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Understanding Identity and Access Management

By: ProtectCyber

Posted on: 29/11/2021

As businesses and commercial enterprises undergo extensive digital transformation, the importance of having a reliable identity management system in place should not be taken for granted. The move towards increased accessibility at various customer touchpoints and employee work hubs poses security risks.

In some industries, identity and access management systems are mandatory and are required for regulatory compliance. To enhance business agility in increasingly heterogeneous technology environments, any entity that shares its technology resources and digital assets should be protected with IAM technologies and solutions.

Identity and Access Management Defined

In simple terms, identity and access management (IAM) ensures that only the specified people or devices are granted access to the enterprise’s technology network resources. It becomes complicated in enterprise IT where there are hundreds or even thousands of users and devices that need access to various company programs, databases, hardware, and applications at any given time.

This is further compounded by the use of multiple servers and multiple systems handling sensitive data. It also goes without saying that companies cannot simply make all their resources available and accessible to everyone.

IAM involves policies and technology tools that control access to business processes and IT resources. Well-planned frameworks are necessary to navigate the challenges of increasingly heterogeneous technology environments. They are even more important in industries that are subject to increasingly rigorous compliance requirements, especially when it comes to identity governance, data privacy, and confidentiality.

Weak identity management systems can cause breaches and make the company vulnerable to identity theft, sabotage, and exposure or loss of critical business information among others.

User access and user identities

Within the scope of IAM is to identify new users and devices, to define and manage roles, and to grant access privileges. Policies are set up to define how user identities are acquired or designated and what roles these identities are assigned. These also cover the type and extent of permissions that they are granted in terms of user access and functionality.

As necessary, security measures to protect the identities are also set in place in the form of network protocols, complex passwords, and digital certificates among others.

Access and identity management

Each identity is unique to a single user or device. Companies should be able to monitor and track activities associated with each identity. This includes all activities within the company’s network of technology resources whether in on-premises infrastructure or in cloud platforms. Everything from onboarding to offboarding of both users and systems should be efficiently managed to ensure timely access without compromising security.

The Role of IAM in the Organisation’s Security Stack

As a critical component of a company’s enterprise IT, IAM plays a number of roles. To start with, identity management allows companies to draw up access policies or streamline and revise existing policies.

Experts recognise that companies might already have appropriate access control policies in place, but they also raise the fact that these policies could evolve as companies make changes to their enterprise IT environment over time. Migration, for instance, is commonplace as companies upgrade their systems or move towards newer systems to adapt to changes in their business operations or in the industry they operate.

Companies acknowledge this and are more inclined, according to IT industry studies, to invest more to implement IAM. This is a prudent move for enterprise owners as the high demand for IT security continues with the trend towards remote work arrangements, centralised management, and online partner and customer contact points.

This trend has caused much attention to the need to review, upgrade, and update existing identity and access management systems to enhance accessibility and beef up security at the same time.

Another role of IAM that recently came under attention is integration. Experts see the need to look into adopting a similar continuous value delivery model that’s used by many developers in delivering their software. This agile practice allows for more timely releases of more responsive systems that have been tested and verified across various areas of the enterprise IT environment.

IAM’s role in the security stack extends beyond users and includes non-human entities as well. Digitalisation has given rise to a range of non-human identities that IAM systems have to manage efficiently.

Apart from devices like laptops, smartphones, and tablets, these identities can come from artificial intelligence technologies, software-defined infrastructure, and IT admin accounts. Current identity management systems should be able to authenticate APIs, bots, and containers, among others, to reduce security risks.

Risk-based authentication or adaptive authentication and multi-factor authentication tools also fall under the roles of IAM in the security stack. It is no longer enough to assign and ask for a user’s password for a corresponding username during login to manage access and maintain control.

Multi-factor authentication or MFA adds another layer of protection that helps prevent unauthorised access as well as data and system breaches. It is likewise important to use an evolving model as a smarter way to authenticate and grant secure access to users.

Advantages of Identity and Access Management

Clearly, a sound IAM reference architecture is a necessity for companies as they go beyond physical boundaries and allow their employees, partners, and customers to access their internal systems to do work or to transact remotely.

Many companies today, according to an IT industry report, consider identity management as an integral part of their customer acquisition and relationship management programs. The protection provided by effective and efficient IAM systems is believed to lead to business growth that is generally attributed to heightened trust and a sense of security among users.

Among the key benefits of identity and access management are:


  1. Reduced Security Risks

Identity and access management gives access to authorised users and devices and keeps malicious entities out. Digital assets are effectively protected from unauthorised access, fraud, and malicious attacks. User credentials are likewise protected along with sensitive company data and confidential information.

  1. Centralised Access Controls

IAM shares identity management information and appropriate access policies across different platforms in the enterprise IT environment.  Controlling access for authorising and validating users is centralised for the seamless enforcement of policies within the company. Also, access can be restricted only to identities with relevant interests in specific areas in the company’s internal systems.

  1. Improved User Experience

This is a challenge for most businesses in the early stages of their digital initiatives. On both business and customer sides, transactions have to be convenient and hassle-free no matter what channel they are done in. Identity and access management should make it easy for customers to transition from in-store or onsite to online or remote.

Despite the perceived “disconnect” with the absence of company personnel in a remote transaction, identity management provides a better customer experience with features like single sign-on and unified customer profiles.

  1. Compliant IT and Data Management Systems

Data access and confidentiality of information are controversial issues today with the extensive manner in which consumer identity information is collected by companies on a daily basis. Identity management has fine-grained access control that effectively controls who has access to what data. At the same time, it also defines how such data can be used and shared by those who access it.

