What is Identity and Access Management (IAM)?

What is Identity and Access Management (IAM)?
What is Identity and Access Management (IAM)?

IAM (Identity and Access Management) is a framework that manages user access to digital resources. IAM systems assign unique identities to each user, allowing organisations to set customised access permissions. With remote work and cloud computing increasing access complexity, IAM helps protect assets while enabling authorised use.

By authenticating users and only allowing appropriate activities, Identity and Access Management reduces cyber risk from hackers, insider threats, and accidental policy violations.

Implementing robust Identity and Access Management is now a necessity for secure, compliant operations across distributed IT environments. This article explains what IAM is, what it is used for, how IAM works, and why it is necessary today.

What is IAM (Identity and Access Management)?

IAM refers to the processes, technologies and policies used to manage user access to critical IT resources and data. In simple terms, IAM acts as a gatekeeper, validating user identities and controlling who can access what across an organisation's systems.

The core purpose of IAM is to ensure that the right users, whether employees, contractors, partners, etc., have appropriate access to the applications, servers, databases, and other technology assets they require to do their work effectively.

For example, an IAM system grants a marketing manager access to campaign analytics tools but restricts access to HR databases.

Without IAM, organisations have limited visibility and control over user activities. Sensitive resources may be exposed, increasing the risks of data theft and compliance violations. IAM closes these security gaps by standardising authentication protocols, automating access management workflows and applying access controls consistently across hybrid technology environments.

Key Capabilities of IAM:

  • Centralised directory services to store verified user identities and access rights
  • Secure sign-on processes such as Multi-Factor authentication
  • Access restrictions are based on roles, permissions and risk profiles.
  • Auditing trails to monitor user activities
  • Automated provisioning and de-provisioning of access

As workforces become more distributed and dependent on digital resources, robust IAM strategies are crucial for security and operational resilience.

Implemented well, IAM improves individual productivity by facilitating access while also hardening defences against unauthorised activity. It provides the right access to the right users at the right time, optimising security and compliance without limiting business agility.

How Does IAM Work?

Identity Access Management (IAM) solutions allow organisations to securely manage access to critical IT resources such as apps, servers, databases, and networks. IAM works by assigning unique digital identities to every user - whether an employee, contractor, or third party - that interacts with corporate systems.

These digital identities act as authentication credentials that are verified each time a user attempts to access a resource or data. Upon validation, the IAM system then checks the user's predefined permissions and access rules to authorise or restrict what they can see or do.

For example, when a new employee joins an organization, the IAM system provisions a digital identity for them by collecting attributes like their name, job title, department, start date and so on. As part of onboarding, the IAM system automatically assigns access permissions to applications and data repositories required for their role.

When this employee attempts to log in to an ERP platform to enter purchase orders, for example, they are prompted to authenticate using their corporate username and password along with a one-time password sent to their registered mobile.

Upon successful authentication, the IAM system cross-checks the ERP platform's own access control list to confirm if this user is allowed to view, edit or create purchase orders based on their identity-linked permissions.

If access is authorised, they can perform their intended tasks seamlessly. However, attempts to tamper with historical financial entries beyond their access rights would be automatically flagged or blocked by the IAM controls.

Similarly, when an employee is terminated, the deprovisioning mechanisms in the IAM system instantly disable associated accounts and revoke all access instantiated to that digital identity across the IT/security ecosystem.

In this manner, continuous authorisation and context-based access policies enforced through IAM systems ensure tight access management aligned to user identities and risk profiles.

Leading IAM platforms utilise AI and machine learning to detect anomalous activities and adapt authentication prompts or session access rules accordingly.

Robust IAM architectures are crucial for securing modern digital environments while enabling authorised and productivity-focused access across an increasingly distributed and global workforce.

Core Components of IAM

IAM isn't a singular technology but rather an interconnected ecosystem of strategies, policies, processes and components working in harmony to enable security, governance and productivity. The four central pillars supporting comprehensive IAM components include:

Identity Management

The foundation for building holistic IAM lies in establishing digital identities for anything and everything interacting with corporate resources – including human users, devices, services, bots, APIs, etc. Mature identity management capabilities that organisations leverage involve:

  • Centralised Directories:

Authoritative data stores like Microsoft's Active Directory maintain verified identities and associated access metadata in structured directories. These serve as single sources of truth upon which permissions are managed.

