What is Identity and Access Management (IAM)?

Access management is an essential part of the modern organization’s security strategy. In this article, we’ll review what Identity and Access Management (IAM or IdAM) is, why it’s important, and how it compares with other access management concepts. You’ll learn about the IAM framework, the benefits and risks of implementing IAM solutions, and implementation best practices. By the end of this IAM guide, you’ll understand what IAM authentication is, the problems IAM can solve, and how companies use IAM technology to strengthen their security posture, improve compliance readiness, and streamline user workflows.

What is Identity and Access Management (IAM)?

Identity and access management (IAM) is a centralized and consistent way to manage user identities (i.e. people, services, and servers), automate access controls, and meet compliance requirements across traditional and containerized environments. One example of an IAM solution is when employees use a VPN to access company resources for remote work.

IAM is part of the solution to ensuring the right people have access to the right resources – particularly across multiple cloud instances. IAM frameworks are essential for managing identities across bare metal, virtual, hybrid cloud, and edge computing environments from a centralized location to help mitigate security or compliance risks.

identity and access management

How does IAM work?

Identity and Access Management systems are designed to perform three key tasks: identify, authenticate, and authorize. Meaning, that only the right persons should have access to computers, hardware, software apps, and any IT resources, or perform specific tasks.

Some core IAM components making up an IAM framework include:

  • A database containing users’ identities and access privileges
  • IAM tools for creating, monitoring, modifying, and deleting access privileges
  • A system for auditing login and access history

With the entry of new users or the changing of roles of existing users, the list of access privileges must be up-to-date all the time. IAM functions usually fall under IT departments or sections that handle cyber security and data management.

Key Benefits of Identity and Access Management Systems

  • Eliminating weak passwords – research shows over 80% of data breaches are caused by stolen, default, or weak passwords. IAM systems enforce best practices in credential management, and can practically eliminate the risk that users will use weak or default passwords. They also ensure users frequently change passwords.
  • Mitigating insider threats – a growing number of breaches are caused by insiders. IAM can limit the damage caused by malicious insiders, by ensuring users only have access to the systems they work with, and cannot escalate privileges without supervision.
  • Advanced tracking of anomalies – modern IAM solutions go beyond simple credential management, and include technologies such as machine learning, artificial intelligence, and risk-based authentication, to identify and block anomalous activity.
  • Multi-factor security – IAM solutions help enterprises progress from two-factor to three-factor authentication, using capabilities like iris scanning, fingerprint sensors, and face recognition.

Risks of IAM

Despite IAM’s myriad benefits, there are still some risks companies should be aware of during and after implementation. Here are some common identity and access management risks to consider when finding and implementing the right IAM solution.

  • Incorrectly defined roles and attributes. IT has a limited view of what access is needed for which user groups, often incorporating too many users into one group unnecessarily. Whether you define permissions by roles or attributes, it’s important to get input from business leaders on what factors should be used to determine access to your access permissions aren’t too broad or you don’t grant too many new access requests.
  • Infrequent audits. IAM technology can make implementing new policies simple, but it’s easy to overlook updating audit practices to align with current access policies. Organizations should schedule regular audits to discover vulnerable attack vectors early, define new automation tasks, and find opportunities to tighten security by removing unnecessary access.
  • Long and complex implementations can easily get derailed. Taking full advantage of IAM technology often involves multiple deployments and reconfigurations, which can easily get off track without a strategy. Most teams need to roll out tools incrementally, but it’s common for teams to lose steam and cut corners throughout implementation. Without incorporating IAM into your overarching security strategy and creating an implementation roadmap, you may inhibit your ability to scale going forward, introduce new security gaps due to rushed deployment, or overlook crucial training your employees need to keep your organization secure.

identity and access management

Why Do You Need Identity and Access Management?

Companies need IAM to provide online security and to increase employee productivity.

  • Security. Traditional security often has one point of failure – the password. If a user’s password is breached – or worse yet, the email address for their password recoveries – your organization becomes vulnerable to attack. IAM services narrow the points of failure and backstop them with tools to catch mistakes when they’re made.
  • Productivity. Once you log on to your main IAM portal, your employee no longer has to worry about having the right password or right access level to perform their duties. Not only does every employee get access to the perfect suite of tools for their job, but their access can also be managed as a group or role instead of individually, reducing the workload on your IT professionals.

The future of IAM

With remote work becoming the norm and mobile device usage at maximum penetration, the domain of identity and access management has greatly expanded. Unsecured networks combined with unprecedented user expectations introduce an influx of new device connections, a flurry of requests for remote access to sensitive information, and the looming threat of phishing and other web-based attacks as users hit rogue sites.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is instrumental in the future of IAM because it can recognize patterns and expand knowledge exponentially – at the same rate as risk.

With continuous authentication, the context of a user is constantly evaluated at every interaction. AI can analyze micro-interactions while considering time, place, and even user movement, calculating at every point the level of potential risk. Next-gen AV software, host-based firewalls, and/or endpoint detection and response (EDR) will continue to evolve and add even more security within an organization.


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