Request a demo

What is IAM? Identity and Access Management Explained

Shiv Sujir - October 03, 2022

Identity and Access Management (IAM) is a consistent, centralized way to manage user identities. These include user accounts belonging to employees, contractors, or customers, as well as non-human accounts used by services, applications, and APIs.

IAM automates access control to help an organization protect valuable assets and meet compliance requirements—across traditional data centers, cloud environments, edge computing, and containerized architectures.

Technically, IAM provides an infrastructure for managing users and permissions, authenticating users and service accounts, determining what systems or data they are authorized to access, and granting access according to organizational policies. Another important capability is creating an audit trail of access to organizational systems, which is crucial for security and compliance.

What is an IAM Framework?

An IAM Framework includes technologies, tools, processes, policies, and solutions that can help an organization create robust access control systems. The framework is responsible for:

  • Defining which users can access which resources, when, and what level of access they require.
  • Defining IAM users, roles, and attributes, and associating users with one or more roles or attributes.
  • Defining the policies that apply to each role and attribute.
  • Applying policies to users based on their assigned roles and attributes.
  • Managing, monitoring, and controlling the user and access lifecycle, including access requests, changing roles, and managing onboarding, offboarding, and movement between roles.
  • Supporting security teams in the effort to detect and mitigate unauthorized access attempts.

There are several standard models for IAM implementation in enterprises, including the Identity Management Institute’s Authentication, Authorization, and Accounting (AAA) model and the Open Security Architecture (OSA)’s SP-010 model.

Learn more in our detailed guide to IAM framework (coming soon)

IAM Benefits and Challenges

IAM tools are useful for automatically creating, storing, and managing user identities and associated access permissions. Benefits of IAM include:

  • Enhanced user experience—admins can set digital identities and credentials for each user, eliminating the account management burden.
  • Easier password management—IAM prevents issues such as users forgetting passwords, allowing security administrators to enforce safe password practices and authentication.
  • Enhanced security—IAM helps organizations implement security policies across diverse systems, devices, and applications, making it easier to detect security issues.
  • Compliance support—businesses can ensure compliance with government regulations and industry standards governing their data security. IAM helps enforce the requirements of the GDPR, HIPAA, CCPA, and other regulations.

However, identity and access management also involve risks, including:

  • Misconfiguration issues—admins must avoid oversights such as inadequate provisioning, reviewing, and automation. Organizations should implement least-privilege access policies to ensure security.
  • Biometrics—storing and processing biometric data exposes companies to greater risks in a data breach. It is important to keep track of all the biometric data collected and delete redundant data.
  • Cloud security issues—IAM solutions are often cloud-based, making them prone to mismanagement issues. An excess of inactive user accounts and sprawl in administrator accounts present a security challenge.

Auditing helps ensure access permissions stay relevant, with IAM admins deleting or changing user roles when employees leave or change roles.

Learn more in our guides about:

  • User access review (coming soon)
  • User Access Management (coming soon)

IAM Protocols and Technologies

IAM systems support a variety of standards and technologies.

Security Access Markup Language (SAML)

SAML is an XML-based open standard for passing user identities between identity providers and service providers (typically applications). SAML is a user authentication technology providing all the information service providers need to verify user identities. It enables single sign-on (SSO) by authenticating users once and allowing them to access multiple applications. This improves security and allows for a more streamlined user experience.

OpenID Connect (OIDC)

OIDC is an authentication protocol that can verify the identity of a user when accessing an HTTPS endpoint. It relies on an authentication server to obtain basic profile information about end users and shares that information with web, mobile, and JavaScript-based clients.

OIDC is scalable and can be configured to meet enterprise-grade security needs. This authentication protocol is commonly used in consumer applications and native mobile applications.

System for Cross-domain Identity Management (SCIM)

SCIM is an open standard for managing information about user identities. The SCIM standard helps businesses automatically exchange user identity information between cloud-based applications and third-party service providers. Organizations can use SCIM to ensure that data is stored in a consistent way and automatically shared with applications.