  • Identity Provisioning:

When employees join, their identities are instantly created with appropriate access levels aligned to their roles. Similarly, devices and services have identity profiles provisioned during onboarding.

  • Lifecycle Management:

As roles evolve, change status or employees leave, identity attributes and access rights are dynamically modified through automated lifecycle processes. The same lifecycle management applies to offboarding outdated devices or changing service identities.

Streamlined identity administration through provisioning, updates, and de-provisioning allows organisations enhanced visibility and control over their entire user and asset inventory.

Access Control

Once an entity is authenticated, access control policies determine what resources or data it can access based on permissions assigned to that digital identity. Granular access controls are central for minimising risk exposure while still enabling business workflows. These include:

  • Role-Based Access Control (RBAC):

Here, access permissions depend on the user's organisational job role rather than individual discretion. For instance, an intern may get read-only access while senior execs get fuller privileges.

  • Attribute Based Access Control (ABAC):

In ABAC, real-time access decisions consider multiple attributes of the user, resource and current environment context to deliver dynamic, flexible controls aligned to business needs.

  • Risk-Based Authorisation:

To manage high-risk scenarios, accessing sensitive resources may require additional verification of users based on detected variables regarding the access attempt. Adaptive step-up controls minimise exposure.

Authentication and Authorisation

Core mechanisms enabling verified access to resources as per allowed permissions:

  • Authentication: Identifying and validating the identity of the entity requesting access through passwords, tokens, biometrics, etc.
  • Authorisation: Determining specific access rights pre-assigned to a user for particular apps, data and infrastructure as per IAM policies once they are authenticated.

Multi-factor authentication (MFA), single sign-on (SSO), zero trust protocols and other risk-based adaptive controls enhance security.

Identity Governance

Crucial oversight, administration and intelligence elements ensuring unified visibility and control across the identity and access management lifecycle encompass:

  • Audit Trails and Access Reviews: Detailed logging of access attempts, anomalies and high-risk events allows real-time and historical analysis of user behaviours and policy gaps. Regular access reviews evaluate the alignment of resource access to the role.
  • Administration Portals: Unified consoles for administrators to manage directories, access configurations and enforce policies across hybrid environments from a single-pane-of-glass.
  • Identity Analytics: Correlating access patterns, user activities and risk profiles provides intelligence to continually refine policies and controls.

Together, mature implementations of identity management, granular access controls, adaptive authentication protocols and robust governance constitute a comprehensive IAM framework. This balances security, oversight and end-user experience for the fluid digital environments of today.

Importance of Identity and Access Management Solutions

As digital environments grow more complex amid remote work and cloud adoption, identity and access management (IAM) solutions have become indispensable for security and governance.

IAM plays a pivotal role in cybersecurity by enabling organisations to properly authenticate user identities and impose fine-grained controls on access permissions.

Without mature IAM practices, critical resources can be exposed, allowing hackers, insiders and accidents to jeopardise operations and data. According to Verizon's annual Data Breach Index Report, over 80% of breaches involve compromised login credentials.

IAM addresses this leading attack vector through robust multi-factor authentication protocols as well as session management mechanisms that suspect unusual access attempts.

By continually vetting user identities and entitlements before enabling access, IAM proactively stops infiltrations.

Equally importantly, IAM components like privileged access management (PAM) lock down admin and root accounts that offer deeper system controls if hijacked.

Security teams also rely extensively on IAM audit logs to trace policy violations or suspicious behaviours indicative of insider risks. Stopping adversaries from entering digital environments is impossible without the context and forensic visibility IAM provides in all user activities.

Alongside driving core security objectives, IAM has become indispensable for managing compliance obligations across regulated industries like healthcare, finance and energy.

The ability to clearly document user access, apply least privilege controls and demonstrate appropriate protections against threats is central to passing stringent audits and avoiding heavy penalties.

This highlights the importance of identity and access management as a critical component in securing an organisation's digital assets and enabling digital transformation.

In enabling authenticated and controlled access tuned to different user types, IAM solutions also foster workforce productivity across hybrid technology environments. Workers can securely collaborate from anywhere using devices of their choice while minimising dependence on IT teams for access issues.

