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Summary: As more enterprises migrate to the cloud, access management and security has grown more complex. Cloud infrastructure entitlement management (CIEM) solutions emerged to address these challenges. In this article, we’ll take a broad look at what CIEM is, how it works, why it’s important, and how it differs from and works with other cloud management solutions.
What Is Cloud Infrastructure Entitlement Management (CIEM)?
Cloud Infrastructure Entitlement Management (CIEM, pronounced “kim”), also called Cloud Identity Governance (CIG), is a category of specialized software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions that automate the detection, analysis, and mitigation of cloud infrastructure access risk across hybrid and multi-cloud environments.
CIEM systematically manages and protects access rights and permissions within the cloud by applying the principle of least privilege (PoLP) to cloud entitlements. Entitlements determine what permissions a cloud identity (e.g., human users, connected devices, or artificial intelligence that has access to the cloud on behalf of a human) has within the cloud network. An entitlement sets the boundaries on what tasks a cloud identity can perform and which resources it can access on an organization’s cloud infrastructure.
CIEM delivers four key functions: visibility of entitlements, rightsizing of cloud permissions, advanced analytics, and compliance automation. CIEM is part of a robust modern cloud security strategy that is delivered alongside other distinct solutions like Cloud Security Posture Management (CSPM) and Cloud Access Service Brokers (CASBs).
Brief History of CIEM
The term CIEM was initially coined and described in 2020 by Gartner in its Hype Cycle for Cloud Security research. The report is a collection of documents outlining the state of cloud computing, emerging risks in security, and how organizations can improve their security posture as they migrate to the cloud.
CIEM security is an emerging market sector of solutions that bridge the gap between existing infrastructure as a service (IaaS) cybersecurity practices and the increasingly complex challenges of new and hybrid cloud environments. Gartner maps out how security professionals can leverage CIEM alongside traditional infrastructure access management (IAM) strategies to identify and prioritize access control risks and achieve efficient identify-first security management in dynamic cloud environments.
Why is CIEM Important?
Cybersecurity is a growing concern around the world, as bad actors increasingly target supply chains and exploit vulnerabilities in security perimeters. These threats pose additional risks at a time when many organizations are migrating to digital and cloud-first infrastructure.
By 2025, 85% of organizations will implement a cloud-first strategy, and 95% of new digital workloads will be deployed on cloud-native platforms—a 30% increase from 2021.
Securing infrastructure in a cloud-first world
While cloud computing offers many advantages to businesses and employees alike—including enabling remote work, greater agility, and increased efficiencies—it also adds greater complexity to the computing environment, introducing new security challenges.
Traditional, on-premises computing relied on physical network security perimeters and firewalls for protection. But those methods don’t work in cloud environments, and existing IAM solutions don’t have the granular visibility needed to secure cloud resources at scale.
By 2024, organizations running cloud infrastructure services will suffer a minimum of 2,300 violations of least-privilege policies per account annually.
That’s where CIEM comes in. CIEM helps address the challenges and shortcomings of traditional IAM solutions in a newly cloud-first economy.
Benefits of CIEM
CIEM fills the gap in organizations’ cloud security, ensuring access is managed consistently and appropriately across all resources. Below are just a few benefits of adopting a CIEM solution. These benefits allow organizations to confidently secure their cloud environment at scale without worrying about access point vulnerabilities falling through the cracks.
Continuous, granular visibility
Cloud environments allow on-demand scalability—but this also creates complex security challenges. As the risk landscape expands, security teams need solutions that can bridge the gap in visibility across multiple, complex cloud environments.
CIEM provides continuous, granular visibility into an organization’s cloud infrastructure and the permissions and activity within the environment. This enables teams to see who is accessing what resources and when.
Consistent, centralized security policy enforcement
Organizations typically use a patchwork of cloud services to address various business needs. This creates a challenge for security teams because each provider has its own policies and capabilities—leading to inconsistent security across the cloud environment. Manually identifying and addressing these security gaps is a huge task for security teams—and an increasingly large drain on resources as organizations work to scale their cloud capabilities.
