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What Is Identity and Access Management (IAM)?

IAM stands for Identity and Access Management. It refers to a framework of technologies, policies and processes that IT groups use to manage user identities and control and grant access rights to their organization’s network. IAM helps protect the organization’s assets by ensuring specific users have access to the necessary assets within the appropriate context.

In the context of IAM, a “user” can be a human, a device or a service. IT administrators assign a single digital identity to each user. This identity indicates who or what the user is and what level of access they are allowed to have in the organization’s applications and systems — from least privilege to most. Because users’ roles change over time in the organization, their privileges continuously have to be managed, monitored and modified. An IAM platform gives IT administrators the tools to modify a user’s role, monitor their activity, ensure compliance with policies and regulations, and otherwise regulate access to the organization’s assets.

In the following sections, we’ll look at the roles IAM plays within organizations, the benefits it offers and the kind of problems it can detect and prevent. We’ll also explain what to look for in an IAM solution and how to get started.

What Is Identity and Access Management (IAM)?| Contents

IAM Basics

What is IAM in cybersecurity?

IAM is a cybersecurity best practice. It has several objectives that together help mitigate security risks, ensure compliance and improve operational efficiencies. These objectives include:

  • Ensuring that legitimate users have the appropriate level of access to the right resources in the right context.
  • Preventing unauthorized users from accessing the network by limiting access to specific groups and roles such as contractors, employees, customers and vendors, as well as verifying their identities.
  • Safeguarding the organization’s systems by monitoring user activities to detect unauthorized access and hacking attempts and revoking access as soon as employment is terminated or changed.
  • Preventing fraud committed by users who abuse their access privileges and attempt to avoid or delay detection by analyzing transactions for fraud detection.
  • Ensuring the organization meets various regulatory criteria for customer identification, suspicious activity detection and identity theft prevention.

Why is IAM important?

IAM is important because identity theft and data breaches are on the rise globally. Stolen or misused credentials are the easiest way for attackers to gain access to corporate networks and their high-value data. The consequences of a successful attack for businesses are severe and include financial losses, damaged reputation and regulatory penalties. IAM helps organizations:

  • Better manage access to their information systems
  • Safeguard their data
  • Track user and system activities

As a result, they can prevent unauthorized access, mitigate damages if their network is breached and ensure ongoing compliance with regulatory mandates.

What is an IAM platform?

An IAM platform is a solution that lets IT administrators assign, maintain, monitor and modify user identities and access-level privileges. An IAM platform comprises multiple systems and components. Some common features include:

  • Single sign-on: Most IAM platforms support single sign-on, or SSO. This method of access control lets users authenticate themselves across multiple systems and applications with one set of login credentials. SSO improves an organization’s security by eliminating unsafe password management practices, reducing the size of the attack surface and improving identity protection.
  • Multi-factor authentication: Multi-factor authentication, or MFA, requires users to enter multiple credentials to verify their identity and access a system. Some IAM platforms support adaptive MFA, which utilizes contextual information such as IP address, location and device type, along with administrative policies to determine authentication factors that should be required by a particular user and situation.
  • Privileged access management: Privileged access management protects an organization from data breaches and other security threats by assigning higher permission levels to user accounts with administrator-level controls and access to high-value assets.
  • Risk-based authentication: Risk-based authentication considers a user’s IP address, location, current device and other contextual factors when they attempt to log into a system or application. It uses this information to assess risk level and determine whether to request additional authentication factors or to allow or deny the user access.
  • Data governance: Data governance is a framework of policies and procedures for managing the availability, integrity, security and usability of an organization’s data, ensuring it’s consistent, accurate and protected. Data governance is an increasingly important part of IAM, especially as the platform continuously relies on AI and machine learning to monitor user activity, detect breaches and increase efficiencies.
  • Federated identity management: Federated identity management is a method for linking a user’s digital identity across separate identity management systems, allowing users to access the systems and services of multiple trusted business partners with the same authentication credentials. Whereas SSO lets employees use a single set of login credentials to access multiple systems within a single organization, federated identity management lets users use their digital identities to access the systems of all the organizations within the federated group. This will let a vendor, for example, access the systems and services of one of its customers.
  • Zero trust access: A zero trust framework assumes that an organization’s network is always at risk and that no user should have access to everything without specific authorization. This is becoming increasingly important as IoT and endpoint devices expand the network perimeter. A zero trust IAM platform allows organizations to continually assess and verify user access and achieve complete visibility into who and what is connected to their network at any given time.

