-control policies, and session policies.

Over time, governance of these functionalities will change, as IAM boundaries evolve and security becomes ever tighter. In the end, IAM is an essential piece in any organization’s strategic SecOps approach. 

Major Capabilities of an IAM Solution

Depending on the needs of the company, some vendors provide separate IAM solutions for on-premises and cloud-based environments. Additionally, other IAM technologies exist to meet certain identity management scenarios.

For example, API security provides single sign-on capabilities for mobile and IoT devices accessing a technical infrastructure. This approach makes sense for B2B use cases, as well as cloud and microservices integration.

As mentioned earlier, CIAM supports identity management for customers accessing a company’s ERP, CRM, and other similar systems. Companies already embracing a cloud-based infrastructure need to consider Identity as a Service (IDaaS) for their IAM needs.

Finally, Identity Management and Governance (IMG) supports companies with significant regulatory and compliance needs. This technology leverages an automated approach to identify lifecycle governance. Additionally, risk-based authentication (RBA) analyzes a user’s identity and context to determine a risk score. The system then requires higher-risk requests to use two-factor authentication to gain access.

Benefits of IAM

Successful businesses don’t thrive in a vacuum. Instead, they rely on fostering relationships with customers, clients, vendors, and their own employees. Doing so requires providing access to internal technical systems, either on-premises, in the cloud, or a mix of both. IAM makes this access possible in a secure fashion.

As organizations continue to embrace mobile and IoT, driven by the growth in 5G networking, a robust IAM solution is necessary to support this extended access. Identity access management ensures security and compliance no matter the user’s location, or whether that user is a person, device, or microservice.

Ultimately, implementing an IAM platform helps the company’s technical team work more efficiently. 

Challenges of IAM

Naturally, implementing an identity management platform remains a challenging process for many businesses, as its presence affects a company’s entire security stack. Because of this, network administrators need to be aware of various risks when adopting a new IAM solution.

One challenge is the onboarding of a new employee, contractor, application, or service. It’s critical that the responsible manager or HR person has the rights to provide this initial access. A similar concept applies when access needs to be modified for any reason. Properly delegating this authority is essential.

Note that newer IAM products leverage automation for this purpose, which also helps immeasurably when reducing or removing access rights. It’s an important regulatory compliance issue as well. Dormant accounts with network access are critical security holes that must be patched as soon as possible.

Monitoring trust relationships after granting access is another important challenge when implementing an IAM platform. Analyzing baseline user behavior helps in this regard; it makes it easier to detect when usage anomalies happen.

Any IAM solution must also closely integrate with the single sign-on (SSO) approach used by the organization. The SSO platform must easily provide secure access to a company’s entire suite of applications, including those hosted on-premises or with a cloud provider.  

Finally, the chosen identity management process must seamlessly orchestrate with multiple cloud providers. A multi-cloud infrastructure provides the most challenges to identity and access management, as each cloud provider likely brings their own security approach. Successfully integrating an IAM solution that supports multiple cloud environments helps prevent any critical security risks.

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