CIEM solutions centralize and automate this effort so teams can consistently and efficiently apply best practice security policies and enforce least privilege access across all their cloud platforms. CIEM can automatically monitor and detect targeted events like malicious user activities, compromised accounts, and stolen access keys, so vulnerabilities don’t go unaddressed.
Migrating workloads to the cloud takes a lot of time and effort, so many teams will apply broader permissions than necessary to save time—rather than provisioning individual resources based on specific access requirements. This results in excessive permissions and unnecessary entitlements that put cloud security at risk.
CIEM solutions eliminate this cloud permissions gap by identifying over-provisioned entitlements and notifying teams when users have the wrong permissions.
CIEM ensures entitlement security through continuous monitoring, alerts, and remediation. By automating and consolidating an entitlement management system across cloud platforms, security teams can ensure their environment is audit-ready and compliant.
How CIEM Works
CIEM operates using machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) to automate monitoring, detection, and remediation efforts across cloud environments. CIEM solutions collect information about resource usage and send it to a security information and event management (SIEM) platform. The SIEM aggregates the data with other information from syslog servers, source code repositories, and application performance management tools into a searchable database that is then stored on the CIEM.
When changes occur, the CIEM solution automatically detects them and alerts the administrator to take action as needed. The data collection, correlation, and monitoring all happen behind the scenes automatically. This frees up administrative resources and ensures continuous compliance and risk management.
A good CIEM solution should include the following features and characteristics:
- Account and entitlements discovery
CIEM should provide comprehensive discovery of every identity, resource, and activity within the environment. This includes continuous event-based discovery, identification of identity types, and analysis of all access policies.
- Cross-cloud entitlements correlation
A key advantage of CIEM is that it correlates accounts and entitlements across multi-cloud environments into one unified platform. Instead of manually implementing access controls and security policies for each cloud, CIEM brings all the information and governance under one umbrella.
- Robust visualizations
Multi-cloud environments are complex and continually changing as resources are provisioned and de-provisioned for just-in-time service. A good CIEM solution maps entitlements across dynamic visuals for an improved understanding of the access landscape.
- Entitlements management, optimization, detection, protection, and remediation
CIEM enables organizations to monitor and leverage usage and entitlement data in real time to optimize permissions, detect high-risk changes, and mitigate threats.
Additionally, a CIEM solution should have an easy-to-use dashboard and module for access provisioning and control. It should integrate seamlessly with top cloud providers to ensure successful implementation.
Limitations of CIEM
CIEM is still a relatively new market in cloud security which means the technology is not yet fully mature. Many solutions are not designed holistically but rather piecemeal to address specific gaps in products managing access and identity governance. Additionally, CIEM solutions are a significant upfront investment in money and resources as teams onboard the solution and learn how it works. Because CIEM is built for complex cloud environments, implementing the solution can be overwhelming without the right support.
Despite these initial limitations, CIEM is rapidly becoming a best practice cloud security strategy. And for good reason. When done right, CIEM replaces and improves on manual interventions and patchwork security solutions. The result is a streamlined, centralized access management tool that enables teams to automatically and continuously right-size their permissions across dynamic, multi-cloud environments without disruption.
CIEM vs. CSPM vs. SIEM vs. PAM vs. IAM vs. CASB
So how does CIEM fit in with and compare to other cloud security and access management solutions? CIEM works with some cloud management solutions while enhancing and replacing others. Here’s a quick breakdown.
CIEM vs. CSPM
CIEM is designed to monitor and address access and entitlement risks. Cloud security posture management (CSPM) focuses on monitoring and mitigating security risks due to misconfiguration. Each solution addresses a distinct security need, working together to minimize vulnerabilities across the cloud landscape. Effectively securing a cloud environment requires both solutions.
CIEM vs. SIEM
Security information and event management (SIEM) combines security information management (SIM) with security event management (SEM) into one security management system. SIM is the collection and storage of log files (also referred to as log management) for later analysis, while SEM identifies, gathers, evaluates, correlates, and monitors system events and alerts. The information stored is analyzed to uncover threats and risks to the system, alerting the IT team for further investigation.
