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What is Identity and Access Management (IAM)?

A comprehensive guide to the basics of IAM, its benefits, and best practices


Identity and access management (IAM) involves defining and controlling access rights, permissions, and roles that enable authorized users to access systems securely.

At its core, IAM is the most basic form of cybersecurity: Let good people in and keep bad people out. Obviously, it gets more complex from there. But if an organization can’t guard the gates of its IT system, then all other efforts to secure the network from threats and bad actors are pointless.

IAM is an essential strategy within an organization’s overall security efforts to protect the integrity and availability of data and devices from cyberattacks. However, IAM can also be easily forgotten, overlooked, or disregarded by organizations in favor of speed and ease of use once it begins to affect user experience (how many times do we really need to enter a code to authorize ourselves before logging in). Unfortunately, this lapse in prioritizing effective identity and access management has led to a rise in cyberattacks that target this weakness, including the recent ransomware attacks against casinos in which attackers tricked helpdesk team members into thinking they were employees who had lost their logins.

In honor of Identity Management Day, which aims to educate organizations about its importance, this blog will explain what IAM is in more detail, including how it works, basic features and benefits, common types of tools and methodologies used for IAM, best practices for implementing IAM, and its role in improving efforts to achieve Zero Trust.

IAM definition

IAM is a broad term encompassing the various policies, processes, and technologies that allow organizations to control and manage user permissions, user identities, and access rights.

Why is IAM important?

IAM is not just a technical solution but a strategic one that can significantly impact performance and reputation. Here are some of the key reasons why implementing or improving your IAM strategy is critical for cybersecurity and compliance in today’s digital landscape:

IAM for cybersecurity

Data is one of your most valuable assets, and you must diligently safeguard it from unauthorized access, theft, or misuse. IAM helps prevent unauthorized access, data breaches, identity theft, and cyberattacks by ensuring that only authorized users and devices can access what they need in a secure and compliant manner.

IAM can help protect data and systems from unauthorized access, data breaches, identity theft, and cyberattacks by ensuring that users are assigned the correct level of access. IAM can also help enforce strong authentication and authorization policies, monitor and audit user and device activity, and more easily identify and respond to suspicious or anomalous behavior, such as failed login attempts, privilege escalation, or data leakage. By better balancing the tradeoff between upholding security efforts and providing a good user experience, an effective IAM strategy can also enable an organization to give a user both a seamless and secure way to access systems across different devices, platforms, and locations.

[Read also: What is data loss prevention? And why you need a strategy]

Compliance and IAM

Ensuring that only authorized users can access system data is a central challenge of meeting compliance mandates is ensuring that only authorized users can access the right data at the right time.

Staying compliant can be difficult in today’s complex and dynamic IT environments, especially when individual users can have multiple roles, devices, and locations and since sensitive information can be stored across various cloud services, applications, and databases.

IAM can help organizations meet regulatory and legal requirements for data protection, privacy, and security by providing audit trails, reports, and evidence of effective user identity and access management efforts. This ability to collect evidence can help organizations more easily demonstrate compliance, avoid costly fines, and prevent reputational damage.

How does IAM work?

IAM typically uses a general workflow that involves the following:

  • User authentication is the process of matching a user’s digital identity to their personal identity to verify they are who they claim to be. Authentication can be based on something the user knows (like a password), has (like a token or a smart card), or is (like a biometric feature).
  • User authorization is the process of granting or denying access based on identity, role, or privileges, which can include predefined rules, policies, or workflows.
  • User provisioning and de-provisioning is the process of creating, updating, and removing accounts and user access rights on multiple systems. Provisioning can be manual or automated and may also involve approval workflows and auditing.
  • User management is the process of maintaining and monitoring accounts and access rights, including resetting passwords, enforcing policies, revoking access, logging user activity, and reporting on user behavior and compliance.

