Since the arrival of cloud computing, the security needs of digital businesses have increased significantly. Older access control methods have become obsolete, leaving systems at risk. The complexity and cost of managing legacy, on-premise IAM systems have increased the need to migrate to modern cloud-based IAM architecture. But how should you do so? Let's outline the best practices to make the next-generation IAM easy and avoid a data breach.

What is identity and access management?

Identity and access management (IAM) refers to the tools we use to police access to network resources, both at the perimeter and inside the network edge.

Modern IAM systems handle both the "identity" side of networking (authentication and gateway management) as well as "access" (defining user privileges for each user and how free they are to move laterally within network resources).

The goal of IAM is to enable users to access the resources they require while preventing unauthorized access to the rest of the network. It often functions alongside Zero Trust Network Access policies, ensuring compliance with industry-specific security regulations.

Modern IAM solutions can adapt as network perimeters change, scale to meet new demands, and reduce the threat surface available to cyber attackers when implemented well. However, mistakes can lead to inefficiency, extra costs, and – more worryingly – gaping security vulnerabilities.

Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to implement cloud and hybrid-based IAM that blend convenience and security.

9 identity and access management best practices

IAM best practices

1. Understand project goals

Firstly, it's essential to visualize the endpoint of your IAM project. There are myriad reasons to implement identity and access management.

Customer service teams could be overwhelmed by requests to reset passwords. There could be concerns about potential and existing threats from phishing or internal sabotage, while security audits may have exposed security risks like excessive user permissions.

Assess what mix of resources will fall under your identity solution. Do you rely on cloud-based applications or a blend of bare metal, remote devices, and the cloud?

Understand what problems IAM seeks to solve, and make those solutions the fulcrum of your project strategy.

2. Map the workforce to assign privileges

When embarking on an identity security project, defining who needs access to what resources is vital. Consult HR to build a picture of every role and individual inside the organization and contractors or freelancers who require secure access.

At the same time, establish ongoing relationships between security and HR teams to enable constant revisions to privileges as employees arrive, leave the company, or change their roles.

It may also be necessary to create an inventory of connected apps, databases, and devices to act as a basis for granting privileges. This inventory creation exercise can double up as an audit to catch any legacy equipment or software upgrades before changing any access processes.

3. Create individual profiles and intelligent role definitions

Every individual accessing the network requires a profile detailing their specific privileges. Don't assign rights to contractor companies or departments. Take a granular approach to privileged access management that provides complete information.

However, constantly updating individual access privileges is often unworkable. To make matters easier, create role-based rights and assign those roles to individuals as required. In some cases, role-based access control tools can even give privileges for defined periods – adding flexibility for teams that work across network resources.

4. Adopt Zero Trust Network Access as standard

When assigning privileges, ZTNA is the gold standard access management solution. Under the Zero Trust model, every user is treated as suspicious until provided their access credentials. There are no exceptions, even for executive-level users.

The "principle of least privilege" should govern any lateral movement through the network - meaning that users should only have access to resources that their role requires. Managers should also take care to avoid granting excessive permissions in all cases.

5. Make multi-factor authentication universal

The process of authentication is a core aspect of secure IAM. As a rule, never rely on passwords alone for data security. Integrate a form of multi-factor authentication into user access portals instead.

MFA involves requesting one or more additional credentials before granting access. These credentials could include biometrics, codes sent via SMS or email, or even authentication via social media accounts. Third-party multi or two-factor authentication providers can integrate seamlessly into access management systems, adding an extra layer of protection.

It may also be worthwhile to consider abandoning passwords altogether, and password-free access is increasingly common. If this isn't a viable option, include strong password security practices in your IAM system at every stage.

6. Create centralized network visualization

Robust IAM implementations provide complete visibility for network managers. Managers need the ability to monitor every endpoint and user who connects to the network, alongside activity within the perimeter, including cloud and bare-metal devices.

Visibility is critical in complex organizations with multiple cloud databases or core apps. For instance, a company may need to integrate eCommerce APIs and customer identity and access management (CIAM) systems with corporate accounts and HR. Cloud access management solutions will generally be the right solution in these situations.

Ensure that the centralized IAM system connects every user device, location, and department. Centralization makes real-time user access monitoring more effective and enables smooth onboarding and management of orphaned accounts.

Additionally, be sure to employ single sign on (SSO) practices wherever possible. Users should have a single point of data access using a single set of credentials.

7. Audit orphaned accounts regularly

When employees leave companies, their network identities do not necessarily depart. So-called orphaned accounts can be prime targets for hackers using social engineering techniques.

According to a 2021 Varonis study, approximately 40% of companies in the financial sector had more than 10,000 of these "ghost users." It is essential to track down orphaned accounts when users move on or change roles.

Schedule regular user management audits to ensure that orphaned accounts are neutralized rapidly, and remember to extend this to any contractors or partners who no longer work with the company.

8. Use automation to your advantage

Automation of functions like employee or customer onboarding can radically reduce the cost and labor associated with IAM.

Pre-assigned roles can smoothly integrate new employees into network security protocols, and there is usually no need for security staff to tailor individual access privileges during the onboarding process.

Automate ongoing password management too. For instance, self-service password portals can reduce the workload on security teams while prompting employees to improve their password security.

The same applies to offboarding, where automation can help handle problems regarding orphaned accounts. However, regularly assess automated processes, as roles will need updating to reflect changing circumstances.

9. Build IAM around regulatory compliance

Managing access is a core component of modern cybersecurity standards, and a robust IAM implementation will contribute toward effective compliance.

Access control applies whether you are seeking to satisfy compliance regulations like the EU's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), or the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI-DSS).

Factor compliance into your plans from the beginning, and ensure that sector-specific rules fully cover you. Compliance isn't just a legal issue. It's also an excellent focal point to concentrate project managers and a way to build trust with partners or customers.

The most common identity and access management risks

IAM projects can fail in many ways, and it's crucial to assess core risks before commencing any access management overhaul.

Management buy-in. Executives need to be on board at every stage. Ideally, the process should have an executive champion who can secure funding and staff resources or force through required structural or cultural changes to business processes.

Stakeholder engagement. IAM should never be seen narrowly as a security challenge. It's essential to visualize the process as an enterprise-wide process, considering the needs of different users and departments. Communication is also all-important. Ensure the project's goals are communicated to all key stakeholders and made clear across the organization.

Procurement. Sourcing incorrect technology can stymie an IAM project at the beginning. While it is necessary to rely on the technical expertise of security teams, procurement decisions should take a broader perspective. Integrate expert advice as required, but assess the needs of the business and compare different products before making any decisions.

Scale and strategy. IAM can fail over time as events overtake initially successful implementations. Access management systems need to take scale into account to absorb corporate growth and function with third-party contractors. And they need to be adaptable enough to handle new technology, not fixed in place.

Policies and people. Access management is an ongoing human challenge as much as a technical exercise. It is essential to listen to different departments and individuals regarding their access needs. Are their privileges sufficient? Does IAM compromise its working practices? And it's also vital to create teams to audit access systems to ensure efficiency and security.

Project drift. As with all IT projects, poor management can delay delivery. Generally speaking, it makes sense to divide the project into smaller segments with short timelines and milestones to map progress.