Networks are always weak at the point of access. When endpoints are poorly secured, attackers can breach defenses and steal data or implant malware. Identity and access management solves this security problem by controlling who has access to apps and data.

This glossary will look at how to design robust access controls. We will see IAM standards, and how access management has become a vital part of data protection regulations. But first, let's introduce some key IAM concepts and system components.

What is IAM?

Identity and access management is a security framework that combines user authentication and privileges management. The goal of IAM is to exclude unauthorized users from network assets.

IAM is not a single solution with one standard implementation. Instead, it is an approach to security that takes into account the architecture and needs of every network.

A solid IAM system guarantees user access to resources employees need. Workers will be able to log on quickly and easily using secure forms of authentication. IT staff can manage privileges across an entire network without accessing specific apps. But attackers will find it much harder to compromise critical assets.

Why is identity and access management important?

Identity and access management solves some of the most urgent network security challenges. Data breaches often result from credential theft and unauthorized network access. Poorly managed user profiles put apps and databases at risk. This may enable attackers to roam freely within network boundaries.

An IAM solution allows companies to guard the network perimeter at a critical point of vulnerability – the sign on stage. Watertight user access systems protect on-premises and cloud deployments. This protection goes well beyond traditional password-based security.

IAM benefits include

Improved security

Passwords are a major security vulnerability, especially when used on their own. Thieves can steal credentials and use them to gain access to sensitive data. Password recovery systems can also be compromised, making the life of cyber-criminals even easier.

IAM solves the password problem in two ways. Firstly, single sign on reduces the threat surface. A single login portal is easier to monitor and secure.

Secondly, IAM backs up SSO with authentication and authorization tools. IAM checks that every sign-on is legitimate. It rectifies employee mistakes and checks for potential threats. User privileges protect critical data, while making it available if needed.

Productivity gains

The other main benefit of IAM is boosted productivity for employees.

SSO reduces the need to manage countless passwords. Employees no longer have to apply for access when they require specific resources. IAM matches roles and access privileges, allowing workers to concentrate on their core tasks.

Controlling user access with IAM simplifies the workload of IT experts. Role-based access controls make it unnecessary to manage profiles individually. Companies can automate the managing of user privileges. This simplifies on-boarding and off-boarding staff.

Overall, IT professionals have more time and more control over network security.

However, it is important to note that IAM can be complex. Common IAM challenges include:

  • Implementing MFA. Employees may become frustrated with poorly designed MFA implementations with too many steps or complex requirements. Companies with a large remote workforce may also struggle to provide all workers with MFA hardware.
  • Covering all endpoints. An IAM system must cover all network entry points. This includes IoT devices and work from home laptops. Provisioning all apps and users can be difficult. However, SSO can solve this problem by bringing all apps under a single secure access process.
  • Managing permissions. Determining appropriate permissions can be difficult. IT teams need to assess the needs of users and roles, and constantly fine-tune privileges to balance security and access.
  • Hybrid cloud deployments. IAM systems may cover both on-premises and cloud assets. Companies may struggle to find a hybrid solution that covers all assets and is compatible with legacy software.

How IAM works

Identity and access management systems come in different forms. However, they usually have two critical functions.

1. Authentication

When users log onto networks remotely or devices are connected, companies need evidence that they are what they claim to be. IAM technology authenticates each access request.

Authentication entails comparing user credentials against a central database. This database generally extends beyond passwords or user names. It can include MFA factors and contextual information about location and devices as well.

2. Authorization

After a user is authenticated, IAM systems must provide them with the right level of access to network resources. Each user must have the right privileges to carry out their duties. But no user should have more freedom than they require.

IAM functions assign permissions to each user. Users can have access to groups of applications but privileged access management can also be more detailed. For instance, users could have access to view data in a CMS. But the IAM system may deny them admin privileges needed to make changes.

In addition to those two key functions, IAM systems have an accounting function. They log user requests and report suspicious activity.

Authentication vs Authorization scheme comparison

IAM technology must also establish visibility of the business user identity database. User profiles must be available for all services and devices, at all times. Without this connection, authenticating and authorizing users is not possible.

IAM components

When we ask the question what is IAM, we are really discussing a group of related technologies. A range of components work together to authenticate and authorize users. Core elements of an IAM framework include:


Single sign on creates a single point of access for all cloud or on-premises resources.

Workers log on with passwords and MFA factors. The IAM system authenticates and authorizes their request. SSO provides access to any resources they require. There is no need to submit credentials for more than one service.


Multi factor authentication strengthens perimeter defenses by adding extra access credentials. MFA factors include:

  • Biometrics such as fingerprint or retinal scans
  • Smart cards distributed across a remote access workforce.
  • One time passwords (OTP) supplied by third party specialists like Google Authenticator. Employees receive a unique code to a personal device or specialist hardware tokens. Codes could arrive via email, SMS - whatever is most convenient for the individual.

In all cases, MFA adds another set of credentials above passwords and user IDs. MFA identification factors are time-limited or unique to the individual. They are therefore much stronger and more difficult to compromise than standard passwords.


Role based access controls allow security teams to provision users with privileges that fit their corporate role.

Role based user provisioning reduces the workload on IT staff, making it easy to change user permissions as they change roles. RBAC automation helps avoid human error when off-boarding employees leaving the organization.