Basic features of IAM solutions

IAM can include a number of components depending on the specific needs of each organization. Some IAM features and common terms you should know include:

  • Single sign-on (SSO): Allows users to access multiple systems using a single login
  • Multi-factor authentication (MFA): Adds an extra layer of security to user authentication by requiring more than one verification factor, such as a password and a one-time code sent to a user’s phone
  • Role-based access control (RBAC): Assigns access rights based on user roles and responsibilities, such as administrator, manager, or employee job titles
  • Attribute-based access control (ABAC): Assigns access rights to users based on their attributes and the attributes of the resource being accessed, such as location, time, device, or sensitivity
  • Identity lifecycle management: Automates the creation, update, and deletion of user accounts and access rights based on predefined rules, policies, or workflows
  • Self-service: Allows users to manage their own accounts and access rights, such as changing passwords, updating profiles, or requesting access
  • Password management: Helps users create and maintain strong and secure passwords, such as generating random passwords, enforcing password policies, or securely storing passwords
  • Privileged access management (PAM): Controls and monitors the access rights of users who have elevated privileges, such as administrators, executives, or developers, to prevent the misuse, abuse, or compromise of sensitive data
  • User behavior analytics (UBA): Analyzes and learns from user behavior patterns and anomalies, such as login frequency, location, or device, to detect and prevent any potential threats or risks

[Read also: Are cybersecurity analytics missing from your security strategy?]

What are the benefits of identity and access management?

While IAM is certainly important for security and compliance, identity and access management solutions can also provide specific benefits to support other critical business initiatives around improving costs, complexity, and agility:

  • Controlling costs and increasing productivity: Managing configurations and access rights for multiple users can be complex and time-consuming, especially as organizations grow and evolve. IAM can help reduce the administrative costs, risks, and workload burdens often associated with manually managing user accounts and access rights by allowing users to self-serve certain tasks, such as creating, updating, deleting, and resetting passwords, and through the use of automation for other common helpdesk requests, freeing up team resources.
  • Reducing complexity: IAM can help simplify the organization’s IT infrastructure and operations by consolidating and integrating different systems, such as cloud services, apps, databases, and networks, under a unified and centralized IAM framework. By using a centralized and consistent approach to managing user and device lifecycles, provisioning and de-provisioning access, and enforcing policies and rules, IAM enables seamless and more secure user access to and from different devices, platforms, and locations.
  • Enhancing agility: IAM can help organizations gain deeper visibility and understanding of user behavior and activity by providing analytics, alerts, and reports to determine what potential threats or security risks may exist. IAM enables faster and easier remediation, provisioning, management, and governance of user accounts and access rights to address and prevent risks proactively, allowing organizations to quickly adapt to changing security demands.

Types of IAM tools and technologies

IAM systems can involve different types of tools and processes. Some common types of technologies that can comprise a comprehensive IAM strategy include:

  • Access management tools control and monitor user access to systems, such as granting or denying access, enforcing policies and rules, or logging and auditing user activities. Examples of access management tools are SSO, MFA, RBAC, ABAC, or PAM.
  • Federated identity management (FIM) technologies enable users to access systems from different domains or organizations using their existing credentials through a third-party identity provider (IdP), which issues and manages user identities and credentials, including usernames, passwords, tokens, or biometric features. An IdP can be an external service, such as Google or Facebook, or an internal service, such as Active Directory or Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP). An IdP then communicates with a service provider, which is the application or service the user wants to access, using standard protocols like SAML or OAuth. Other related authentication protocol types for FIM include OpenID Connect (OIDC) or Web Services Federation (WS-Fed).
  • Identity and access management solutions offer on-premises or cloud-based services, including Software as a Service (SaaS), Identity as a Service (IDaaS), or Authentication as a Service, for managing digital identities and access rights of users and devices in an organization.
  • Identity governance and administration (IGA) systems define, implement, and enforce the policies and standards for user identity and access management, such as who can access what, when, and how. Examples of identity governance processes include identity lifecycle management, self-service, password management, or UBA.

