How Identity and Access Management (IAM) secures your cloud

Cloud Identity and Access Management

The cloud is an essential space to build business platforms, host apps, and store data. While cloud platforms provide massive scalability and flexibility, they also introduce significant security challenges. With sensitive data and critical systems now hosted outside the organizational perimeter in public clouds, strong access controls are essential to protect these valuable assets. 

Identity and Access Management (IAM) acts as the gatekeeper for the cloud, determining who can access resources and what they are authorized to do. With cloud IAM on board, companies can enjoy the many benefits of cloud computing, while minimizing cyberattack risks.

Key takeaways

  • IAM acts as a gatekeeper for the cloud, authenticating users and authorizing access to resources according to assigned roles and permissions. This protects cloud assets from unauthorized access.

  • Effective IAM implements strong authentication like multi-factor authentication and utilizes role-based access controls to grant users least privilege access.

  • Centralized IAM provides visibility and management of identities across multiple cloud environments and applications.

  • IAM simplifies administration while ensuring user productivity through single sign-on and just-in-time access provisioning based on tasks.

  • Implementing best practices like Zero Trust, access reviews, and logging/monitoring delivers security and compliance benefits while reducing cloud risks and complexity.

What is cloud IAM?

IAM authenticates access requests and allows access for users with the correct privileges. In cloud settings, IAM enhances security by controlling access to cloud resources.

Only authenticated users can pass through a IAM portal. Users without the proper credentials remain outside the perimeter, unable to gain access.

IAM is a critical security control to safeguard cloud resources. Security teams using Cloud IAM can monitor access requests to detect suspicious activity. IAM provides visibility across cloud resources from a central location. It simplifies cloud setups, enabling the implementation of single security policies across multiple cloud providers.

IAM tools reside in the cloud, close to the resources they protect. Companies do not need to distribute access software. This makes cloud identity and access management a streamlined solution for remote working. With IAM, users can connect to the resources they need, wherever they are.

Cloud IAM components

Implementing a comprehensive Identity and Access Management strategy in the cloud involves having the right set of tools and technologies in place. There are several core components, including authentication factors, that make up an effective cloud IAM system:

  • Authentication is a key element and involves technologies like multi-factor authentication (MFA) to verify user identities beyond just a username and password

  • Single Sign-On (SSO) allows users to access multiple cloud-based applications and services with one set of login credentials

  • Authorization services make use of role-based access controls (RBAC) and access policies to govern what cloud resources particular users and roles are permitted to access

  • Directory services like Active Directory act as the central user store, while audit and reporting features provide visibility into access events and the ability to generate compliance reports

  • User lifecycle management capabilities are essential to automate processes for user provisioning, access certification, and off-boarding when users leave the organization

Having all of these IAM components working in an integrated fashion helps ensure cloud environments remain secure and compliant.

The key components of a cloud IAM system can be divided into two main security processes—authentication of cloud identity and access management authorization. Authentication verifies user identities through technologies like multi-factor authentication. Authorization then governs the specific cloud resources and services individual users can access via role-based access controls and policies.

How does IAM help to secure the cloud?

Cloud identity and access management performs a range of security functions to protect cloud assets through authentication and authorization processes:


Authentication is the process of requesting user credentials and ensuring they are legitimate. Cloud IAM systems compare credentials submitted by users with centralized databases. If the information provided matches, the IAM system provides access to cloud resources.

Most IAM systems include multi-factor authentication. This requests multiple credentials from each user. Requests are usually only made via a Single Sign-On portal to simplify access processes.


Authorization determines the cloud resources available to each user. Cloud identity and access management assigns user privileges or role-based access controls. These privileges ensure that users only have access to the resources they need and nothing more.

Benefits of using cloud IAM

Authentication and privilege-based authorization have many benefits. However, cloud identity and access management goes further than these core features. Implementing IAM in the cloud will deliver many advantages for SaaS or IaaS users, including:

1. Easy-to-manage centralized access control

Companies may use different cloud providers in a multi-cloud environment. Each cloud provider has distinct access management processes and security features. Cloud computing environments can change rapidly as new apps come online or user communities change.

