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The Definitive Guide to Identity and Access Management (IAM)

Everything you need to know about IAM in one place.
Last updated August 12, 2022 9 min read
John Turner, author of Identity and Access Management (IAM) Guide for 2022
Written by Manager, Customer Engineering strongDM
Justin McCarthy
Reviewed by Co-founder / CTO strongDM

Summary: 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 IAM?

Identity and access management (IAM or IdAM) is a framework containing the tools and policies a company uses to verify a user’s identity, authorize controlled access to company resources, and audit user and device access across their IT infrastructure.

Companies use IAM technology to ensure the right people have the right access to the right resources at the right time to complete their work. IAM solutions streamline workflows and make it easy for users to confirm their identities and move seamlessly between applications throughout their work day using a single set of login credentials. These solutions empower organizations with the security capabilities they need to prevent unauthorized users from gaining access to company data and resources.

While today’s IAM tools offer robust security and user management capabilities for modern organizations, most companies have used some form of identity and access management solutions in the past.

History of IAM

History of IAM

The history of identity and access management began as a security concept long before it became relevant to cybersecurity. Many companies limit access to physical offices by requiring security personnel to check employee ID badges or authorize guest access. These companies may also limit what rooms and locations employees or guests are permitted to enter with their IDs. In the world of cybersecurity, IAM represents the digital equivalent of these security procedures.

One example of an early IAM digital solution is a password-protected device, platform, or tool. In the past, users created an account and entered a username and password of their choice to gain full access to the resource they needed. Entering the same username and password is a common way to authenticate a user’s identity. However, for many organizations, this authentication practice wasn’t secure enough to protect company data and resources.

Companies needed more robust identity verification requirements and permissions to only allow access to company resources to the right people at the right time. Many started using tools like Microsoft’s Active Directory (AD) to manage permissions and access to resources across their growing IT infrastructure.

Directories store information about user attributes and access permissions so they can verify a user’s identity before provisioning access to a company resource. But, while directories provide elements of IAM technology, they're often limited in scope and don’t integrate well with modern cloud technologies, third-party tools, and other resources. Meeting increasingly complex compliance mandates and managing data across the entire IT landscape quickly started to require more IT support and resources as their infrastructure continued to grow.

When it comes to identity and access management vs. directories (e.g., Active Directory), IAM is the more robust solution. Some modern IAM solutions offer Identity as a Service (IDaaS), which delivers IAM technology as a cloud-based subscription service hosted by a third party. These types of solutions support IT’s expanding infrastructure while reducing manual workflows for IT teams, verifying user identity more accurately, and providing new ways to manage access for large hybrid workforces.

The IAM Framework

A company’s IAM framework demonstrates how its IAM architecture—including technologies, tools, processes, policies, and solutions—work together to support an overarching IAM strategy.

First, the framework defines which users get access to which resources, when those users need access, and what degree of access they’re granted. The framework defines some of these permissions, starting with the difference between an IAM user vs. a role. A user is placed in one or more user groups, dictated by a role or attributes, to determine which policies apply to their access. An IAM role vs. a policy features a similar distinction; policies apply to a user automatically based on which roles and attributes that user is assigned. These distinctions support the foundation of your company’s IAM framework.

An IAM framework also provides guidelines for how to manage, monitor, and control the user and access lifecycle. This covers requesting access, handling role changes, and managing employee movement in and out of the company. These elements support IT’s policies and procedures for reducing and mitigating external and internal cybersecurity threats.

The Identity Management Institute cites the Authentication, Authorization, and Accounting (AAA) model as the standard framework for IAM technology. The baseline standards for every IAM system are authenticating user identity, authorizing access in line with an identity governance strategy, and accounting for usage through monitoring, activity logging, and maintaining records.

‍Building on the AAA framework, many companies create an IAM framework with a strategy and action plan around these areas:

  1. User identification, verification, and authentication
  2. User and access lifecycle management
  3. Security practices to protect company data and assets
  4. Activity tracking and monitoring
  5. Compliance auditing
  6. Workflow management

Examples of IAM

IAM can help your organization mitigate security risks by ensuring that users are granted access to the resources necessary to perform their work. The intricate steps involved in IAM tools may come off as inherently limiting, but many actually simplify user workflows, improve user experience, and increase productivity across the organization. 

IAM frameworks are fully customizable to organizational priorities, which may differ by industry, company size, or compliance requirements. Here are some IAM examples. 