Top 5 IAM best practices

Starting to address identity access management can feel like a complex and challenging task, but organizations can follow these simplified steps to begin outlining an IAM strategy that best fits their needs:

  1. Define your IAM strategy and goals: Before you start implementing IAM, you should have a clear vision of what you want to achieve, how you will measure success, and what challenges you might face. You should also align your IAM strategy with your business objectives, such as improving customer experience, increasing revenue, or reducing risk.
  2. Assess your current IAM maturity and gaps: Conduct a thorough assessment of your current IAM capabilities, processes, and systems and identify gaps and areas for improvement. Evaluate the risks and opportunities associated with your IAM project and prioritize the most high-priority and urgent needs.
  3. Choose the right IAM solution and partner: Select an IAM solution that meets your specific requirements, such as scalability, flexibility, functionality, and integration. You should also choose an IAM partner with expertise, experience, and resources to help you implement, manage, and optimize your IAM solution.
  4. Implement IAM in phases and with feedback: Consider implementing IAM in a phased and iterative approach, starting with the most essential and high-impact use cases and gradually expanding to more complex and advanced scenarios. You should also collect and analyze feedback from your stakeholders, such as users, managers, and auditors, and use it to improve your IAM solution and processes.
  5. Monitor and optimize your IAM performance and value: Continuously monitor and measure your IAM performance and value using valuable metrics such as user satisfaction, security incidents, compliance audits, and ROI. You should also identify and implement opportunities for optimization and enhancement, such as automation, integration, and innovation.

[Read also: What is security automation?]

Common challenges with IAM for Zero Trust

Zero Trust is a security framework that leverages the principle of least privilege to assume no entity or network can be trusted. By restricting access to only what is necessary, a Zero-Trust model is designed to prevent data breaches, reduce attack surfaces, improve security posture, and enhance visibility and control over endpoint devices and applications.

To effectively implement Zero Trust, organizations need a robust IAM solution that can authenticate and authorize every user and device, enforce granular policies, and monitor and audit activities. For example, Microsoft Entra ID is a commonly used cloud-based IAM platform that offers these capabilities and more, such as single sign-on, multi-factor authentication, conditional access, and identity protection.

While a Zero-Trust security model is considered the best defense against modern cyber threats, it requires every user and device to be identified to verify and authorize each request and transaction continuously. If this visibility cannot be achieved, the resulting approach to Zero Trust can create blind spots for unknown security risks that may potentially impact the organization.

[Watch now: Is Zero Trust the future of security?]

IAM solutions alone are often not enough to achieve a comprehensive Zero-Trust security model. Since IAM platforms rely on data provided by devices and applications to make decisions and apply policies, if the data is outdated, incomplete, or inaccurate, a Zero-Trust model is unable to protect the organization from threats and risks effectively.

Tanium + Microsoft Entra ID: An out-of-the-box Zero Trust solution

How Tanium improves IAM solutions

Tanium’s Converged Endpoint Management (XEM) platform uses a single agent to provide real-time visibility and control over all endpoints in seconds, allowing you to implement Zero Trust in the tools you already use more easily.

By integrating Tanium with Entra ID or other supported IAM solutions, our leading endpoint management technology provides feedback and confirmation on the status and outcome of actions, such as whether a policy was applied, the patch was installed, the configuration was updated, the device was isolated or quarantined, and other necessary insights. You can also use Tanium’s real-time distributed architecture to remediate vulnerabilities at any scale, including enforcing policies, configuring firewalls, and deploying recovery actions, patches, and software updates.

Tanium’s real-time data from endpoints helps organizations make more informed and accurate decisions and policies around granting or denying access, configuring user permissions, and enforcing security requirements – leading to stronger, more resilient defenses against identity-based and other sophisticated cyber threats.

Tanium continues to evolve our XEM platform to deliver unprecedented speed, scale, and visibility with our vision for autonomous endpoint management (AEM).

AEM at Tanium will leverage composite artificial intelligence and machine learning techniques to automate and perform endpoint security tasks across complex and distributed environments. By simplifying endpoint management and security, our goal for AEM is to allow organizations to solve previously unsolvable problems while improving costs, risks, user experience, and productivity. You can see it in action by scheduling a free personalized demo or registering for a Converge World Tour event near you.

Tanium Staff

Tanium’s village of experts co-writes as Tanium Staff, sharing their lens on security, IT operations, and other relevant topics across the business and cybersphere.

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