In this context, it is easy to lose track of user privileges and general access management. Cloud IAM solves this problem. Security teams can manage access centrally and bring together diverse cloud assets. With IAM, enforcing unified security policies is much easier without risking human error.

2. Granular control over user privileges

Cloud IAM makes it possible to assign precise access privileges to every legitimate user. Users receive a cloud identity featuring appropriate access to carry out their duties. But they are not free to roam cloud resources. Every asset is protected from unauthorized access on-premises.

IAM also guards against privileges creep. Over time, user privileges can expand without managers knowing. IAM policies ensure privileges closely match user and general business requirements at all times.

3. Robust data breach protection

Data protection is a critical benefit of Cloud IAM. Nowadays, the cloud handles vast volumes of transactions and confidential data. It hosts sensitive business resources and collaboration tools. All of these assets require protection against external attackers.

User access control is the foundation of cloud data protection. Authentication processes block attackers without credentials. If attackers gain access, privileges management limits their reach. Without IAM, simple password theft could compromise a company’s entire cloud setup.

4. Improved regulatory compliance

Cloud identity and access management is an effective part of cybersecurity compliance strategies. IAM tools are part of industry best practices in securing cloud resources. And they also feature audit functions that make proving compliance easier.

IAM systems log access requests and user permissions. They track the removal of accounts and any delegations made by admin staff. This information is automated and ready to use in compliance tasks.

Common cloud IAM challenges

Users implementing IAM in the cloud can encounter challenges along the way. These challenges do not generally prevent the addition of IAM. However, they must be considered when making digital transitions or renewing your cloud security infrastructure.

1. Combining SSO and IAM

SSO provides cloud identity access management and a unified login service for all network users. Most cloud-using companies also use SSO to connect workers with cloud assets. However, SSO and IAM tools do not always interact seamlessly.

A single user may have multiple roles and use different cloud workloads. For instance, they may be a member of several business teams. Each team has access to different workloads, and each workload has specific access control requirements.

2. Managing multi-cloud setups

Businesses often use multiple cloud providers such as AWS, Microsoft Entra ID (Azure AD), and Google Cloud. However, no cloud platform is the same. Internal policies and security tools vary. This presents challenges when imposing a centralized IAM solution.

3. Determining the extent of permissions

How much access should each user enjoy? How can you grant access to carry out core duties without creating unnecessary security risks?

Creating cloud IAM user identities is a juggling act. Users lacking sufficient access will struggle to work productively. But over-permissioning expands the attack surface and leaves cloud assets exposed to attackers.

Companies need to accurately determine the needs of each user. Automation tools can help by monitoring user behavior and assessing their requirements. But fine-tuning user permissions is an ongoing task.

4. Rapidly changing cloud environments

The cloud is always in flux. Containers are spun up and down from one week to the next. Company staff installs apps chaotically for short-term requirements. Code changes made via unregulated Shadow IT instantly alter the security context.

Managers have to understand their cloud environment before assigning relevant permissions. And this knowledge changes constantly. Achieving this awareness is difficult without centralized visibility tools and strong cloud security architecture.

When do you need IAM for the cloud?

The simple answer is: whenever companies host critical apps and data on the cloud. On a practical level, IAM solves many real-world security issues. Relevant use cases include:

  • Creating a secure Amazon Web Services platform – AWS comes with an integrated IAM system. This system allows users to set per-account identities governing access to AWS-hosted resources. Users can access multiple AWS accounts via Single Sign On, and admins can easily assign permissions to groups if desired.

  • Separating development, testing, and management – Companies can use Cloud IAM to separate workgroups. Admins can create access groups for software developers and testers that reflect their distinct business roles. Managers or admins might have a separate group with additional permissions.