User Authentication with Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) Tools. After a user signs in using their login credentials, an MFA tool requests a second form of validation to confirm the user’s identity. Some ways MFA tools can authenticate a user are by requesting answers to additional security questions, by generating a one-time password (OTP) on another device, or by using biometrics like fingerprints. Often, MFA tools are used alongside single sign-on (SSO) to authenticate user identity without degrading the user experience. 

Access Provisioning and Deprovisioning. IAM simplifies employee onboarding and offboarding with processes designed to limit or allow access based on employment status and job role. New employees need access quickly to start training and work, so provisioning access automatically based on defined policies can save IT significant time and resources. Former employees who still have access to company resources are a potential security risk; it’s important to deprovision access quickly to maintain a strong security posture. 

User Monitoring to Ensure Appropriate Access. Some IAM tools record how users are working across your IT infrastructure. By tracking user behavior and activity, IT teams can quickly identify abnormal activity and mitigate potential breaches by unauthorized users. Logs also reveal which tools your employees are using and how they are using them, which can help IT fine-tune role-based access control or attribute-based access control policies more accurately and limit unnecessary access.

Importance of IAM

As IT environments continue to expand, enterprise identity access management systems are becoming more and more essential to protect business data and reduce the impact of cyberattacks. Increased cloud usage, more third-party tools, and the popularity of remote work are presenting new challenges to companies—securing the IT perimeter alone isn’t enough. 

Traditional IT systems operate on the concept of implicit trust. With implicit trust, once a user validates their identity by signing on with correct credentials, they’re viewed as a trusted and valid user who can gain instant access to different resources, data, and confidential information. This shows why compromised credentials pose such a significant security risk for organizations: by stealing credentials, an unauthorized user can easily access multiple secured zones based on the real user’s access permissions. Without robust access permissions, an unauthorized user may move freely through the network and cause substantially more damage in a cyberattack.

IAM is critical to help companies strengthen their security postures while reducing the likelihood and impact of cyberattacks. By verifying and authenticating user identity, limiting user access, and monitoring activity, companies can protect their data from both external and internal threats. Thus, it was no surprise when our Year of Access report found that 80% of companies cited Access Management as a critical initiative versus 30% that named Zero Trust.

Benefits of IAM

So why do we need identity and access management? While there are many security strategies your company can use to prevent cyberattacks and secure your company’s data, here are some of the key IAM benefits that make it a smart choice for modern organizations. 

  1. Reduced IT costs. IAM systems make your IT team more efficient by automating manual tasks for employee onboarding, offboarding, and role changes. Plus, SSO tools reduce service tickets and help-desk calls, freeing up IT resources.
  2. Improved employee workflows and productivity. With the right access, employees can use IAM tools to speed up logins, move efficiently between platforms and tools, and reduce help-desk interactions. 
  3. Enhanced security. Defined access management practices ensure that access to sensitive data and proprietary information remains limited—even if an unauthorized user breaches the perimeter.
  4. Means to demonstrate and maintain compliance. IAM systems help show how data is protected and what controls are in place to keep data secure. Organizations often use IAM tools to automate some compliance tasks, making it easier to meet and verify compliance with applicable requirements. Additionally, monitoring and logging activity helps companies strengthen not only their compliance postures but also their security postures as well.

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.

  1. 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 so your access permissions aren’t too broad or you don’t grant too many new access requests.
  2. 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 tasks for automation, and find opportunities to tighten security by removing unnecessary access.
  3. 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.

What is IAM Authentication?

IAM authentication is the process of confirming that the user logging in matches the identity of who they claim to be. Authentication gives your organization additional verification that the user requesting access to company resources is pre-authorized to access those resources.

Here’s an example of how verification, authentication, and authorization work together in an IAM system. When your company hires an employee, you verify an employee’s identity by confirming personal details about them using physical verification items, like a driver’s license and a Social Security card. From there, you often create a badge or employee ID with a photo to provide security personnel with authentication that an employee is who they claim to be. After authenticating their identity, an employee can gain access to their office space.

Similarly, we create digital user accounts and use login credentials to verify identity. However, that’s often not enough to authenticate that the person signing in is who they say they are. Once a user signs on, MFA tools use biometrics or a code sent to a personal device to authenticate or confirm that user’s identity. Once the user’s identity is authenticated, they’re authorized to access resources based on their assigned permissions.