The business risks and costs associated with unauthorised activities also diminish substantially, given IAM's emphasis on permissions and logging. With robust IAM frameworks serving as the gatekeepers, digital innovations can progress without compromising security or compliance – cementing its indispensability as enterprises digitally transform.

IAM (Identity and Access Management) Benefits

Improved Security

  • Enforces strong authentication - Robust password policies, MFA, biometrics, etc., mitigate external and insider threats by verifying users.
  • Prevents privilege abuse - Fine-grained access controls align permissions to roles, minimising unauthorised data access or changes.
  • Detects anomalies - Algorithms spot unusual user behaviours indicative of account takeover or insider misuse for rapid response.
  • Supports audits - Detailed activity logs help demonstrate appropriate protections are in place during regulatory assessments.
  • Addresses regulations - Applying least privilege and access management principles facilitates compliance with data protection laws.
  • Enables zero trust - Continuously validating user identity and entitlements before granting verified access is central to the zero trust model.

Reduces IT Costs

  • Automating manual identity processes - Self-service workflows for user provisioning, access requests, password resets, and role changes free up IT/security teams from repetitive tasks.
  • Centralising and unifying access controls - Consistent identity and access policies defined once but applied universally across fragmented hybrid environments cut administration and oversight overheads.
  • Reducing dependence on help desks - Out-of-the-box integrations with automated password resets, mobile MFA, and single sign-on (SSO) meaningfully decrease user dependence on support for access issues.
  • Consolidating security tools - All-in-one IAM suites that converge a wide range of access management, authentication and user analytics functionalities help avoid multiple-point products.

Better Productivity and User Experience

  • Permits anytime, anywhere access - Secure remote user productivity from any device.
  • Enables bring your own device (BYOD) - Consistent application access policies spanning corporate and personal devices.
  • Facilitates collaboration - Seamless B2B/B2C access for partners, contractors and customers.
  • Provides single sign-on (SSO) - One set of credentials grants access to all authorised resources.
  • Offers user self-service - Self-service password management and access requests empower employees.

Easily Meet Compliance Requirements

  • Supports audits - Thorough logging of user activities helps demonstrate appropriate access controls to auditors.
  • Addresses regulations - Comprehensive policies on least privilege, access reviews, etc., aid regulatory compliance.
  • Enables controls by category - Tailored access rules can be applied to different classes of confidential data (HIPAA, CUI, etc.)
  • Simplifies enforcement - Automated controls aligned to compliance rules reduce manual policy administration.
  • Provides reporting - User access and activity monitoring reports facilitate compliance oversight.

Mitigates Insider Threats

  • Restricting excessive user permissions - Stringently aligning access permissions to roles based on needs significantly restricts opportunities for insider misuse arising from over-privileged users.
  • Deterring unauthorised activities - The ability to embed continuous user monitoring mechanisms and promptly detect inappropriate entitlement usage or violations deters policy violations or access creep among insiders.
  • Enabling threat detection - Advanced IAM algorithms capable of spotting anomalies in user access patterns facilitate early detection of potential misuse or compromise for threat response teams.
  • Supporting investigations - Complete activity audit trails capturing user actions, violations and administrative measures aid forensic analysis and investigations in case of a confirmed insider-led breach.
  • Swiftly revoking access - IAM capabilities to instantly deactivate user accounts or revoke access permissions based on preset triggers aid rapid containment of suspicious insiders.

These identity access management benefits increase security and savings, lower risk and enhance user convenience, demonstrating why IAM is essential for enterprises undergoing digital transformation.

IAM Risks: What to Watch Out For During Implementation?

Excessive Permissions

  • Avoid overprovisioning permissions beyond what is absolutely necessary for a user's role. Broad access rights increase the risk of insider threats, data breaches, and privilege abuse.
  • Strictly follow least privilege principles and implement granular, role-based access controls. Assign only the minimal permissions needed.
  • Continuously monitor effective permissions to detect excessive rights.

Misconfiguration and Poor Process Automation

  • Manual, ad-hoc processes significantly increase the risk of human error in configuring IAM policies and granting excessive access.
  • Automate provisioning, de-provisioning, and privilege review processes through workflows to reduce risk.
  • Implement tools that continuously monitor for risky misconfigurations like open databases or APIs.
  • Use automated remediation to fix issues immediately.