Common IAM features to look for include single sign-on, privileged access management, sata governance, and multi-factor authentication, among others.

What is the role of IAM in cloud computing?

In cloud computing, IAM controls access policies and permissions for users and cloud resources.


Organizations are increasingly moving their applications and data to public and private cloud platforms to support a more distributed workforce. This development has increased the complexity of organizations’ IT environments, creating new opportunities for cybercriminals to breach networks and wreak havoc on businesses or steal their data. In 2020, 80 percent of all hacking incidents involved the use of stolen credentials or passwords guessed using brute force tactics.


Like other cloud technologies and services, cloud IAM brings additional efficiencies, like letting workers and customers securely connect to the organization’s network, regardless of their location. Cloud IAM also offers flexibility by supporting a range of operating systems, platforms and providers.

IAM Benefits

What are the benefits of IAM?

IAM offers several benefits, including:

  • Secure access: Risk increases as an organization grows and more employees, customers, contractors and vendors have access to the sensitive information on the network. IAM allows organizations to maintain security as they scale their business.
  • Reduced risk: Stolen credentials are a primary way hackers gain access to an organization’s network and resources. In these cases, IAM can mitigate the risk of data compromise by controlling the number of privileged user accounts with access to high-value targets.
  • Better user experience: On average, companies use more than 100 apps. By enabling a single sign-on to access multiple services, IAM makes passwords and access much more manageable and less process-intensive for users and administrators alike.
  • Reduced insider threats: Many security breaches are the result of inside actors misusing their credentials to access sensitive data. IAM can prevent or mitigate these threats by ensuring users only have access to the systems and services they need to do their jobs.
  • Easier compliance: Organizations are subject to an array of regulations and standards governing data security and privacy, such as HIPAA, SOX and PCI. IAM helps organizations simplify and ensure compliance with these regulations by enabling better governance over users’ identities and what they can and can’t access on the organization’s network.
  • Reduced IT workload: IAM platforms can automate password resets, eliminating the need for users to burden IT admins with this task. IAM also relieves IT departments from having to manually monitor everyone accessing the system, freeing them to focus on more business-critical activities.
  • Easier provisioning and deprovisioning: Before IAM, the IT department would have to manually check and update an employee’s credentials every time they moved to a new role in the organization, and manually revoke permissions every time an employee left the company. IAM systems rely on artificial intelligence to help automate the provisioning and deprovisioning of user accounts across multiple applications and systems.
  • Easier auditing and reporting: In the event of a data breach, administrators can more easily identify which users’ credentials were compromised and what data was accessed. IAM also allows administrators to run detailed reports on users, logins and other events.

What kind of problems can be detected and prevented with IAM?

IAM can detect and prevent a range of cyberattacks, including:

  • Phishing
  • Spear phishing
  • Keyloggers
  • Credential stuffing
  • Brute force and reverse brute force attacks
  • Man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks
  • Insider threats

Each of these cyberattacks involves the use of co-opted account credentials. IAM can prevent them by enforcing strong password policies and requiring multiple authentication factors to gain access to an account. In the event an attacker does gain access to the targeted system, IAM’s adherence to least-privileged access can limit their access to high-value data and mitigate the damage they can do.


IAM can help prevent and detect numerous threats, including phishing attacks, keyloggers, brute force attacks and insider threats.

Getting Started With IAM

What are IAM best practices?