Analytics and risk based authentication

IAM security systems may analyze contextual information and allow real-time permissions management. Risk based authentication (RBA) assesses user activities and assigns each action a risk score. IAM controls deny access if actions are deemed too risky.

Analytic tools capture information about user activities. Activity logs provide valuable information to optimize network protection. They also record evidence to achieve regulatory compliance.

Zero Trust

Zero Trust Network Access (ZTNA) is a security model based around the idea "trust no-one, authenticate everyone." The Zero Trust approach demands that users have minimal privileges inside network boundaries. This makes it a common aspect of IAM planning and architecture.

How to improve security with identity and access management

Managing access is a core security challenge for organizations reliant on remote work and cloud environments. This includes most modern companies.

Smaller organizations can source off-the-shelf IAM solutions that deliver simplified privileges management, MFA, and single sign on. Businesses with more complex network architecture can add analytics and risk based controls. But the core technologies of IAM are available to all companies.

IAM requires planning. For example, companies need to find an IAM solution that suits their workforce. Some workforces will adapt well to biometric MFA. Companies with small user communities will find it easier to manage hardware tokens or smart cards. Other companies will prefer third party authenticators that are well-suited to remote work.

IAM users also need to consider compatibility with existing assets. In some cases, poorly configured IAM systems can open the door to shadow IT. Security teams need the tools to prevent unauthorized application changes. Admin privileges must be tightly rationed and only provisioned to those who require them.

IAM standards

Identity and access management standards guide users when securing their network. Standards are security frameworks that explain how to comply with industry best practices or official regulations. They are a good foundation for implementation and compliance strategies.

Relevant standards to think about include:

  • AAA. AAA is the standard IAM framework. It describes a three-part strategy including authorization, authentication, and accounting (see above).
  • ISO 27001. Created by the International Standards Organization, ISO 27001 deals with creating an information security management system. Part of this process involves controlling access and assigning privileges.
  • NIST SP 800-63, Digital Identity Guidelines. Seeks to provide clear guidance for access management that is applicable to all corporate users.

IAM and compliance regulations

IAM enables companies to show evidence of compliance. Numerous worldwide regulations demand robust data protection. This includes measures that limit user access to confidential data, with significant financial penalties for non-compliant organizations.

In the IAM domain, relevant compliance regulations include:

  • GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation). Created by the European Union. This regulation deals with data security for businesses operating within EU boundaries and IAM is a critical aspect. Companies can achieve compliance by ensuring information is only accessible for authorized users.
  • CCPA (California Consumer Privacy Act). Applies to companies operating in the State of California. This regulation dictates how companies should protect sensitive data, including limiting access to authorized individuals.
  • HIPAA (Health Insurance and Portability Act). Sets out requirements for companies handling private medical records in the USA. Includes detailed requirements for protecting patient data via access management.
  • SOX (Sarbanes-Oxley Act). Regulates financial corporations in the USA. Includes a sub-section on data protection. This explains how companies should secure financial data, including preventing unauthorized access.

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IAM technologies

Identity and access management technologies allow users to meet the standards and regulations described above. Technologies include standard languages and tools that operate across any IAM platform.

  • Security Access Markup Language. SAML is an open source standard for exchanging authorization and authentication information. SAML uses digital signatures to exchange data, and forms a core part of many SSO systems.
  • OpenID Connect. Works on top of the OAuth 2.0 protocol, allowing third-parties to securely access network resources. OpenID Connect adds IT management to OAuth, and is commonly used to build SSO portals.
  • System for Cross-Domain Identity Management. SCIM is a cloud-based standard for exchanging user profiles. It is generally used in privileges management setups, making it possible to share user profiles safely across cloud environments.

The importance of IAM in cloud computing

Several factors make IAM a critical technology for data management in the cloud.

Cloud assets are hard to secure via traditional passwords. Employees require many credentials to access the resources they use. Human error and credential thefts are common causes of external data breaches.

The cloud itself is device agnostic. Remote workers may use unsafe endpoints, putting cloud-hosted applications at risk. Attackers on public wifi could gain access to cloud assets while posing as legitimate users.

Instead of device or location-based security, IAM focuses on user identities. Identity-centered approaches are a much better way to handle cloud computing security risks.

  • Systems assign privileges to roles or users. Under Zero Trust principles, users only have access to assets they need. Nobody can roam freely across cloud platforms and apps.
  • SSO covers complex cloud deployments, bringing all cloud resources together under one access point.

What is the difference between identity management and access management?

As the name identity and access management suggests, identity and access are distinct concepts. It's important to know the difference when implementing IAM.

  • Identity management is the storage of information about user identities. It stores user data in a central database and compares access credentials against this data. If the information matches, identity management systems allow entry to network resources.
  • Access management is the counterpart to identity management. It assigns privileges to legitimate users. Access management tools allow users to run specific apps or platforms, while keeping sensitive resources off-limits.

Control dynamic perimeters with identity and access management

Information security starts with managing access. Companies need to allow access to workloads and operational databases. But they also need to prevent access for individuals who seek to cause harm. Identity and access management makes this balancing act possible.

IAM tools allow organizations to protect hard-to-secure cloud assets. They make it easier to prove compliance with data security regulations. And they simplify network management via tools like SSO. These reasons make implementing IAM a must for most businesses.