Privilege Escalation

  • Actively restrict the ability of low-level users to self-assign higher privileges or create policies granting new permissions.
  • Continuously monitor effective user permissions across cloud environments to quickly detect escalation.
  • Protect and limit the use of highly privileged admin accounts. Restrict the ability to assume their far-reaching access.

Multi-Cloud Security

  • Consistently manage identities and their access rights across all cloud environments in your architecture.
  • Maintain visibility into permissions, activity logs, and anomalies across accounts and clouds through central controls.
  • Implement unified IAM controls that seamlessly span hybrid and multi-cloud environments.

Offboarding Employees

  • Upon employee termination, immediately revoke all access permissions and deprovision credentials.
  • Search for and remove any additional privileges associated with secondary roles or cloud identities the user created.
  • Fully automate de-provisioning processes to run upon employee offboarding.
  • Perform audits to confirm no orphaned access remains that the former employee could still utilise.

Implementing a secure, sustainable Identity and access management program requires keeping these risks in mind. The goal is to grant only necessary access to identities, maintain visibility into permissions, automate governance controls and constantly monitor for issues.

What Does a Good IAM Implementation Strategy Look Like?

Implementing a robust IAM solution is essential for businesses looking to improve security posture in today's work environment. A good IAM strategy is holistic, taking into account people, processes, and technology across the organisation.

1. Start by Evaluating the Needs

The first step is thoroughly evaluating identity management needs across the business. Consider the types of identities that need to be managed, such as employees, contractors, partners, customers, devices and more.

Identify applications, data, and other resources that need to be accessed and protected.

The key goal is understanding gaps that exist today around provisioning, authentication, authorisation and governance. This informs the requirements for an IAM solution.

2. Involve Stakeholders

IT security teams cannot implement IAM alone. The strategy should involve stakeholders from HR, legal, compliance, business unit leaders and any other groups involved in onboarding, offboarding and managing access.

Get buy-in across groups on objectives and align on IAM processes. Establish clear ownership and responsibilities.

3. Map User Lifecycles

With stakeholders, map out end-to-end user lifecycles from onboarding to offboarding. Define each step in identity creation, provisioning access, managing permissions, revoking access, and deactivating accounts. Look for opportunities to streamline and automate manual processes that introduce risk.

4. Assess Infrastructure

Review existing infrastructure like directories, databases, provisioning systems, and single sign-on. Determine whether current systems can support improved IAM or if new technology is needed. For many, implementing cloud-based IAM solutions may be the optimal approach.

5. Establish Policies and Processes

Solid policies and processes are the foundation for any IAM program. Define password policies, access review procedures, data classification methods, and protocols for provisioning/deprovisioning. Centralise policy administration and automate enforcement.

6. Implement Multi-Factor Authentication

One of the most impactful controls is implementing multi-factor authentication (MFA) across all users, apps, and resources. MFA adds a critical additional layer of protection beyond just passwords. Prioritise MFA for admins, privileged users, public-facing apps, VPNs, and other high-risk scenarios.

7. Use Role-Based Access Controls

Leverage role-based access controls to manage permissions according to user attributes and job functions rather than individually assigned privileges. This makes scaling IAM easier as new users come on board. Assign only necessary access.

8. Improve Visibility

Full visibility into identities, access, activity, and configurations is key for security teams. Implement capabilities like identity governance tools, access reviews, and privileged access management for oversight of access. Monitor for anomalies and risky events.

9. Address Remote Access

With remote work, it's essential to secure access from outside the corporate network. Use zero trust access controls, enforce MFA for VPNs, implement cloud access security broker (CASB) tools, and validate all endpoints.

10. Continuous Adaptation

View IAM as an evolving, continuous process. Monitor for issues or changes needed. Expand IAM capabilities to additional apps, identities, and infrastructure. Automate and streamline further. Adapt as business needs evolve.

By taking this comprehensive approach, businesses can implement robust Identity and access management solutions that meet their complex security, compliance and productivity needs while enabling secure remote work. The right strategy empowers organisations to manage identities effectively and reduce risk.