You can make your IAM most effective by incorporating these best practices:

  • Embrace zero trust security: Implicit trust and other lax access permissions are a critical network vulnerability. Adopting a zero trust approach that requires all users in or outside the organization’s network to be authenticated, authorized and continuously validated will allow you to be sure every user is who they say they are.
  • Limit privileged accounts: Users might need access to privileged accounts to perform some tasks, but they shouldn’t have regular access for day-to-day operations. Role-based access control can help mitigate the risk by granting privileged access to a user for a specified time, and then automatically revoking access once the time expires.
  • Protect high-value assets: You can identify your most critical data by determining which would pose the biggest threat to the organization if it were compromised. Employee and personally identifiable customer information, intellectual property and trade secrets are some common examples of high-value assets that can be safeguarded by limiting access only to those who need it to do their jobs.
  • Enforce a strong password policy: NIST password guidelines can help users create passwords that are strong, unique, easy to remember but difficult to guess. A strong password policy should also require passwords to be audited continually for strength and users to change their passwords at regular intervals.
  • Use multi-factor authentication: Login credentials can be stolen, so alone they aren’t sufficient to validate a user’s identity. Multi-factor authentication applies an additional verification layer of protection by requiring the user to answer security questions, scan their fingerprint, enter a one-time code sent to their device or provide some other unique information in addition to their username and password.
  • Automate workflows: Manually performing tasks like creating accounts, changing passwords and provisioning access for each employee is impractical and prone to error. IAM tools can help automate tasks that can reduce help desk requests, increase productivity, decrease costs and ultimately make the organization more secure. Automation also simplifies logging, auditing and reporting on a regular schedule for compliance requirements, eliminating one of IT departments’ most time-consuming manual tasks.
  • Conduct regular audits: Conducting routine audits of access logs will allow you to track user activity, ensure users still have the appropriate permissions for their role, and identify and disable inactive accounts.

How do you get started with IAM?

To get started with IAM, you’ll need an IAM solution. Choosing the right platform can be a daunting task, so it’s important to consider your organization’s needs before starting the procurement process.

First, consider whether you need an on-premises or cloud-based solution. On-premises solutions are generally suited to large organizations that have the resources to manage and maintain them. They also provide you with greater levels of control than cloud-based solutions. Cloud-based solutions can be implemented more quickly and scaled more easily than on-premises solutions and come with immediate cost savings. A hybrid cloud solution is the sweet spot for many organizations, as it allows you to keep sensitive data on-premises and move less critical workloads to the cloud.

It's also important to think about who the IAM solution is for. If you’re primarily concerned with B2C or B2B customers, there are customer IAM solutions that prioritize self-service and user-friendliness to provide the best possible customer experience. If you need a solution for employees, you’ll need to ensure your IAM solution can integrate with your organization’s internal systems. An IAM solution that combines access control for both internal and external users will be the most efficient and cost-effective.

Lastly, think about what applications your IAM solution will have to work with. Determine which apps your organization’s employees and customers use and which are most critical to track, then compare them to the applications each IAM vendor supports.

What should you look for in an IAM solution?

Some features to look for in an IAM solution include:

  • Identity automation: Automation will help you streamline workflows and strengthen your security posture. Look for a solution that enables you to automate user provisioning, account clean up, auditing, reporting and other common IAM tasks.
  • Multi-factor and adaptive authentication: An effective IAM solution will use a combination of biometrics, possession technologies (like token generators or key cards), and knowledge authentication to prevent impersonation attacks. It will also allow you to implement adaptive authentication on endpoints and applications to consider user location, device footprint, IP address, and other factors to verify a user.
  • Compliance and audit performance: An IAM solution should make the compliance and audit process more efficient. Look for one that provides out-of-the-box reporting tools for standards and regulations like HIPAA, PCI, FISMA, GDPR and GLBA.
  • Incident reporting: In the event of a data breach, an IAM solution should be able to tell you what user credential was involved and how it was used. Look for a tool that supports machine learning-powered user analytics and reporting tools. These will allow you to track and detect anomalies or suspicious activity, detect privilege abuse and provide deeper visibility into your environment’s critical identity risks.
  • Zero trust: Zero trust is the backbone of effective IAM. An IAM solution should streamline identity lifecycle management, apply least-privileged access, support multi-factor and adaptive authentication, and provide audit reports that help identify and prevent privilege abuse.

The Bottom Line: Strengthen your security with IAM

As distributed systems and remote work become the norm, the security perimeter grows more fluid. Partners, contractors, vendors, customers and employees can access your organization’s network from anywhere. IAM allows you to control user access regardless of where they are or what device they’re using, ensuring they can use the resources they need without jeopardizing your organization’s security.

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