Identity Governance and Administration (IGA)

IGA, also known as access governance, is a set of policies, tools, and services for preventing unwanted privileges and enforcing appropriate access to digital resources. It focuses on ensuring users only have access that is absolutely necessary for their roles—known as the principle of least privilege—to protect data privacy and integrity and reduce the risk of cyberattacks.

Identity Management

Identity management is an organizational process that includes identifying and authenticating users who can access an application, system, or network. This is done by associating a user’s permissions with a verified identity.

Identity management includes authenticating users and deciding whether to allow access to specific systems. Identity management is a component of Identity and Access Management (IAM) systems. It works together with user management systems that perform authorization based on established user identities and permissions.

Privileged Access Management (PAM)

PAM reduces the risk of privileged account abuse by improving monitoring and accountability. Instead of blindly trusting people to do the right thing with their privileged accounts, organizations can use PAM to monitor the usage of privileged accounts and detect and respond to violations.

PAM systems manage and monitor the activity of all privileged users, including trusted insiders, third-party vendors, and connected systems, alert about suspicious activity, and allow security teams to rapidly respond to it. They also manage just-in-time access for maintenance of critical systems, ensuring that access is revoked when maintenance is complete.

Learn more in our guides about:

  • Access governance (coming soon)
  • Application Governance (coming soon)
  • User access management policy (coming soon)

IAM Architecture Considerations

The first step to creating an effective IAM architecture is to clarify the goals and use cases of the IAM system. An IAM architecture usually provides separate solutions for company-owned applications and services, SaaS applications outside the corporate environment, and identities that are not affiliated with the organization.

Here are the key considerations for IAM architecture:

  • Current access control structure—this involves mapping out applications, services, components, and other elements, how users interact with the, and the current access control policies.
  • Multiple environments—modern IT organizations are not limited to one data center. Consider how different environments interact—including public cloud resources, SaaS applications, and on-premises applications based on systems like Active Directory.
  • Federation—consider if the organization’s systems require federated access, for example, sharing identities via SAML or OIDC between on-premise and cloud applications.
  • Access control features—multi-factor authentication (MFA), access by employees and third parties, automated provisioning, and required authentication and authorization standards or protocols.

Learn more in our detailed guide to IAM architecture (coming soon)

Core Features of an IAM Solution

On-premise IAM systems

Traditional, on-premises IAM systems provide the following functionality:

  • Identity profiles—ensuring every user, system, or application is associated with a digital ID that contains information about user roles, digital certificates, and more.
  • Identity-based permissions—restricting access based on the permissions assigned to users, typically based on roles or attributes.
  • Authentication—ensuring strong authentication, commonly using MFA.

Cloud-based IAM systems

Cloud-based identity and access management solutions include the same features as above, and in addition:

  • Federated identity management—the cloud is part of a modern organization’s IT infrastructure. An IAM solution must support federation between on-premises and cloud-based resources to support consistent user identities and permissions between the two environments.
  • Cloud service accounts—organizations can maintain accounts with various cloud service providers and use them to launch cloud resources such as virtual machines (VMs) and storage buckets. An IAM system must be able to monitor and control access to these cloud resources.
  • Access to cloud applications—enterprises increasingly use software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications and cloud-hosted applications. An IAM system must be able to manage access to all cloud-based applications used by an organization.

Auditing and compliance

In addition to its core functionality, an IAM system must also support compliance with required standards and regulations. This means enforcing permissions in a way that supports compliance requirements (for example, enforcing separation of duties) and ensuring access control is fully audited and can be presented to external auditors.

IAM Best Practices

Develop a Zero-Trust Approach to Security

Organizations are shifting away from the concept of implicit trust. Implicit trust means that if users have access to the network or log in to a system, they are subsequently trusted to perform operations freely across the network or additional systems. This type of lax access permissions can pose a major risk to organizations because attackers can easily compromise credentials and gain access to valuable applications and data.