IAM Technologies

  • Security Access Markup Language (SAML) - An XML-based open standard that enables single sign-on (SSO) by allowing identity providers to pass authorisation credentials to service providers or other relying parties. SAML enables federated identity management and is critical for implementing SSO across cloud apps and services.
  • Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) - An open, cross-platform protocol used to access, query, and modify internet directories and directory services like Active Directory, enabling authentication and authorisation capabilities. LDAP is commonly used to connect IAM systems to user directories and HR systems of record.
  • OpenID Connect (OIDC) - An authentication protocol built on OAuth 2.0 that allows clients to verify user identities via authentication servers. Enables SSO capabilities across web applications and APIs by allowing relying parties to outsource authentication. Provides decentralisation and scalability advantages over SAML.
  • System for Cross-domain Identity Management (SCIM) - An open standard that enables automating the exchange of user identity information between identity domains and applications. Allows centralised, federated user provisioning and de-provisioning. SCIM is critical for automated identity lifecycle management across cloud apps.
  • Next Generation Access Control (NGAC) - An emerging model that moves beyond traditional role-based access control (RBAC) by using additional attributes like user risk scores, data classifications, and other contextual factors to make dynamic, fine-grained authorisation decisions.

By leveraging these open, standardised protocols and technologies, IAM platforms gain interoperability and the ability to handle critical tasks like SSO, adaptive access control, federated identity management and automated user provisioning across today's heterogeneous IT environments.

Zero Trust and IAM

Identity and access management solutions serve as the critical foundation for enabling a zero-trust architecture. IAM provides the identity verification, precise access controls, and continuous authorisation needed for zero trust's "never trust, always verify" approach.

By leveraging robust IAM solutions, organisations can effectively implement zero-trust principles across their environments.

At the core of zero trust is establishing trust based on validating user identities and devices - which is precisely what IAM systems do best. IAM provides capabilities like strong authentication, single sign-on, multi-factor authentication and identity proofing to verify users are who they claim to be.

Continuous re-evaluation of access is another zero-trust tenet enabled by IAM. Session security capabilities can force re-authentication or restrict suspicious users. Integrations with security tools give visibility into risks that can trigger adaptive controls.

By leveraging Insatsafe's IAM solutions, organisations gain an integrated set of capabilities to support zero trust:

  • Multi-factor authentication ensures users are who they claim to be with additional verification factors.
  • Single sign-on and identity federation simplify access while enabling zero trust across cloud apps.
  • Just-in-time provisioning restricts access to authorised users only when needed.
  • Continuous monitoring capabilities reduce the dwell time of threats.

With Instasafe IAM serving as the identity layer, organisations can take a pragmatic, phased approach to zero trust adoption. Identity and access management solutions provide the flexibility to start with foundational policies and controls and then evolve zero trust maturity over time.

Ending Notes

Identity and access management is important for securing access to data, systems, and other digital resources. IAM encompasses managing digital identities via authentication and authorisation controls.

Key benefits of IAM include ensuring only authorised users have appropriate access, reducing cybersecurity risks, simplifying access with single sign-on, automating provisioning and maintaining regulatory compliance.

The IAM full form encompasses managing user identities via authentication and authorisation while providing detailed access logs and audit trails.

By implementing robust IAM solutions, organisations can effectively govern identities and access to protect their critical digital assets. IAM has become an essential security and productivity enabler for businesses today. After understanding what is IAM, you can make the right choice for your needs.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About IAM

1. What is the difference between identity management and access management?

Identity management focuses on managing digital identities through processes like provisioning user accounts and credentials, managing directories, and handling authentication.

Access management controls the specific authorisations and privileges granted to those verified identities. They work together to govern digital identities.

2. Which IAM tool is the best?

The optimal tool depends on factors like use cases, infrastructure, business size, and maturity level. Choose one tailored to your unique needs.

3. What is a real-world example of a successful IAM strategy?

Identity and access management goals include regulatory compliance, data breach prevention, and user productivity. By determining your objectives, you can prioritise your IAM efforts and focus on the capabilities that will deliver the greatest value.

4. What are the different types of IAM?

The main types of IAM access control models include role-based access control, policy-based access control, attribute-based access control, and adaptive or risk-based access control, where real-time risk factors inform authorisation decisions.

5. Does IAM actually help businesses achieve compliance?

Yes, IAM strengthens compliance in multiple ways - it secures access to regulated data, provides detailed, auditable trails of user activities, automates enforcement of controls like least privilege access, and adheres to strict identity lifecycle management principles required by regulations.