  1. IT Cost Savings

While upfront costs could be quite high, the investment in identity management translates into savings later on with automation and standardisation of processes. This effectively reduces the manpower costs of having regular employees spend hours doing the processes manually. Human errors are also reduced with automated workflows and IAM.

How Identity and Access Management Works

IAM involves identifying users and devices and authenticating their credentials to grant them the corresponding level of access as programmed into the access control policies.  To manage user identities, it first defines identities and designates roles. Then, it grants permissions to specific areas such as a content management system and to relevant tasks based on job function.

IAM then tracks and monitors the activities of users within the enterprise IT environment. Seamless integration especially with interconnected systems is necessary to ensure that policies are properly and uniformly enforced in a timely manner.

Strategic IAM involves a strong authentication process, authorisation mechanisms, role-based access controls, single sign-ons, and federated services. Authentication and RBACs control access throughout the enterprise IT environment and protect against internal attacks. Single sign-on and federated services make it convenient for users to access cross-platform systems, functionalities, and applications.

Key Functions of Identity and Access Management

IAM functions much like a gatekeeper as it regulates access privileges of individual users and devices into the company’s internal IT systems and on premises applications. It collects and stores personal data on user identity and maintains role-based access control systems. It also monitors all activities of a single digital identity throughout its lifecycle. Some of the other key functions of IAM include:

Identity Governance of User Accounts

This involves entitlement management or the administration of privileges and appropriate access rights.  It also handles the process of managing the status and roles of user accounts throughout their lifecycle from creation to deletion.

Access Management Features

Access management defines and enforces policies for unified access using multi-factor authentication measures, single sign-on, and facial recognition. AWS Services, for instance, uses IAM to enable AWS users to securely control individual and group access to their AWS resources.

Directory Services

Directory services are used in collating, consolidating, maintaining, and updating a centralised credentials database. They provide efficient read access to directory data and authentication services such as LDAP authentication.

User Provisioning

In IAM, user provisioning involves setting off an automated process for user account creation and assignment of roles and permissions in multiple applications and systems. It is an access management practice that includes associated information such as user entitlements or memberships.

Identity Analytics

Used to track user activities and monitor identity activities, identity analytics helps detect and prevent suspicious activities. Technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning are often utilised to collect and analyse data. This access management IAM also allows users to create reports on activities of every digital identity.

SSO Access and MFA Authentication

IAM balances positive user experience with heightened security through seamless cross-platform access and a stronger password-multifactor authentication combination. This security feature is used in AWS identity and access management to strengthen access credentials.

What Are Access Management IAM Tools?

Third-party tech service providers offer IAM tools to help companies protect their enterprise IT environment. Native tools are likewise available from most cloud service providers including Amazon Web Services and Oracle identity management. While these are quite simple to use and configure, they are limited in functionality.

For more complex IAM requirements particularly in environments that combine on-premises and cloud infrastructures, it is best for companies to have dedicated IT security experts configuring and maintaining their own IT security tools for managing access in various network systems.

IAM technologies and tools should make it simple to perform the tasks involved in managing digital identities and controlling user access. Among the different types of tools that companies should look into are password management tools, identity repositories and database management tools, security policy enforcement applications, and provisioning software.

Various technologies have made it possible to simplify IAM processes through these tools. Tasks like modifying access rights are made more convenient through these tools with functional dashboards where administrators are able to view the information they need to assign, change, or revoke roles and access rights.

What Does IAM Mean for Compliance?

Data security and confidentiality have become a critical concern especially when it comes to customer information and identities. This makes it all the more important to have IAM systems for compliance. Government regulations vary with regulatory bodies having their own policies with regard to identity management.

However, most do require enterprises to undertake measures to safeguard the data and sensitive information in their IT systems. Service providers of IAM systems are in the know of these requirements and are in the best position to help ensure compliance. Their access management IAM framework and IAM services make sure that companies are well within standard security regulations and access policies.

Industry-wide, there are open standards that companies can leverage for their own identity management systems. However, it is recommended for companies to develop access management IAM systems tailor-fit for integration into their own enterprise IT environment.

Common technologies such as (Security Assertion Markup Language) SAML’s XML framework, OpenID, and WS-Trust are some of the open-standard ID protocols that companies can start with. More responsive IAM systems can then be developed to expand throughout their enterprise environment enabling integration of security assertions, identity federation, and other processes.

The Future of IAM

Increasingly heterogeneous technology environments will exponentially increase transactions online and in virtual environments in the coming years. Businesses have to make sure that they are able to quickly evolve with this technological development to be able to serve their consumers.

There are challenges and risks with setting up and implementing IAM technologies, but the results of effective and efficient IAM systems are well worth the investment. It would be a wise move for businesses to form their own IT teams or hire IT professionals and consultants to take care of their IAM needs.

Most reputable IT security companies would have identity and access management IAM solutions in their roster of products and services. These solutions make use of a combination of tools and components that can be scaled and customised based on what the company needs.

While companies would be more inclined to take the most basic requirements for regulatory compliance, it would be wiser to go with a service provider that offers a more comprehensive IAM system. Aside from meeting increasingly rigorous compliance requirements, this would ensure that your system is more impenetrable from the sophisticated hacking tactics of malicious entities.

The best IAM system for any company would be the one that protects its enterprise IT environment by mitigating both external and internal data security threats without sacrificing user experience and satisfaction at any point in the transaction and any channel.

About the author

ProtectCyber is a leading Australian cyber security firm dedicated to safeguarding businesses and individuals from digital threats. Our expert team, with decades of combined experience in the field, provides insights and practical advice on staying secure in an increasingly connected world. Learn more about our mission and team on our
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