IAM Standards

Since IAM is often implemented to help companies meet compliance requirements, a good IAM system should meet robust standards to ensure accuracy. The standard AAA framework provides a solid foundation, but many additional IT standards have been normalized across IAM tools and platforms that strengthen or enable the AAA framework.

Depending on your industry, specific compliance needs, and overall security strategy, these protocols and standards are commonly used in IAM systems:

  1. OAuth 2.0 protocol enables third-party clients outside your organization to access protected resources through an access token. User-Managed Access (UMA) works alongside OAuth 2.0 to help control and govern resource access by third parties.
  2. Next Generation Access Control (NGAC) or eXtensible Access Control Markup Language (XACML) provide in-depth access control capabilities and policy management to review access requests.
  3. Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML) simplifies web-based SSO for compliance and security with digital signatures instead of passwords.
  4. System for Cross-domain Identity Management (SCIM) shares user attributes across tools and automates access provisioning, particularly in cloud environments.

IAM and Compliance

Meeting complex compliance reporting and audit requirements can be challenging. Often, this common business headache serves as a catalyst for considering IAM systems. Companies implement IAM technology to ensure data security and privacy, but these platforms can also help organizations avoid fines and penalties for delayed or incomplete reporting. 

IAM tools are designed to simplify meeting regulatory compliance requirements through policies and automation that limit and track access to sensitive data across the entire IT infrastructure.

Many regulatory compliance agencies require detailed documentation defining policies and protocols on user verification practices, access management rules, audit schedules, and more. Once policies are defined, automation can help you limit manual actions and successfully abide by the policies you’ve put in place. For instance, you can automate the monitoring and logging of every single interaction with sensitive data for compliance purposes. These practices provide comprehensive reporting that demonstrate policy enforcement and help ensure reporting requirements are completed on time.

IAM vs. AM vs. PAM vs. IGA

IAM is far from the only strategy companies use to improve their security, governance, and compliance practices. There are many ways to reduce security risks through identity authentication and access management and, for some organizations, IAM isn’t the best fit for their needs. 

Some companies don’t need the capabilities IAM provides, and others need capabilities far beyond the core IAM features. Many common IAM tools incorporate capabilities from these access management strategies and subsets without explicitly mentioning them by name.

Here’s how IAM compares to some of the most common alternatives.

IAM vs. AM

IAM combines two elements: Identity Verification and Access Management. That means it offers support with authentication, authorization, user management, and credential storage across your IT infrastructure. However, some companies don’t need robust user management and identity tools to meet their security and compliance requirements, and these companies often adopt a more general Access Management (AM) approach. 

AM tools define access based on a collection of permissions assigned to that employee. Once a user’s identity is authenticated, they're authorized to access certain resources if they have the necessary permissions. An AM system doesn’t provide the same in-depth access management controls that an IAM system does because it doesn’t assign users a trusted digital identity, so it’s a better fit for organizations not subject to many regulatory compliance requirements.

IAM vs. PAM

While AM is a more lightweight version of IAM, Privileged Access Management (PAM) provides additional functionality for a specific set of users within the IAM umbrella. Whereas IAM looks at all users, PAM focuses on privileged users (e.g., admins) that make changes within a network, application, or system that impact a wider set of individuals.

To secure data more thoroughly, PAM uses the principle of least privilege to restrict access and permissions as much as possible while still enabling users to perform their work. For users with access privileges, that means limiting administrative access and change capabilities to ensure data stays as secure as possible. 

There is a lot of overlap between IAM and PAM, and the differences between the two are nuanced. PAM capabilities can make your existing IAM strategy even more powerful, so it’s worth considering for companies with extensive compliance requirements and/or want to enforce granular access controls.

IAM vs. IGA

Identity Governance and Administration (IGA) often complements an IAM and/or PAM strategy to provide additional compliance functionality. 

For example, IAM and PAM technologies provide some monitoring and auditing capabilities, but they don’t always offer the end-to-end visibility companies need to meet complex compliance requirements. With IGA, however, companies can track user access more comprehensively and automate compliance auditing to guarantee security practices are maintained across all users. 

Additionally, with IGA, companies can quickly find identity-related risks, close security gaps, and make sure IAM/PAM is properly implemented across the entire IT infrastructure. This is especially necessary for companies with sprawling IT architectures to monitor and audit access consistently across all environments. 