  • Protecting confidential data on cloud platforms – Protecting data at rest is mainly the responsibility of cloud users. An IAM access control policy is, therefore, essential. With proper access controls,  outsiders will not have access to cloud containers and databases, reducing the risk of data breaches.

What tools & policies are needed to implement IAM for the cloud?

Cloud IAM setups vary according to each company’s cloud deployment. However, IAM configurations have components in common. Core tools and policies include:

  • MFA/2FA: Multifactor authentication or two-factor authentication demand more than one sign-in credential from each user. Users may employ specialist equipment to generate login keys. Some authentication portals use biometrics, while others rely on One-Time Expiry (OTP) passwords.

  • SSO: Cloud IAM brings every cloud resource under a single access portal. Wherever they are, users can access the assets they rely on via a single login tool.

  • Profile management software: Admins require centralized tools to manage users. Centralized tools also log access requests and create audit trails for compliance purposes. AI tools may also monitor user activity to assist with permissions management.

Cloud IAM best practices & implementation strategy

Effective identity and access management in the cloud demands implementing strong controls around how users authenticate and what privileges they are granted. Key strategies include role-based access management, just-in-time provisioning, multifactor authentication, access reviews, and comprehensive logging.

Role-based access control (RBAC)

RBAC is a critical practice that involves defining roles based on job functions or departments. Specific permissions needed to complete tasks are then assigned to each role. For example, a sales role may only need access to CRM systems while an IT administrator role has controls to monitor infrastructure. When employees switch functions, their access can be quickly aligned by changing their assigned role instead of permissions one by one.

Zero Trust

As a best practice, IAM systems on the cloud should enforce the “principle of least privilege”. Each user should only have access to the resources they require and be blocked from every other cloud asset. A Zero Trust approach assumes all users are potential threats and verifies them at each access request instead of relying on network location.

Just-in-time access provisioning 

Automates issuing credentials to users temporarily as needed. For instance, a user may automatically receive permissions for 10 minutes to upload files to a storage bucket when initiating that action. Their access is revoked immediately after so they cannot access the bucket at other times. This reduces the usable lifespan of any compromised credentials.

Multi-factor authentication (MFA)

MFA strengthens authentication by requiring a second form of verification beyond a password, such as one-time codes sent to a mobile device or using a security key. Biometric methods provide increased security for high-risk accounts. Adaptive MFA utilizes risk assessments of users' devices, locations, and activity history to determine if additional verification steps are needed based on the context of login attempts. When combined with adaptive features, MFA delivers flexible, risk-based security tailored for each individual user.

Access reviews

Access reviews are important for privileged accounts. Admin roles require permissions to change code and settings. Give selected accounts secure permissions aligned to duties. However, ensure privileged access has robust protection, such as quarterly audits. Less critical accounts undergo annual reviews or audits when roles change. Automated reports identify dormant credentials for removal. Regular reviews prevent risks from unnecessary accumulated access over time.

Centralized management & monitoring 

Identity management is best controlled centrally. Centralization enables effective security policy management by providing a unified view of all identity activity across cloud environments and applications. Authentication anomalies and policy changes are continuously tracked. Many cloud IAM systems automate management tasks, cutting the workload involved. Powerful querying and alerts help security teams quickly identify and contain suspicious events or policy violations.

Protect your assets with a cloud IAM system

Identity and Access Management is a critical part of securing cloud resources. As a result, establishing a comprehensive approach to IAM is integral for securing cloud environments and maximizing the benefits of cloud adoption. By centrally managing authentication, enforcing least privilege access, and gaining visibility into user activity, organizations can dramatically reduce their security risks. 

IAM also simplifies administration while ensuring users maintain productivity. While implementation does require effort, the ROI from improved protection of data, applications, and infrastructure makes cloud IAM a critical investment. With the right mix of technical tools and process best practices, any organization can safely and confidently harness the power of the cloud through effective cloud-based identity governance.

IAM makes life easy for the people who matter while complicating the task of malicious attackers. Explore IAM solutions tailored to your needs by contacting Nordlayer today.

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