The purpose of SIEM is to aggregate event and log data from multiple sources such as applications, host systems, and security devices throughout an organization’s infrastructure into one centralized platform. The SIEM solution then analyzes security data and prioritizes security alerts, delivering threat detection, investigation, and response capabilities.
While SIEM is a powerful digital security tool, it doesn’t address access management risks. CIEM is the next step in cloud security to manage permissions and entitlements using zero trust access and PoLP strategies. It works with SIEM technology to deliver comprehensive security and monitoring functionality across dynamic cloud environments.
CIEM vs. PAM
Privileged access management (PAM) is an information security approach that encompasses the policies and technologies an enterprise uses to control, monitor, and secure elevated access to critical resources. The main focus of PAM solutions is to ensure users have secure access to privileged accounts.
However, while some modern PAM solutions manage cloud identities and coarse-grained entitlements, they aren’t capable of providing granular insight, analyzing permissions, or understanding large numbers of configurations in scaled-up, complex cloud environments. This is where CIEM solutions bridge the gap—providing the visibility, oversight, governance, and compliance needed to ensure comprehensive entitlement management and granular access control.
CIEM vs. IAM
Identity and Access Management (IAM) is the framework of processes, policies, and technologies for managing user identity and access to critical information. IAM systems include two-factor authentication, single sign-on, multi-factor authentication, and PAM. However, traditional IAM solutions were designed for static self-hosted or on-premises infrastructure.
While cloud IAM solutions exist, they are limited in their application across a multi-cloud environment. Each provider has its own policies, and mapping those permissions across different platforms at scale creates gaps in security and visibility. CIEM fills this access management gap as a cloud-native solution to enforce IAM policies and implement least-privileged access.
CIEM vs. CASB
Cloud access security brokers (CASBs) are proxy-based security solutions designed to secure data flow between the organization and its cloud vendor. CASBs consolidate multiple security enforcement policies such as authentication, authorization, and encryption. Its four main functions are visibility, compliance, data security, and threat protection.
However, while CASBs allow admins to see threats when cloud apps are in use, they are limited in their scope and lack broader visibility across the entire SaaS and IaaS architecture. Because CASBs are siloed solutions, they fail to offer comprehensive cloud security management. CIEM addresses these gaps by providing unified coverage of the entire infrastructure.
How to Choose the Right CIEM Solution
CIEM is a new but growing market. Vendor solutions will vary widely in capabilities, so it’s important to evaluate options carefully.
Look for a CIEM solution with:
- A user-friendly interface
- Comprehensive visibility
- Robust attack detection
- Remediation and mitigation capabilities
As CIEM technology is still relatively new, look for a solution that includes reliable cloud support and implementation guidance to ensure a smooth transition and integration with your current architecture and security stack. The best vendors should already have experience migrating and provisioning security solutions for the cloud. Choose a platform that specializes in integrating cloud security solutions for leading-edge expertise.
How StrongDM Can Help You with CIEM
The cloud offers critical advantages to organizations in today’s digital-first world, but it makes legacy solutions and traditional perimeters obsolete. Gaps in identity and access security are a top threat to cloud environments—and significantly hinder organizations’ scalability and agility.
Even with modern cloud management solutions, like IAM and PAM, organizations have insufficient visibility and granular control across different environments. That’s why organizations need robust entitlement management software that unifies and implements these strategies from one centralized platform.
StrongDM simplifies CIEM so you can deliver seamless identity-first cloud security.
Its access management platform makes it easy to implement your CIEM solution to deliver just-in-time access, with authentication, authorization, networking, and observability, all from a single control plane.
Want to learn more? Get a free, no-BS demo of StrongDM.
About the Author
Andrew Magnusson, Director, Global Customer Engineering, has worked in the information security industry for 20 years on tasks ranging from firewall administration to network security monitoring. His obsession with getting people access to answers led him to publish Practical Vulnerability Management with No Starch Press in 2020. He holds a B.A. in Philosophy from Clark University, an M.A. in Philosophy from the University of Connecticut, and an M.S. in Information Management from the University of Washington. To contact Andy, visit him on LinkedIn.