IAM Best Practices for Implementation

Creating an IAM strategy starts long before implementation. It’s important to use identity and access management best practices throughout your implementation journey because it fundamentally changes your security strategy. These best practices ensure your company’s data stays secure as you further adopt IAM tools and technologies. 

Align IT and Business Needs with a Comprehensive Vision

IAM strategy should align with both IT security needs and overall business goals to guarantee the highest possible return on investment. Creating a vision for what a successful IAM implementation looks like starts with defining the objectives you need to meet. 

Review auditing and compliance needs, access requirements by roles or attributes, and security gaps where IAM solutions can support your organization. Consider how your needs may change in the future and design your IAM practices to support scalability. Once you have a comprehensive vision, create an incremental implementation plan that aligns with your budget and keeps your data secure throughout the implementation process. 

Shift Your Security Methodology and Perspective

Transitioning to an IAM framework involves looking at IT, governance, and compliance in a new way. 

Put identity authentication and a zero-trust security approach at the center of your security initiatives, instead of network security and protecting your security perimeter. This change in mindset may require significant education and training for users and stakeholders throughout the organization. However, shifting this focus early on can help foster buy-in and adoption throughout your implementation.

Similarly, it’s important to clearly illustrate the connection between IT security practices and compliance management. If IT’s focus was previously centered on network security, it may not be clear to users how IAM technology and identity-first security simplify compliance and governance.

Create Policies and Processes Throughout Implementation

IAM policies and protocols don’t work with a “set it and forget it” mindset. At every step of the implementation, encourage IT and business leaders to work together to define each IAM policy, employ automation, and design processes for ongoing use. 

For example, define user roles and attributes before implementation as a starting point to determine access permissions. During and after implementation, review these access controls and refine policies as your teams discover the full capabilities of your tools. Schedule regular audits to review the appropriateness of these policies and adjust accordingly to enhance your security posture.

Don’t wait until IAM is fully implemented to have discussions on policies, processes, and workflows. Start those conversations early and continue exploring the capabilities of your new technology during and after implementation so IAM continues to support your ever-evolving security and compliance needs.

Establish a Centralized System for Improved Visibility

IAM technology is most beneficial when it covers your IT infrastructure from end to end. Centralizing your system helps you manage all identities and access controls from one place, creating a single source of truth and making monitoring data and access across your entire IT infrastructure possible. 

A centralized system can simplify automation and policy management, too. However, you may have to move on from some legacy systems or directories to make centralization a reality. Reducing data silos and combining as many resources into your centralized system as possible should be a primary objective in your IAM strategy. Often, that means restructuring some of your existing IT infrastructure to support centralization.

Design Training to Support Change Management

Every implementation demands a degree of change management. However, introducing new tools and structures with IAM often requires workflow and mindset changes from users at all levels of the organization. Without that support throughout the implementation journey, adoption is a struggle; there’s a chance users will sidestep sanctioned policies with workarounds, thereby introducing or exacerbating security and compliance risks. 

Explaining the reasoning behind your changes isn’t enough. Users need to understand the changes in their workflows and how to effectively use IAM tools long before they’re fully rolled out. Prioritizing security training helps support your implementation, improve adoption, and reduce frustration as your organization shifts to an IAM approach. Continue to offer training as you change processes, use new capabilities, and introduce new tools to help users become willing partners towards achieving your organization’s security and compliance goals.

IAM Concepts to Know

IAM Concepts

As you develop your company’s IAM strategy, here are some key identity and access management concepts you should know:

IdAM - another term for identity and access management, or IAM

Access Management (AM) - defining, assigning, and managing user access permissions to company resources based on roles, attributes, or other context

Digital Identity - a user profile containing verified attributes and credentials used to define permissions, provision/deprovision access, and authenticate a user’s identity

Authentication - the process of verifying that a user requesting access matches the digital identity they claim to be

Authorization - the process of allowing an authenticated user to access a resource

Role-Based Access Control (RBAC) - a method of provisioning or controlling access to resources based on a user’s role in the organization

Attribute-Based Access Control (ABAC) - a method of provisioning or controlling access to resources based on characteristics or attributes assigned to a user, object, action, or environment (e.g., location, device type, etc.)