A zero-trust security model relies on three core principles:

  • Never trust, always verify
  • Assume breach
  • Apply least-privileged access

IAM tools can support a zero-trust strategy. Build your IAM framework in such a way that every time a user or service account requires access, it is verified using strong authentication. Ensure granular permissions are defined for every user, application, and dataset, and accounts can never access something they were not explicitly allowed to use.

The zero trust approach can help organizations define secure access policies, while IAM solutions help simplify the authentication process to enable access without disrupting existing workflows.

Identify and Secure Valuable Data

Protecting high-value data involves strictly limiting who has access to it. Effectively limiting access requires knowing where the most valuable data resides and teams and applications use it. To identify high-value data assets and their host systems, consider what data poses ‌the biggest potential threat to the organization if compromised or lost.

In modern organizations, many high-value data assets are stored in the cloud, making it critical to implement data protection best practices and tools provided by a cloud provider. Regardless of where data is stored, use IAM access control policies to restrict access and remove access privileges from users or systems that don’t need it for their role.

Avoid Privileged Accounts

The principle of least privilege (PoLP) involves assigning the minimum level of access or permissions that are essential for a user to perform their roles and duties.

Role-based access control (RBAC) or attribute-based access control (ABAC) can be effective in creating granular access controls to assets, reducing both external and internal security risks. Granular access means that a user or service account only has access to the specific applications, operations, and data they actually need.

Granular access is not enough—for privileged accounts, consider granting access for a specific timeframe and then automatically it. These are sometimes referred to as “firefighter accounts” and can be used to enable access for emergency maintenance.

Use Passwordless Login

Passwordless login involves authenticating users without requiring them to enter passwords. This login approach offers several benefits, including seamless user experience, time effectiveness, and higher productivity. It also helps prevent attacks that exploit stolen passwords.

There are several ways to implement passwordless login, including:

  • Email-based—users log in using a unique code sent to an associated email.
  • SMS-based—users log in using a code sent to a phone number.
  • Biometrics-based—users log in with biometric identifiers like fingerprints.
  • Social account—users log in with their social media accounts (i.e., Twitter, Facebook, Google).

Centralized Log Collection

Many IAM solutions automatically generate logs that can be valuable in an organization’s effort to maintain regulatory compliance, audit the usage of corporate assets, and improve its IAM policies.

Many organizations leverage the cloud, and modern data lake architectures, to store logs from across the organization. This can provide easier access to logs in a hybrid environment and enables highly scalable storage at a low cost. IAM logs can be stored in the data lake, making it possible to correlate them with other systems for advanced security analysis.

Regularly Track Access to Corporate Resources

Robust IAM policies control access, but many organizations still over-provision permissions. Admins constantly add new applications and tools to the technology stack, while employees often request access to all tools. Employees might change roles or leave the organization and still retain their previous permissions. This problem is even more severe with third-party contractors.

Limiting access is the core of IAM security, but this requires consistently tracking the access privileges each user needs. The only way to achieve this is with regular audits and dedicated automated tools that can identify permission issues and remediate them.

Identity and Access Management with PathLock

The Pathlock Security Platform builds on existing Role-Based Access Controls (RBAC) to create a security layer based on the context of access, such as time, device, location, IP address, etc. Using Attribute-Based Access Control (ABAC), Pathlock allows you to restrict and/or mask user access to sensitive data at the page and field level inside your ERP applications. This gives security teams the controls they need to not only determine risk but also mitigate it across ERP applications.

Pathlock also allows you to implement layered security controls within your ERP applications. The platform’s ability to mask data at the field level shields sensitive PII data like Social Security Numbers, bank account details, etc. While the Click-to-View feature allows users to view data when needed, it also creates an access log that helps security teams detect suspicious user activity. Additionally, Pathlock enables you to implement in-line authentication challenges to perform sensitive transactions. Moreover, these features also provide a reliable audit trail and enhance compliance.

Schedule a demo with our security experts to find out how Pathlock’s adaptive security enhances data security and compliance within your ERP applications.

Table of contents