User Groups - a group of users assigned the same access permissions for a resource based on similar roles or attributes

Active Directory (AD) - a popular on-premises Microsoft directory service that allows administrators to manage permissions for company resources and verify user identities. AD represents an early form of IAM technology

Identity as a Service (IDaaS) - a cloud-based subscription service that provides IAM technology through a third party. IDaaS is an alternative to on-premises solutions like AD

Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) - a tool used to authenticate a user’s digital identity using two or more authentication factors, such as: knowledge (e.g., security questions), possession (e.g., a one-time password (OTP) delivered to a personal device), physical attribute (e.g., biometric authentication), and time or location  patterns that align with a user’s common login habits (e.g., logging on from a certain location during standard work hours)

Biometric Authentication - when a user verifies their identity using a physical attribute like voice recognition, facial recognition, or eye or fingerprint scanning

Single Sign-On (SSO) - a tool used to allow users to log in to multiple IT systems and applications with one set of login credentials

Credentials - a tool for user identification or authentication, like a username and password

Password reset - requesting new credentials when a user has forgotten their current access credentials

Provisioning/Deprovisioning - giving or taking away access to a resource, often during the onboarding or offboarding process

Onboarding/Offboarding - the processes and procedures in provisioning/deprovisioning employee access based on personnel changes

Identity lifecycle management - processes and procedures designed to manage evolving digital user identities and access needs while employed with the company

Zero Trust - a security approach that requires all users to be authenticated and authorized continuously to enforce access control

Privileged Access Management (PAM) - a subset of IAM that defines and controls who or what can make changes to a network, device, or system

Identity Governance and Administration (IGA) - a subset of IAM that manages governance and compliance needs through automation and improved visibility across IT resources

Enterprise IAM Solution

Many enterprises have extensive IT architectures, including multi-cloud environments, hundreds of disparate third-party SaaS applications, directories, servers, and legacy software. Using disconnected IAM tools can present even more challenges for these organizations. That’s why a comprehensive and centralized IAM solution is essential to support enterprise-wide security and compliance objectives.

Managing disparate tools adds more complexity to an already complex IT environment. With so many resources to manage and users to maintain identities for, enterprises need a powerful IAM platform that delivers automation, visibility, monitoring, and access control at scale. A centralized solution can eliminate the gaps common in sprawling IT infrastructures and provide comprehensive visibility across the enterprise, making security and compliance management easier than ever before.

With the right support, an enterprise-wide IAM solution streamlines security and compliance management, allowing companies to secure their data with confidence and focus on meeting strategic objectives.

IAM Use Cases

Companies are using IAM solutions to go far beyond maintaining compliance and avoiding security breaches. IAM helps organizations reach new heights and create even more powerful systems that support their day-to-day operations. 

For example, Better.com used IAM technology to make their Zero Trust approach a reality. Rather than manually provisioning access to resources across 41 databases for 124 users, the company leveraged a centralized IAM solution to automate, log, and audit all access requests. This improved Better.com’s incident response time, had a powerful impact on its proactive data loss prevention strategy, and helped the company enforce strict SOC 2 and ISO 27001 compliance standards. 

Meanwhile, Hearst leveraged IAM tools to automate highly manual onboarding and offboarding processes that now take only 60 seconds. Streamlined, efficient workflows for provisioning access make supporting new employees easy and convenient without compromising security. Plus, it eliminated the headaches associated with deprovisioning access when employees left or shifted roles.

These identity and access management use cases are just a couple of examples of what’s possible with an enterprise IAM solution like strongDM’s Infrastructure Access Platform.

Make IAM Easy with strongDM

Security and compliance concerns consume a ton of time, money, and resources from enterprises every year. Often, these initiatives need so much attention that they can stymie an organization’s ability to set more ambitious operations goals. As organizations continue evolving, they need security and compliance tools that can scale rapidly, enhance productivity, and support new technologies, tools, and platforms for hybrid and remote workforces. 

strongDM makes IAM easy for any organization. Its Infrastructure Access Platform manages access for all users, with authentication, authorization, networking, and observability, all built right into a single control plane.

Want to learn more? Get a free no BS demo of strongDM.


About the Author

, Manager, Customer Engineering, is passionate about helping customers connect to the infrastructure they need to do their jobs, bringing 15+ years of experience in IT environments to his current focus on Infrastructure Automation and Security. He works in multiple cloud environments including AWS, GCP, Azure, and IBM Cloud and stays up to date on various automation tools such as Terraform and Ansible. To contact John, visit his YouTube channel.

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